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Sanders and Clinton Go to the Mat

The two leading candidates battled over gun control and health care during the final Democratic debate before the Iowa caucuses.

Randall Hill / Reuters

It was a Sunday night fight for Democrats in Charleston, South Carolina as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders slugged it out on a series of issues in the party’s final presidential debate before the Iowa caucuses.

As was widely expected, the two biggest fights of the night came on gun control and on health care, two issues on which the two leading candidates have battled over in recent weeks. Clinton, seeing Sanders gain on her in the polls, has attacked the Vermont senator as soft on guns. She and her surrogates have also attacked Sanders for his health-care proposal, claiming it would tear up the Affordable Care Act.

Clinton scored an early direct hit on Sanders over guns. “I have made it clear, based on Senator Sanders’s own record that he has voted with the NRA, with the gun lobby numerous times,” she said, with a long list of votes he had cast. It was brutal, and effective. But on health care, she couldn’t get the upper hand so easily. Clinton’s attack on Sanders is fairly implausible: She argues that because his attempt to pass a single-payer health system (“Medicare for all,” he calls it) would supersede Obamacare, he is angling to tear down the recent reforms. In essence, she’s claiming that he wants to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, just like the GOP says it does. Sanders rebuts that he’s just strengthening the work that’s already been done. Clinton took heat for her line of attack Sunday night, allowing Sanders a chance to boost his unabashedly liberal reforms.

This battle masks an essential consensus: Both Sanders and Clinton back universal health care. Their differences are about how to achieve that. Sanders, the old radical, believes the system needs a complete overhaul. Clinton, the consummate gradualist, believes that such a step is politically impossible—a point she made effectively on Sunday. If Democrats couldn’t pass single-payer with a Senate supermajority, how would Sanders do it with a Republican House and, at best, a narrow Senate edge? She knows the limitations of health-care politics better than almost anyone. This is, as Ezra Klein recently noted, a far more honest and effective attack on Sanders’s health plan than claiming he’s somehow an opponent of Obamacare, yet it’s one Clinton has largely avoided making. (The conversation also offered the most detailed critique of Obamacare to be heard so far—much more than in any Republican debate.)

The split over health care is a microcosm of the difference between the two candidates. Sanders offers Democratic voters an alluring, pure, crusading figure for a party moving leftward. Clinton offers them a more pragmatic but less emotionally fulfilling vision. On several occasions throughout the debate, Clinton tried to offer a reality check: However great Sanders’s goals may sound, can he really make them happen? This has always been the fundamental gap between them, but as the polls tighten and the first caucuses draw near, they have come into even sharper relief.

If this debate has much effect on the race, it will likely be in helping Democrats decide whether to vote for what they want or what they feel they need. Nothing that happened seems likely to shift the momentum significantly. That means it was a good night for Sanders, who’s been on the rise and delivered a strong performance; if he had fewer quotable moments, he also managed to avoid stumbles. Electorally, two questions highlighted the candidates’ respective difficulties. Sanders was asked why he trailed among minority voters, and Clinton why she lagged among young voters. Neither had a good answer for how they’d change these dynamics, except to say that they’d keep working at it.

But Clinton also had another strong debate. Her strategy for the night seemed to be to tie herself closely to President Obama. This is the subtext of her defense of the Affordable Care Act against Sanders’s critiques. Later, when Sanders argued she was too close to Wall Street, Clinton replied that she could take the heat but that she would not brook Sanders criticizing the Dodd-Frank financial reforms that Obama championed and signed into law. This is in part an admission that Clinton still has no good answer to the claim that she’s too close to Wall Street. She has, however, learned to pull her opponents into the muck, ticking off O’Malley’s former fundraising from Wall Street and Sanders’s 2000 vote to deregulate derivatives. Clinton also tried to portray Sanders as an enemy of Obama elsewhere, mentioning his suggestion in 2011 that the president have a primary challenge.

