With two weeks until the Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders sparred over issues like healthcare, gun control and Wall Street on Sunday at the NBC News/YouTube Democratic presidential debate in Charleston, S.C.
The attacks were more biting, more pointed, even louder than they were in past debates — albeit still short of the raucous atmosphere of recent GOP encounters.
Clinton, facing the very real threat that Sanders could beat her in Iowa and New Hampshire, presented herself as a pragmatist who knows what’s possible. Sanders, characterizing his campaign as a revolution, didn’t shy from his idealism and didn’t divert from his focus on a “rigged” economy and corrupt campaign finance system.
There is good reason for the candidates to try to put their differences in relief: This was the last debate before Iowa and New Hampshire, although it remains to be seen how much of an impact it will have given its scheduling on a Sunday night of a holiday weekend.
As for Martin O’Malley, he struggled for airtime, even more so than in past debates. When moderator Lester Holt asked the candidates to answer in 30 second, he said, “Can I get 30 seconds too?”
Clinton blasted Sanders for reversing his position on giving gun manufacturers immunity from prosecution. “There is no other industry in America that has been given the total pass that gun makers and dealers were,” she said, and noted that the debate in Charleston was taking place less than a block away from the church where nine African Americans were killed in a shooting rampage last June.
Sanders, who noted that he comes from a state heavy in gun ownership, tried to defend himself by citing his low score from the NRA. He called Clinton’s attacks “disingenuous.”O’Malley pointed out that both candidates have been inconsistent. He got in his best line of the night, a dig at the Republicans for their lock-step opposition to gun control legislation. “I have never met a self-respecting deer hunter who needs an AR-15 to hunt down a deer.”I love ObamacareClinton gave a full embrace of Obamacare, while warning that Sanders’ proposal for Medicare-for-all is too great of a risk after the divisive, decades-long debate to establish universal health care. She knows by experience.”I do not want to see the Republicans repeal it and I don’t want to start all over again with a contentious debate,” she said, adding that he planned to build on the Affordable Care Act by reducing out-of-pocket costs and prescription drug prices.But Sanders is still stinging from Clinton attacks that his health care plan would jeopardize current entitlements. “No one is tearing this up,” Sanders insisted, his voice sounding indignant as he called her attacks “nonsense.”This is probably not the end of it, particularly as Sanders’ plans for paying for a single-payer system get extra scrutiny.Speaking feesSanders campaign is built on anti-Wall Street populism, and he came to this debate with a line of attack on Clinton, for taking $600,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs.”I have doubts when people take huge amounts of money from Wall Street,” he said.Clinton pointed to Sanders past criticism of President Obama, as “weak” and “disappointing.””I am going to defend President Obama for taking on Wall Street, taking on the finance industry and getting results,” she said.
If she becomes the nominee, Republicans will inevitably use such lines as fodder to make the case that Clinton would mean a third Obama term.
With the Iran nuclear agreement now in effect, Sanders spoke of a needing to move to “normalize” relations with Tehran. As she has in past debates, Clinton tried to showcase more sophisticated instincts when it came to foreign policy.
“We still have to carefully watch them,” she said of the Iranian regime. “We have had one good day over the past 36 years.”
She did the same when the topic turned to the situation in Syria. Sanders talked of enlisting more Arab countries to send military assistance to the war-torn region. Countries like Qatar, he said, have got to put “skin in the game.” Clinton, however, pointed out just how difficult it has been to build coalitions in the Middle East.
What Will Bill Do?
Sanders defended an answer he gave at an Iowa town hall, in which he called former President Bill Clinton’s infidelity “disgraceful and unacceptable.”
When asked about it at the debate, he said that he was responding to a question — not bringing up the issue himself.
“I was asked a question, and that question annoys me,” Sanders said, adding that he has tried to avoid attacking Hillary Clinton even as the media has tried to goad him.
Moderator Andrea Mitchell noted that he didn’t have to answer the question that way.
“Then if I don’t, there’s another front page. I mean this seriously. We’ve been through this. His behavior was deplorable. Have I ever once said a word about that issue? No I have not.” He said that he was going to debate on the issues, not Bill Clinton’s “personal behavior.”
Asked what her husband would do if she got elected, and whether he would have a “kitchen table role,” Clinton drew laughs when she said, “It’s start at the kitchen table and we’ll see where it goes.”