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Debate Night Pits Judgment Against Experience

Deprived of major differences, the Democratic candidates retreated to familiar mantras, asking the American public to decide between idealism and realism.

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Who would have expected that the most hotly contested figure in a Democratic presidential debate in 2016 would be Henry Kissinger?

The nonagenarian foreign-policy eminence was the subject of the biggest fireworks of Thursday night’s debate in Milwaukee, which came after some 75 minutes of a mostly earnest, dry debate. As Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders tangled over whether experience (she) or judgment (he, in not voting for the Iraq war) mattered more for a commander-in-chief, Sanders delivered a zinger.

“I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend,” Sanders declared, referring to Clinton’s praise for the former secretary of state during the last debate. Suddenly, all hell broke loose. In a surreal spectacle, Clinton—a child of the 1960s campus left and a leader of the nation’s liberal party—defended Kissinger, once a bogeyman to the Democratic Party. She tried to turn the argument back on Sanders, noting that he hadn’t managed to name who his own foreign-policy advisers are. He was ready: “It ain’t Henry Kissinger,” he replied. In a moment of peak Sanders, he then attacked Kissinger for—of all things—backing free-trade agreements. (Alex Pareene wrote eloquently last week about why Kissinger is such a problem for Clinton.)

It wasn’t the only attack Sanders leveled at Clinton on foreign policy. “You’ve got a bit of experience,” he said. “But judgment matters as well.” As usual, he invoked his vote against the war in Iraq, but Sanders also criticized Clinton’s leadership on U.S. intervention in Libya. His critique was very similar to Republican Senator Ted Cruz’s objection to the Libyan war: It’s all well and good to oppose dictators, but you shouldn’t back regime change if you don’t know what will come afterward. Those were doozies, blows that strike right at the heart of Clinton’s experience—her major qualification.

But Clinton had tricks up her sleeve, too. For the final question, the candidates were asked what foreign-policy leaders they most respected. Sanders named Franklin Roosevelt, while hardly mentioning his global record, and Winston Churchill, whose morality was hardly more defensible than Kissinger’s. Clinton, going second, spotted a moment to pillory Sanders. She named Barack Obama, and blasted Sanders for his criticisms of the president, especially a call for a primary challenger to Obama in 2012. Sanders was livid and red-faced. “Madam Secretary, that is a low blow,” he said. “Have you ever disagreed with a president? I suspect you may have.” He added: “One of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate.” While she has brought these differences up before, it was perhaps Clinton’s most effective jab at Sanders yet, and he seemed genuinely rattled.

It was especially striking because it came during a debate in which Clinton mostly hugged Sanders close. Throughout the campaign, she has tried to align herself with Obama, portraying herself as the guardian of his legacy. But after Sanders’s blowout win in the New Hampshire primary this week, Clinton is trying to adopt chunks of his platform. After Sanders’s conventional opening about how the economy is rigged, Clinton readily agreed: “Yes, the economy ​is​ rigged for those at the top.”

Things went that way for most of the night. Thursday’s debate was wonkish, if you’re charitable—or dull, if you’re not. Just a few weeks ago, everyone was clamoring for more Democratic debates, but after watching this one, it’s a little tough to recall why. Clinton and Sanders’s electoral battle is hotter than ever, but their debates have mostly settled into a comfortable pattern and set of topics. They tend to delve deeply into issues, but if you’re looking for sharp contrasts, debates might not be the best place to find them.

The candidates worked hard to differentiate themselves, but they agree on many things: universal health care, ending mass incarceration, abortion rights, helping working-class white communities, taxing the rich. Both candidates want to raise taxes, although Clinton is careful to say she would only do that for the wealthy, while Sanders would raise middle-class taxes while also providing more benefits, he says. Asked what part of the government they would cut, both resorted to promising to slash waste and fraud—an essentially meaningless answer. One notable exception to the comity came on immigration, where Clinton struck Sanders for not voting for the comprehensive immigration-reform bill in 2007. The night also featured a short discussion of women’s reproductive health, a topic that advocates had been complaining was absent from prior debates. But since the two candidates mostly agree, they moved on quickly.