Martin O’Malley delivered perhaps his strongest debate of the campaign—when he was able to get a word in edgewise, which wasn’t much. He tangled with Clinton over her ties to bankers and assailed Sanders—until recently an independent—for not being a loyal Democrat. But O’Malley remains essentially an afterthought. He was only on stage tonight thanks to rounding up of poll numbers, and while Iowa is unpredictable, this debate didn’t look like the moment to vault him ahead of Sanders or Clinton.

With the debate falling on the eve of Martin Luther King Day, one might have expected robust discussion of racial issues, but the topic was dispatched with surprising brevity. All three candidates agreed on the need for tougher accountability for police who shoot civilians and on racial justice in the criminal-justice system. Otherwise, the topic practically disappeared from view—although Clinton was able to deliver a fierce spiel about lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan, in her closing statement, saying that if white residents of suburban Detroit had bad water the problem would have been solved long ago.

On foreign policy, the candidates all agreed that there should be no large deployment of ground troops in the Middle East, and that improved relations with Iran were a good thing. Clinton squirmed a bit over the infamous “reset” with Russia. Sanders offered an odd answer on ISIS, calling for a Muslim army to defeat the group but never indicating who would make up such an army—Sunnis? Shiites? Arabs? Persians?—or would lead it.

Climate change offered another area for agreement, as summed up by Sanders: “The debate is over. Climate change is real. It is already causing major problems, and if we don’t move quickly and decisively, a bad situation will become worse.” Frustratingly, a question about privacy received short shrift, with only O’Malley getting a chance to answer it head on. That was one of few missteps from an otherwise businesslike and effective moderation team of Lester Holt and Andrea Mitchell. Also missing from the debate was any discussion of reproductive rights or immigration reform, two core Democratic issues.

But more conspicuous by absence was the kumbaya vibe of previous meetings. On Sunday, all three candidates frequently invoked “respect,” a reliable indicator of tension. In contrast, and incredibly, no one took a potshot at Donald Trump until more than an hour into the debate. The candidates have worked hard in earlier debates to remind viewers that whatever their differences, the Democrats are essentially on the same page, and they have also derided the fractious, bellicose Republican debates. But with the Iowa caucuses just a couple weeks away and the polls looking tight, Sanders and Clinton are discovering that maybe the Republicans are on to something: Internecine warfare might just have some virtues.


This live blog has concluded

As with the earlier Democratic debates, this match-up was overall much more substantive than the Republican debates, but the result is there were fewer big moments and a focus on the fairly wonky disagreements among the candidates on policy. Will Democratic primary voters care about those mini-wedges? If they don't, then it's hard to see the trajectory of the race changing based on this debate. What I found notable was how much Clinton tied herself to Obama, which seemed in part to be a strategy aimed at South Carolina's African American primary voters.

This debate didn't seem to change the trajectory. It wasn't great for Hillary, but I didn't hear any major gaffes, and Sanders didn't expand his appeal beyond the base that is already responding to his angry fulminating. O'Malley was basically a laughingstock. Given that polls are showing a trend in Sanders's direction in Iowa and New Hampshire, it'll be interesting to see if he continues to rise or if he's hit his ceiling.

I’m going to call tonight’s debate a win for Bernie Sanders. I thought he bested Hillary Clinton. I’m sure others will disagree. But even if they performed equally well, he stands to benefit, as the candidate who still has less name recognition, from squaring off in front of folks who’ve never seen him before and equalling his opponent. I expect some people preparing to vote in early states decided for the first time tonight to vote for Bernie Sanders. I have a harder time believing that Hillary Clinton won over any new voters tonight.

And that debate was so boring and inconsequential it actually ended early. Wow. I thought there might be more interest given the tightening of the race and the fact that it's the last debate before voting begins, but that was pretty listless.

The Flint water crisis, for which President Obama signed an emergency declaration this weekend, hadn't come up so far in this debate until Clinton mentioned it just now. She noted, with audible frustration, how people have “been drinking and bathing in lead-contaminated water” and “the governor of that state acted like he didn't really care.” She said if it'd been happening in rich areas around Detroit, he'd have done something.

