The focus going in to the first Democratic presidential debate was on the rivalry between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, but the moment that got perhaps the most attention of the evening was prompted by an opinion they share.
“The American public is sick of hearing about your damn emails,” Sanders said, citing the media’s fixation with Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was Secretary of State. “Enough of the emails. Let’s talk about the real issues.”
The moment drew the largest applause and cheers from the crowd of Democrats — presumably dominated by Clinton and Sanders supporters — in a debate that was heavily focused on policy versus personality. (Offering some live tweets, Donald Trump largely complained that the event was boring).
Clinton herself showed just how prepared she was, not just to outline a series of policy proposals but to defend her shifting positions on issues such as the Trans Pacific Partnership and for her vote, in 2002, for the war in Iraq.
But the email issue was undoubtedly a question she knew would come up. Her use of the private server is the subject of an investigation by a House committee, and Clinton is scheduled to testify later this month.
She acknowledged that the use of the private server was not “the best choice,” but suggested that the GOP was exploiting it in its ongoing focus on what happened in the attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya in 2012.
“This committee was basically an arm of the Republican National Committee,” Clinton said.
What she didn’t do is make any major missteps, something that could be seized upon by supporters of Joseph Biden in convincing him to enter the race.
Other key moments:
Capitalist vs. Democratic Socialist: The first engagement between Clinton and Sanders centered on Sanders’ label, “Democratic socialist.” He defended it, saying, “Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little; by which Wall Street’s greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don’t.”
But Clinton seized on Sanders’ praise of countries like Denmark as places the U.S. could emulate.
“I think what Senator Sanders is saying certainly makes sense in terms of the inequality that we have,” she said. “But we are not Denmark. We are the United States of America. And it’s our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn’t run amok and doesn’t cause the kind of inequities we’re seeing in our economic system.”
They may agree, but the exchange was a subtle way for Clinton to remind voters of the trouble that the “Democratic socialist” label may have in a general election.
Gun Violence: Clinton didn’t pass on a chance to highlight a Sanders vulnerability — his past votes against gun control legislation, including the Brady Bill in 1993. Asked if Sanders is “tough enough on guns,” Clinton said, “No not at all. I think that we have to look at the fact that we lose 90 people a day from gun violence. This has gone on too long and it’s time the entire country stood up against the NRA.” Then she attacked Sanders’ record.
Sanders defended his record, pointing to his D-minus rating from the NRA. But he also tried to explain the political realities of his state, which is heavy in gun ownership.
“We can raise our voices, but I come from a rural state, and the views on gun control in rural states are different than in urban states, whether we like it or not,” he said.
Martin O’Malley, who has proposed extensive gun control legislation, took the opportunity to criticize Sanders’ comment, noting that Maryland was able to pass legislation “and still respect the hunting traditions of people who live in our rural areas. And we did it by leading with principle, not by pandering to the NRA and backing down to the NRA.” O’Malley is seeking to stand out on the issue, calling the NRA the political enemy he is most proud of.
The Iraq Vote: Clinton’s 2002 vote for the use of force in Iraq continues to be an issue in the Democratic primary, and some of her opponents have been critical of her call for a no-fly zone in Syria. O’Malley said that he would “not be so quick to pull for a military tool.”
But Clinton deflected some of the criticism. “I recall very well being on a debate stage, I think, about 25 times with then Senator Obama, debating this very issue. After the election, he asked me to become Secretary of State.”
Clinton showed that she was at the ready with a response to what was perhaps her biggest policy negative to Democratic voters in 2008. A comment likely to be seized upon by Republicans? When she said that the U.S. response in Libya “was smart power at its best,” in that the United States “will not lead this.”
Martin O’Malley and James Webb: The campaign has been dominated by Clinton and Sanders, and the polls proved it, but O’Malley introduced himself as an alternative with a set of policy prescriptions and frequent citation of what he has done as governor of Maryland. Webb, even more of an unknown than O’Malley, presented himself as a serious alternative for centrist voters when it comes to national security, criticizing the Iran deal and pointing to China as a security threat. And he pointed to differences with Clinton on the Middle East. In a Democratic primary, it ultimately may not help Webb, a former screenwriter and Secretary of the Army, but he got a chance to offer a contrast. At least more people know he’s running.
“To me it is the inevitability of something like Benghazi, occurring in the way we intervened in Libya,” Webb said. “We had no treaties at risk. We had no Americans at risk. There was no threat of attack or imminent attack.”