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Hillary Clinton Will Have to Explain a Big Tactical Blunder at Sunday's Debate

Why go after Sanders on health care so close to Iowa?

Joe Raedle / Getty

Hillary Clinton is worried about Bernie Sanders. With less than three weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses, the Vermont democratic socialist is in a dead heat there with Clinton. Early January polls in New Hampshire were already giving Sanders a slight edge over the presumed Democratic front-runner.

Clinton’s disappearing lead in early Democratic primaries has prompted her to start going after Sanders in a sustained way for the first time. This week, she began attacking Sanders’s support for universal health care.

The former First Lady and Secretary of State said on MSNBC that Sanders’s plan would “basically end all the kinds of health care we know,” and her press secretary took to Twitter to advance the line that single-payer health care would raise taxes on the middle class.

Even Chelsea Clinton joined in, arguing that Sanders “would strip millions and millions and millions of people of their health insurance.”

Political analysts across the spectrum agree: The Clinton camp’s attempt to chill the Bern isn’t working. And even worse for her, she’ll have to answer for her aggressive turn during Sunday’s debate.

Her attacks have largely puzzled Democrats, 81 percent of whom support a single-payer option, and generally don’t think raising taxes for sweeping health care reform is that bad of an idea.

Additionally, it’s opened Hillary up to valid charges of hypocrisy; in the early 1990s, she supported reform that stopped just short of enacting single-payer health care, and she openly supported universal health care when campaigning against Barack Obama in 2008.

It has also put her in the uncomfortable position of defending the private insurance system in front of a liberal audience at this weekend’s debate.

On hot-button tech industry political issues — surveillance and encryption chief among them — Sanders and Clinton have sung different tunes. While Clinton has stopped short of calling for government back doors into tech companies’ user data, she has repeatedly urged Silicon Valley to work with government to fight terrorism online. Sanders, on the other hand, has long opposed government surveillance. He has previously slammed Clinton on the debate stage for her vote in favor of the Patriot Act after 9/11, which he voted against.

Though Clinton is clearly positioning herself as the more pragmatic candidate who could work with Republicans to pass legislation, most voters and politicians (Republicans included) have no expectation that the next president will be able to get any more done than President Obama has with the Congress of the last eight years. Besides, it’s also unclear why the Clinton camp would want to say anything this week that might steal attention from the current Donald Trump-Ted Cruz catfight over coded antisemitism and 9/11.

Martin O’Malley will also be appearing onstage Sunday night (just barely), though obviously the spotlight will be on the fight between Sanders and Clinton. We’re hoping they’ll each say a few words about the tech industry or encryption.

The debate starts at 9 pm ET on NBC, and you can stream it on the NBC News YouTube channel. Below is the funniest video I saw all week about the Clinton-Sanders health care spat:

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