It's also surprising that there wasn't a question about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan—and a savvy move by Hillary to bring it up in her quasi-closing statement.

If this is the last question, I'm a little surprised we didn't get questions on immigration (especially after Obama's recent moves on deportation) or reproductive rights, two core issues for the Democratic base.

Oh, Lester Holt: “We believe we've learned a lot here. Before we leave, is there anything you wanted to say tonight that you haven't gotten a chance to say? And we'll start with Governor O'Malley.”

Asked about Bill Clinton's past misdeeds, Bernie responds, “that question annoys me.” Says he's trying to run an “issue-oriented campaign”—but also, when pressed, “yes, his behavior was deplorable.”

Clinton is asked what her husband’s role would be, if she’s elected.  “It’ll start at the kitchen table. We’ll see how it goes from there.”

"Can I get thirty seconds too?" O'Malley asks. The crowd laughs.

It's disappointing how quickly Lester Holt just moved on from privacy to domestic terrorism. The only candidate we got to hear from was O'Malley.

Clinton defends her reset policy with Russia in 2009, saying it helped to "reduce nuclear weapons between the United States and Russia. We got permission to resupply our troops in Afghanistan by traveling across Russia. We got Russia to sign on to our sanctions against Iran." And what's her relationship with Putin? “It's interesting,” Clinton says with a laugh, and then goes with literally everyone's answer to the question of how to handle the Russian president: he's a bully, you have to stand up to him, be tough.

What is Clinton's relationship with Putin? “It's ... interesting,” she says with a grin.

As the candidates discuss foreign policy, Sanders is talking quite a bit about “the disastrous war in Iraq,” which he reminds voters: “I vigorously opposed.” It's a not-so-subtle attempt by Sanders to contrast with Clinton who voted to authorize military force in Iraq, a vote she now calls “a mistake.”

This question on Obama's “red line” in Syria is very difficult for Clinton. She has talked about how she wanted more aggressive U.S. intervention earlier and advocated for arming the Syrian rebels, but in a Democratic primary, she doesn't want to say that she would have started bombing sooner.

Politico says Clinton spoke for 18 minutes and 20 seconds so far, Sanders for 20 minutes and 30 seconds, and O'Malley for just over 9 minutes. If anything, it feels like O'Malley has spoken for even less than that.

Some respectable applause for O'Malley for this line, which includes a not-accidental reference to a voter in Iowa: “I appreciate the fact that in our debate, we don't use the term you hear Republicans throwing around trying to look all macho sending other kids into combat. They keep using the term 'boots on the ground.' A woman in Burlington, Iowa, said to me, 'When you're with your colleagues, don't refer to my son who served two tours of duty in Iraq as a pair of boots on the ground.'"

Sanders is going hard on the idea that the troops fighting ISIS need to be Muslim, as he did in the previous Democratic debate. I'd like to hear him explain this a bit more. Should they be Sunni? Shia? Who should lead them? It just seems like a start but not a fully fleshed-out thought.

It wasn’t so long ago that we were debating whether to put “boots on the ground” in Syria. Now “boots on the ground” are somehow baked into the debate, and we’re arguing about whether we’ll put “significant ground forces” there. The goal posts keep moving, as they did in Vietnam.

It helps Clinton that this week was a big one for U.S.-Iran relations: The two countries resolved a touch by trespassing of U.S. ships into Iranian waters within a day; international inspectors formally certified that Tehran had dismantled most of its nuclear program in accordance with the deal brokered last year; and the U.S. and Iran agreed to a prisoner swap that brought four Americans, including a Washington Post reporter, home. “I was responsible for getting those sanctions imposed, which put the pressure on Iran that brought them to the negotiating table, which resulted in this agreement,” Clinton says.

“Absolutely not,” Clinton says when asked if she could foresee any circumstances in which she would send significant ground forces to Syria.

Sanders is taking an unusual tack here, both fingering Iran as a state sponsor of terror but also saying the U.S should normalize relations with the Islamic republic. He stops short of suggesting an American embassy in Tehran, though.

