Five issues to watch in Democrats’ Flint debate

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders will share a debate stage Sunday night in Flint after weeks of talking about the city’s lead-contaminated water crisis to audiences across the country.

Sanders and Clinton will square off in the seventh Democratic presidential debate at 8 p.m. Sunday at The Whiting Auditorium in Flint. CNN is televising the debate live.

Poll: Who won Flint's Democratic debate

Clinton holds a commanding delegate lead over Sanders — 1,121 to 479 — in her quest to secure the 2,383 delegates needed to become the Democratic Party’s standard bearer in the November general election.

How to watch Democrats� presidential debate in Flint

But Sanders has shown no sign of slowing his campaign, commanding large crowds at rallies and raking in millions of dollars in donations from a large network of donors.

Sunday night’s debate promises to be another contrast of Sanders and Clinton’s world views. Here are five themes to watch for:

¦ Trading economic policy barbs: In a city ravaged by decades of auto industry globalization, the Flint debate could well be defined by economic and trade policy. In recent days, Sanders has stepped up his critique of Clinton’s support of trade deals he blames for eroding America’s manufacturing job base.

Sanders has sought to lay responsibility for job losses attributed to the 22-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement at Clinton’s feet because her husband, former President Bill Clinton, signed the continental trade treaty. Sanders also has taken aim at the new Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Clinton initially supported as President Barack Obama’s Secretary of State and then opposed as her presidential campaign began. In an interview Wednesday with The Detroit News, Sanders said he will seek to differentiate himself from Clinton in Michigan by pointing out their “very different views” on trade policies often derided by unions.

The Clinton campaign pushed back this week, noting she opposes the TPP deal pending in Congress and opposed the Central America Free Trade Agreement of 2005. “She supported trade agreements where she felt they were going to improve the prospects for American jobs and wages and she opposed trade agreements like CAFTA when she concluded they weren’t in the interest of American workers,” Clinton senior policy adviser Jake Sullivan said Thursday in a call with reporters.

The Clinton campaign and allied groups also are highlighting Sanders’ opposition to the Export-Import Bank, which is credited with aiding American companies large and small. On Friday, Clinton called for an increase in the $7.25 minimum wage after months of Sanders promising voters a $15 minimum wage.

If Sanders engages Clinton a prolonged debate Sunday night on trade policy, expect Clinton to try to divert the discussion from multinational trade agreements back toward the trend of U.S. companies merging with foreign countries to shield foreign profits from the U.S. tax code.

¦Flint water crisis: The Democratic National Committee added the debate to its schedule last month after Flint’s water crisis began to gain national attention when Republican Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency and apologized for his administration’s role in the lead contamination of the water supply. Clinton has been talking about the Flint water crisis on the campaign trail since the second week in January. Sanders became the first national political figure to call for Snyder to resign.

Both candidates have been to Flint and are airing TV ads featuring snippets of their speeches on Flint’s water being contaminated by lead leaching from aging water pipes. Expect this issue and the plight of Flint residents to be mentioned throughout the night.

¦Detroit: The two Democrats vying to succeed President Barack Obama would be remiss if they brought their campaign to Michigan without mentioning the Obama administration’s 2009 rescue of the auto industry. Both supported the federal rescue of General Motors and Chrysler.

But there are other issues affecting Detroit that they may touch on, ranging from the city’s nearly destitute public school system to gun violence. Clinton has never passed up an opportunity to criticize Sanders for voting five times against the Brady Bill gun control legislation.

¦Clinton email server investigation: In the first debate on CNN in Las Vegas, Sanders famously told Clinton: “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” But some political analysts now argue the deepening federal investigation of Clinton’s use of a private server for work emails while serving as the nation’s top diplomat may be helping keep Sanders’ campaign alive.

While Sanders hasn’t directly used it against Clinton on the campaign trail, it has remained a below-the-surface issue that some Democratic voters cite in interviews when expressing concerns about Clinton’s trustworthiness. The Washington Post reported this week that the U.S. Justice Department has granted immunity to the State Department employee who set up Clinton’s work-related email server in the basement of her home in Chappaqua, New York.

Clinton has maintained she did nothing wrong and never stored classified information on the servers. As the issue lingers, Sanders might decide American voters aren’t sick of hearing about Clinton’s emails.

¦Contrasting the Republicans: Not a Democratic debate has gone by without Sanders and Clinton drawing contrasts between themselves and the Republican presidential candidates, especially GOP frontrunner Donald Trump. After Thursday night’s GOP showdown in Motown, expect Sanders and Clinton to remind debate viewers of how relatively civil they are toward each other — a stark contrast from the name calling Trump and U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz engaged in Thursday night at the Fox Theatre.

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Staff Writer Jonathan Oosting contributed.