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Clinton vs. Sanders: Does 'experience' trump 'judgment'?

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Bryan Snyder/Reuters

(Read caption) Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the Iowa Democratic Presidential Town Hall Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 25, 2016.

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Here’s what may be the central question on the Democratic side of the 2016 presidential race: does "experience" trump (or create) "judgment"? 

At least that may be the impression left among voters by Monday night’s Democratic town hall meeting at Iowa’s Drake University. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders clearly differed on this particular issue. We’ll bet you can guess which one of them took which side.

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Time's up! Yes, it was Mrs. Clinton who invoked her years of service in high government positions in her responses to many audience questions. When a young woman asked her why students seemed more excited about Senator Sanders than her, Clinton said she, too, has enthusiastic 20-something supporters. Then she pivoted to talk about her past.

“I’ve been on the front lines of change and progress since I was your age,” Clinton said.

Asked whether she was a newcomer to the issue of American wealth imbalance, as Vice President Biden said the other day, Clinton said no.

“I have a 40-year record of going after inequality,” she said.

And in a not-so-subtle reference to her years as secretary of State, she noted that the president of the United States does not have the luxury of just focusing on a single domestic issue they care about, or even domestic issues at all. Foreign affairs take up much of a president’s time.

“You can’t say, oh, OK, don’t bother me now. I’ll deal with that later. You have got to immediately be able to switch gears. You’ve got to do all aspects of the job,” Clinton said.

In contrast, Bernie Sanders said that making correct decisions depends on native wisdom as much as time in office. In making this assertion he focused on one particular aspect of Clinton’s past: her Senate vote to approve President Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.

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Sanders noted that he opposed the Iraq War from the beginning. (Clinton now says her vote was a mistake.) He said he predicted many of the war’s dire consequences.

“Being president is an enormously difficult job. It’s a job that entails dealing with a million different issues. I think I have the background, I think I have the judgment to do that,” Sanders said.

Later on, pressed on the subject by moderator Chris Cuomo, Sanders said that yes, Clinton has lots of experience that he does not. He has never been secretary of State.

But experience is not the only important quality in a president, he said. Judgment counts too. And then he invoked a favorite Democratic Party bogeyman.

“Dick Cheney, he had a lot of experience too. His policies with regards to foreign affairs [were] an absolute disaster,” Sanders said.

So which side of this argument will Democratic voters pick? We’ll know answers to that in less than a week. At the moment, the FiveThirtyEight data site’s prediction for the Iowa caucuses, based on polls and other data such as endorsements and money, gives Clinton a 79 percent chance of Iowa victory, and Sanders a 21 percent chance.

The outlook for New Hampshire is a flip-flop: Sanders has a 70 percent chance at winning the Feb. 9 Granite State primary, and Clinton a 30 percent chance.

After that? In general, things look tougher for Sanders. But the unexpected is the usual in this wild election cycle, so time will tell, to quote Roland Hedley.