Just about an hour and 15 minutes into the debate, the candidates get their first question about foreign policy.

After what happened in the last Democratic debate, I wonder if this awkward “halftime show” is just giving the candidates a legitimate bathroom break.

After a lengthy exchange between Sanders and Clinton, O'Malley finally speaks, a reminder that he's still in this thing! “I'm the only person on this stage that's actually balanced a budget every year for fifteen years,” O'Malley claims. Too bad for him, Sanders shuts him down immediately. “I was mayor for eight years, I did that as well,” Sanders rebuts.

In an answer about climate change, Sanders goes after the Republican party. He said lawmakers are “owned by the fossil-fuel industry” and don't have the “decency” and “courage” to listen to scientific arguments.

Sanders is making the point here that even if he'd raise taxes on the middle class, they'd end up saving in the end, because those taxes would pay (among other things) for doing away with private insurance costs.

Clinton reasserts that she won't raise taxes on the middle class. She seems to be sticking with her definition of the middle class as those making $250,000 or less—still a very high threshold.

Tuition-free college in America is a recipe for inflating the cost of higher education to even more absurd levels, and would plainly be a regressive redistribution. People with college diplomas in America are a privileged class. Subsidizing them as a class is imprudent.

In attacking Sanders for his vote on that Wall Street bill in 2000, she doesn't mention that the law was signed by...President Bill Clinton.

After going after Sanders for his relationship with Obama, Clinton returns to her go-to strategy for getting applause lines: Bashing the Republicans running for president. “We're at least having a vigorous debate about reigning in Wall Street. The Republicans want to give them more power.”

Quite a back-and-forth here over Wall Street contributions, an issue that's made Hillary notably squirm in previous debates—as O'Malley noted, she resorted to invoking 9/11 to defend taking Wall Street contributions at one point. She still doesn't have a good defense against this attack except to allege that her rivals aren't pure either.

Clinton is going deep into the oppo file to hit Sanders for apparently voting for a Wall Street deregulation bill in 2000.

Sanders defends himself against Clinton's comments that he has heavily criticized Obama. “In 2008, I did my best to see that he was elected, and in 2012, I worked as hard as i could go see that he was reelected. He and I are friends, we've worked together, we have differences of opinion.” Clinton responded with dripping sarcasm: “Your profusion of comments about your feelings towards President Obama are a little strange given what you said about him in 2011.” Clinton said earlier that Sanders had called Obama “weak” and “disappointing.”

Sanders says, as he often does, "I do not have a super PAC, I do not want Wall Street's money." But as my colleague Clare Foran wrote last month, his supporters have started super PACs—more or less against his wishes.

This is also an indication of the relative popularity of President Obama as his term draws to a close: It is not great, but with an approval rating in the mid-to-high 40s and strong support among Democrats, it is much better than George W. Bush's was at this time in 2008. During that campaign, you would never see Republicans vying to be closer to President Bush.

Is Hillary Clinton implying that while she can take the attacks of Bernie Sanders, President Obama cannot? I’m pretty sure he can take it. It’s also weird to be offended at someone trying to find an opponent to run against Barack Obama when your own past includes a bitter primary race against Barack Obama!

Hillary's response is clever: She can take Bernie's attacks, she says, but he's also attacked Obama for taking Wall Street contributions. “I'm going to defend President Obama for taking on Wall Street.”

Clinton is once again tying herself closely to President Obama, this time on Wall Street—she says she can take the attacks from Sanders on financial reform, but won't brook criticism of the president. (She also once again mentions Sanders's comment about recruiting a Democratic challenger to Obama in 2012.)

Sanders is really going aggressive against Clinton. “I don’t get personal speaking fees from Goldman Sachs.”

We're hearing the word “respect” a lot more tonight, which is—perversely—a pretty good indicator of strains.

