The gloves were off the other night in the latest debate between Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The verbal slugfest confirmed not only their personal dislike, but also their basic disagreement on how each proposes to govern if elected in November.
Amid glares and charges of radicalism vs. incrementalism, Ms. Clinton accused Mr. Sanders of trying to launch a real political revolution. He responded by saying she offered the old piecemeal approach to change, especially in health care reform and foreign policy, by generally defending President Barack Obama.
Mr. Sanders continued his assault on her as a well-financed tool of Wall Street. She doubled down on him as soft on the gun industry and the National Rifle Association, as Tuesday's New York primary approached with its prize of 247 convention delegates that could be decisive.
Their visible animosity risked squandering an advantage the Democratic Party has held over the Republican Party in terms of civility and maturity. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have soiled their own nest with serial insults, profanity and general schoolyard behavior, far beyond the latest heated Clinton-Sanders demeanor.
Yet the unruly two-hour combat on CNN did draw some clear policy distinctions, generally in favor of Ms. Clinton. She deftly characterized Mr. Sanders, a self-identified democratic socialist, as less a party loyalist than a moralist. She defended her own and Mr. Obama's incrementalist approach to strengthening the much-assailed Affordable Care Act, and she questioned how Mr. Sanders' "health care for all" plan could get through Congress in another torturous partisan battle.
She challenged just how he would achieve his goal of breaking up the big banks on Wall Street. And most effective politically, she repeated her implication that he is insensitive to the effort of Sandy Hook parents to sue gun sellers who sold weapons involved in that horrific tragedy.
One of Mr. Sanders' most telling allegations against Ms. Clinton's foreign policy experience was his taunting that she voted to authorize President George W. Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq, which he opposed when he was in the House. But in exchanges on her performance as Obama's first-term secretary of state, she made a detailed, persuasive case of being an active player on his diplomatic team.
Mr. Sanders also scored points in their competition for middle-class support, noting she again advanced incrementalism in pushing a minimum hourly wage of $12 in New York State, rather than the $15 he advocates on the federal level. She countered, however, she would sign the latter as president if Congress approved.
Mr. Sanders again argued that he has the momentum in the race, having won seven of the last eight state primaries and caucuses, despite evidence that Ms. Clinton remains comfortably ahead in the delegate race. He pressed his case that her heavy super PAC support from big-dollar donors put her in debt to them, in contrast to his own small-donor base that made him more credible.
But time and again throughout the long and contentious debate, Ms. Clinton held her ground as a battle-tested political veteran against a tenacious congressional veteran who for most of his 25 years in Congress served outside the party establishment. That record so far has seemed a mixed blessing for Mr. Sanders in a year of wide public dissatisfaction with the dysfunction of official Washington.
If nothing else, the intensity of competitive energy displayed in the New York primary, along with the ample funds raised on each side, indicates the fight will go on to the July convention in Philadelphia. For all the heated exchanges, there is little basis yet to question that the Democrats will go into the general election united in November, regardless of which Republican survives the continuing turmoil in the Grand Old Party.
Either a Donald Trump or Ted Cruz nomination would provide cement to assure Democratic unity. Meanwhile, the Republicans would have to rely heavily on GOP animosity toward Ms. Clinton, or ideological shuddering at the thought of a dreaded "socialist" in the Oval Office, to overcome a predicted landslide rejection at the polls.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is email@example.com.