Some of the harshest attacks were not too surprisingly reserved for Donald Trump, the potential Republican nominee who has dominated attention on his own and from his opponents. Clinton said he was “becoming ISIS’s best recruiter,” landing one of the more memorable lines of the night. Martin O’Malley, the third candidate on the stage and way behind in the polls, went further, saying that the U.S. shouldn’t give up freedoms “to the fascist pleas of billionaires with big mouths.”
But a fissure over a Sanders-Democratic National Committee campaign flap was quickly dismissed, before moderators David Muir and Martha Raddatz went on to national security and ISIS.
ABC News played up the potential drama in pre-debate hype, but you can’t blame them. The debate was oddly scheduled for a Saturday night, a time period that hasn’t produced a breakout broadcast hit since perhaps “The Golden Girls” in the 1980s.
The debate did, however, illuminate some policy differences between the candidates, particularly on national security. This debate showed just how big the gulf is between Republican candidates and the Democratic field — not just on what the solutions should be, but what the problems are.
‘ISIS’s best recruiter’: When asked about Donald Trump’s plan to block Muslims from entering the United States, Clinton said that his rhetoric plays into the hands of the Islamic state. Clinton said that Trump is “becoming ISIS’s best recruiter,” while adding that videos of him bashing Muslims are being used to draw in more recruits. The latter claim will be scrutinized in the coming days, and CNN already has declared it false. But Clinton’s decision to take on Trump is laying down a marker against the Republican front runner and perhaps some of his GOP rivals who have not used stronger rhetoric to counter him.
For his part, Sanders got his most animated when talking about Trump’s attacks on Muslims and Mexicans, while “the rich get richer.”
Those damn data breaches: It looked as if this could be a fault line in the Democratic race — a data breach which allowed a Sanders campaign staffer to access Clinton campaign files stored on a Democratic National Committee server. The Sanders campaign fired the staffer, but the DNC cut off the Sanders campaign access to its own campaign information as punishment. After filing a lawsuit against the DNC, the Sanders campaign late Friday did get access restored.
At the debate, Sanders suggested that it’s still unknown if the Clinton campaign accessed his campaign files, but he did apologize when pressed. Clinton accepted and said, “We should move on.”
The flap may have been a bit too insider-ish for an extended debate topic, but there are still suspicions over what the Sanders campaign viewed and whether the DNC leadership is in the bag for Clinton.
Regime change: More than previous encounters, this debate highlighted the foreign policy differences between Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley. This was particularly true when it comes to Syria, and whether the best strategy is to try to defeat ISIS and at the same time seek to oust Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
While Clinton said that it as necessary to continue with such a policy, Sanders said the focus should be on defeating ISIS. “It is not Assad who is attacking the United States. It is ISIS,” he said, adding that Clinton was “too much into regime change” that ended up creating power vacuums in the Middle East. O’Malley, too, said that “we shouldn’t be the ones declaring Assad must go.”
Clinton, however, pointed out that Sanders voted for the intervention in Libya. While Sanders lamented the U.S. role as the world’s policeman, Clinton said, “If the United States does not lead, there is not another leader. There is a vacuum.”
The exchange was one of the more thoughtful ones, and Sanders and Clinton each probably benefited from it. Sanders needed to show more grasp of national security issues. If she is the nominee, Clinton will be hammered by her Republican opponent on the chaos in the Middle East.
You all like me!: One of the biggest laughs of the evening came when Clinton was asked, should corporate America love Hillary? She quipped, “Everybody should”.
When Sanders was asked whether corporate America would like a President Sanders, he said, “No, they won’t.”
While Clinton says that she’s taken more donations from students and teachers than from money sources on Wall Street, Sanders still criticized her as beholden to big money. “I don’t have a SuperPAC. I don’t get any money from Wall Street.”
Sanders has built his expectedly strong campaign on his populist message against Wall Street, and the argument that its greed is “destroying this economy.” For all the recent attention in debates on national security, Sanders still seems to be betting that this will be the issue that will engage voters come February. In a Democratic primary, he may be right.
Where’s Hillary?: Clinton missed her cue. When ABC returned from a break, Sanders and O’Malley were on stage, but she was not. Muir and Raddatz went on to the next question, and she returned after about 30 seconds. “Sorry,” she said, to some laughter. It was an odd moment — but perhaps that is a new option for candidates. Trump has complained about the length of debates, so what if he just, left?