Clinton not-so-subtly reminds younger voters of the pace of social change under the Obama administration—a pace she would uphold as president—by pointing to “the Republican assault on voting rights, on women's rights, on gay rights, on civil rights, on worker's rights.” “I know how much young people value their independence, their autonomy, and their rights,” she says.

Listening to Bernie Sanders you would think that America’s billionaires have a single ideological agenda that they’ve succeeded in pushing through. But George Soros, the Koch Brothers, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, and Sheldon Adelson turn out to have very different notions of what our public policy ought to look like. I want to hear more specifics from Sanders about what exactly the billionaires are preventing us from changing.

O'Malley hints at his tenure as mayor of Baltimore, where tensions between police officers and residents boiled over last year following the death of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody. “All my life I've brought people together over deep divides and very old wounds.”

This is a good exchange between Sanders, the idealist arguing for first principles, and O'Malley, the party careerist, arguing for the importance of helping fellow Democrats. That's two very different visions of politics—even though Sanders and O'Malley are both pretty far left in their policy proposals.

Bernie Sanders is on a mission to continue returning to what he considers to be American politics’ original sin: allowing those with the deepest pockets to have the most influence and power.

“The main point in the Congress isn’t that Republicans and Democrat hate each other,” Sanders says—arguing that's a media myth. “The problem is that Congress is owned by big money and refuses to do what the American people want them to do.”

The questions have been pretty strong so far tonight, and Holt has been keeping the candidates pretty honest.

Great question: Clinton talks about bringing people together, but “if Obama couldn't do it, how will you?”

It's no surprise that health care would be a contentious subject tonight as Clinton has ratcheted up attacks on Sanders over his health-care proposals in the lead up to this debate. But Clinton's attack has bigger picture implications than just health-care policy. It sows seeds of doubt that her campaign would certainly like the public to consider—that Sanders may promise big things, but he may not be able to deliver.

Martin O’Malley summons the same tone and affect of optimistic uplift no matter what he says.

Hillary Clinton is embracing Obamacare tonight with more enthusiasm than she has before, pivoting against Sanders's on health care.

Presumably in the imaginary world where Bernie Sanders is president and proposing his health-care plan, his plan would replace the current system, not yank it and leave nothing in its wake.

Clinton is asked about Sanders's health-care plan, the details of which were released earlier this evening: “I certainly respect Senator Sanders's intentions but when you're talking about health-care the details really matter.” With Obamacare, the U.S. is on a path to universal health care, she says, and she doesn't want to see us start over now.

Clinton said she believes first-responders, like police officers and firefighters, should carry and be allowed to administer Narcan, medication that reverses the effects of opioid drugs like heroin, especially in the case of an overdose. Sanders said he agrees with Clinton, and added that “there is a responsibility on the part of the pharmaceutical industry” in curbing the rise of heroin use.

“Whenever anybody in this country is killed while in police custody, they should automatically trigger a U.S. Attorney General's investigation,” Sanders proposes. It's worth noting that 958 people died in local jails in 2012, the most recent year for which the Bureau of Justice Statistics had data. This might be an effective talking point on the stump, but it also would be a tough logistical challenge for the Justice Department.

Lester Holt says they'll address the anger brewing in America after the break. But there seems to be some anger brewing between Bernie Sanders and Lester Holt.

David, federal funding for hiring special prosecutors at local level to investigate officer involved shootings is one possibility.

A YouTube question asks about how the Sanders White House would guarantee that police were prosecuted for shooting civilians. He says the Department of Justice should investigate every case. The fact is, the DOJ isn't a very effective tool for this—the department has looked into several cases, including Michael Brown, but it's very hard for the feds to succeed in civil-rights cases like this. In fact, it's hard to imagine what any president can do beside leading and making an issue prominent. Policy-wise? I don't know.

To hear a national debate question about the conflicts of interest that prosecutors have when cops are suspected of crimes shows that the conversation about criminal-justice reform in America is becoming increasingly sophisticated––it’s a point that never would’ve been highlighted just in the last presidential election cycle.