Deprived of major differences, the candidates retreated to familiar mantras. For Sanders, that’s the belief that the entire economy is rigged and that the ultimate solution is political revolution. As usual, he boasted that, unlike Clinton, he has no super PAC and relies on small donors, but he did not take the chance to reprise his very effective attack about her speeches to Goldman Sachs. Clinton missed a softball pitch from Judy Woodruff, who asked how wealthy donors to her campaign were different from wealthy donors to Republicans—didn’t they all want a quid pro quo? Rather than take the easy answer—that her policies would boost the middle class and hurt those donors—she tried instead to brag about her small-dollar donors, a metric on which she’ll never beat Sanders.

Clinton’s mantra is execution. She repeatedly argued that Sanders owed voters a fuller explanation of how he’d get things done. She landed a direct blow on Sanders’s plan for free college tuition, which relies on states to cover one-third of the cost of tuition. Pointing to Wisconsin’s conservative Republican Governor Scott Walker, she said the plan was unrealistic: If red states wouldn’t accept Medicaid expansion that was 100 percent paid for, why would any GOP governors help Sanders out? She closed strong, saying, “I am not a single-issue candidate, and I do not believe we live in a single-issue country.”

Neither politician had a dominant night, and each had his or her stumbles. It was Sanders’s strongest performance so far on foreign policy, typically his Achilles’ heel, and his well-rehearsed message on the rigged economy resonates with Democrats. Clinton was even better, though. After Sanders debated well last Thursday and then trounced her in New Hampshire, Clinton badly needed a strong performance tonight, and she got it. Clinton was competent, wonky, and pounced on Sanders’s weaknesses. But is this debate enough to stall Sanders’s momentum and help her to regain her footing, or is it just a brief respite for her?

David A. Graham

Quick winners and losers analysis of this debate. Winner: Barack Obama. Loser: Henry Kissinger.

In closing as in opening, it seems to me that Bernie Sanders was foolish in a Democratic primary to refrain from specifically mentioning the identity groups that Hillary Clinton has just ticked off in her closing statement.

The bickering aside, it really is fascinating to see just how passionately Clinton is defending Obama given everything she said about him in 2008.

“I am not a single-issue candidate, and I do not believe we live in a single-issue country,” Clinton says in a direct hit at Sanders in her closing statement.

Sanders may not have run against Obama, but he called for a primary challenge to Obama in 2012, something he tries to obscure these days.

Hillary Clinton makes her play for black voters by highlighting Bernie Sanders’s criticism of President Obama. “Madam Secretary,” Sanders replies, “that is a low blow. I worked with President Obama for seven years.”

“Do senators have the right to disagree with the president?” he snaps at Clinton.

And then: “One of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not one of them.”

I can’t believe that Sanders just spent tons of energy talking about how awful Kissinger was, then spoke of his admiration for arch bigot and racist Winston Churchill.

Clinton has turned the knife on Sanders, naming Barack Obama as one of her two inspirational leaders (the other was Nelson Mandela) and decrying Sanders’s criticisms of the president.

In 2008, Hillary called Obama naive, and as president, he largely moved to her position—talking to Iran, but not unconditionally.

In 2014, Hillary Clinton reviewed Henry Kissinger’s latest book in extremely favorable terms, something that shocked me at the time. Interesting to hear her take heat for it now.

I can only imagine what 92-year-old Henry Kissinger is thinking as he watches a 2016 Democratic presidential primary debate about his legacy.

(I presume he is watching.)

Sanders: “I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend.” But Clinton hits back, essentially arguing for a team of rivals.

I can't believe we’re watching a Democratic presidential debate where one of the candidates is offering a strong defense of Henry Kissinger.

Hillary Clinton says that the most important counterterrorism decision of Barack Obama’s first term was going after Osama bin Laden. To me that’s absurd. I’m glad they got bin Laden. Was that more important than decisions related to ISIS? No. Did that strike make us safer? That isn’t clear to me.