It might be obvious, but the reason issues of race are so important in South Carolina is because African American make up a significant percentage of the Democracy primary electorate, in contrast to Iowa and New Hampshire.

I think O'Malley has gotten some question about whether his tough-on-crime record in Baltimore ought to disqualify him in every debate so far. And so far, he hasn't come up with a good answer. No matter what he says about the improvement in police-community relations, it's hard to credit it very far given the aftermath of Freddie Gray's death.

Oh no. After getting dubious data injected into the last debate at the behest of Facebook, it appears we’re now going to get dubious comparisons at the behest of Google.

African American voters are always an important constituency in a Democratic primary, but they've got to be happy about the rise of Bernie—by putting the squeeze on Clinton, he's made their votes matter and elevated their issues.

Sanders is asked about why he's losing minority voters 2-1. He pivots and takes up (once again) his supposed electability (more on which here). He argues that once black voters get to know him, they'll support him. But when will that happen if not already?

O'Malley got personal on the gun-control question, telling the audience about a young boy who was shot in the head in Baltimore. He said his state passed a ban on assault weapons and a bill on universal background checks “after the slaughter of the kids in Connecticut.” He ends his answer with what was potentially a knock at Sanders: The legislation “didn't interrupt a single person's hunting season.” He said he never met a single hunter who “needed an AR-15 to down a deer.”

For all the sparring between Clinton and Sanders over guns tonight, it's worth considering how different the Democratic debate over gun policy is compared to the Republican primary debate that took place last week. Both Clinton and Sanders stand behind executive actions announced by President Obama aimed at expanding background checks. In contrast, Republican presidential candidates denounced that action and fought to prove who among the GOP field would do the most to oppose gun control at their debate.

Clinton: “One out of three African American men may well end up going to prison ... I want people to think what we would be doing if it was one out of three white men.”

The fact is, there aren't very many big issues that separate the Democratic candidates, so any difference is going to be exploited in a close race. The same thing happened in 2008: Barack Obama hit Hillary Clinton for proposing an individual mandate to buy health insurance only to later sign legislation that did just that.

Sanders's recent rise in the polls has spooked the Clinton camp. The former secretary of state has spent the last couple debates attacking the Republican candidates, but tonight's going to be different—and get a lot more personal. Clinton just rattled off a laundry list of what she considers examples of Sanders being soft on gun regulation.

And the much-foreshadowed conflict over guns begins: Bernie calls Clinton “disingenuous” and notes he has a D-minus rating from the NRA. Hillary has been relentless in attacking Sanders on gun control, a potentially effective attack that undermines his image as a pure liberal.

Martin O’Malley says that there hasn’t been a new agenda for American cities since Jimmy Carter. Shouldn't Bill Clinton’s emphasis on putting cops on the street––and perhaps even his welfare reform legislation––count?

Not to be a buzzkill, but none of the Democratic candidates mention the fact that at least one chamber of Congress is likely to be controlled by Republicans if and when they take office, making any of their progressive visions difficult if not impossible to achieve in one year, much less 100 days.

O'Malley's trio is the most interesting of the bunch: In addition to wage increases, he talks about climate change and clean energy and an urban-policy agenda.

Sanders's top three priorities: Universal health care; a minimum wage of at least $15 per hour; and infrastructure investment. Clinton's top three: job creation; raising the minimum wage; equal pay for equal work. She cheats a little and adds strengthening the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.

Martin O'Malley begins with a subtle reminder that he is younger than his opponents: He didn't get to see Martin Luther King—he was only born the year he delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech.

In his opening statement, Sanders said we must remember “what [Martin Luther King, Jr.] stood for,” but also that we “continue his vision to transform this country.” According to the candidate, that's what his campaign is about.

Clinton's experience hearing King is—like many matters involving her—hotly contested. Here's some good background from the Washington Post fact-checker.

Hillary Clinton opens by noting the MLK Day holiday and recalling when her youth minister took her to meet the late Dr. King.

Why or why must debates begin with news anchors speculating about the event that we’re literally waiting to watch?