“You’ve got a bit of experience. But judgment matters as well.” Sanders is making the same argument as Marco Rubio here—and one that Republicans will powerfully make against Clinton in a general election.

Clinton delivers a line to cut through Sanders’s critique of her Iraq War vote, the centerpiece of his foreign-policy position: “I do not think that a vote in 2002 is a plan to defeat ISIS in 2016.”

Bernie Sanders just made his most fully fleshed out critique of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy record that I’ve yet seen from him. The short version: She overthrows dictators without realizing what will happen next, like “unintended consequences.”

It is interesting that Sanders is willing to violate political code and say, “Let’s raise all the taxes!” but is not willing to say, “Government is working fine, thank you very much.”

I entirely agree with David about the (a) political missed opportunity and (b) intellectual laziness of the “waste, fraud, and abuse” cliche. Before next debate, and certainly before the general-election campaign, the candidates need to be able to name several specific programs they want to get rid of.

Sanders gets a question about what parts of the government he’d like to reduce. That would have been a great chance to talk about intelligence overreach. Instead, he points to waste and fraud—which, as Eric Schnurer points out, is a canard and doesn’t really represent much potential savings.

There’s a fascinating irony in the moderators seemingly holding super-PAC contributions against the candidates, since the candidates are legally forbidden from coordinating with the PACs. From a legal perspective, non-coordination rules are supposed to insulate candidates from corruption, both actual and perceived. But in both the Republican and Democratic races, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are hounding their opponents for those donations and the perceived influence they bring. It’s a stark example of where the Supreme Court’s imagined world of campaign finance is radically different from the world of campaign finance we actually live in.

Bernie Sanders capitalizes on the fact that Hillary Clinton’s argument—you shouldn’t worry about all those Wall Street donations to Democrats—seems patently ridiculous to a lot of Democratic voters.

It is remarkable that Team Hillary, and the candidate herself, have not become more adept at dealing with the Wall Street donors/Wall Street speeches  questions. (Of course, we haven’t gotten to the speeches yet tonight.)

Judy Woodruff just served up what should have been a softball to Clinton. Woodruff noted that two major donors, Donald Sussman and George Soros, have given a huge amount to Priorities USA, the super PAC backing Clinton. Clinton says, There’s no quid pro quo; isn’t it the same for Republicans who receive Koch brothers money? The easy answer, however, is to say: “Look to my policies, which are bad for the wealthy.” Instead, Clinton mostly focuses on the size of her average donation, which doesn’t really answer the question. Besides, she’ll never beat Sanders on the metric of small-dollar donors.

Interesting strategy by Clinton here, she seems to be emphasizing that she has adopted a lot of Sanders’s goals, that there is “vigorous agreement.”

“Yes, we’ll pay more in taxes,” says Sanders as throwaway clause. That’s OK in a Democratic primary, but anyone who has heard of Walter Mondale’s prospects against Ronald Reagan in 1984 knows the perils in a general election.

Indirect as it was, Bernie Sanders’s attack on Hillary Clinton—accusing her of sending kids back into danger to send a political message, if I understood him right—struck me as one of the most uncharitable he has made. Clinton is on solid ground when she says that there was a plausible concern that letting those kids into the country would create a perverse incentive that put more people in more danger.

When Sanders voted against immigration reform in 2007, he didn’t say it was because of the guest-worker program. He said it was because it would increase competition for low-skilled jobs. And then he voted for an immigration-reform bill that included a guest-worker program in 2013.

Bernie Sanders likens the guest-worker provisions in the establishment approach to immigration reform as “akin to slavery.” But those guest-worker jobs would be subject to minimum-wage laws, and they are free to leave anytime. I have concerns about the guest-worker provisions, too. But they’re very, very unlike slavery.

You could hear the audience kind of scoff when Gwen Ifill asked a question about poverty in white communities, but I’m glad she did. One of the most haunting studies in recent months found a sharp rise in white middle- and working-class mortality rates in recent years, largely driven by “despair deaths”: alcoholism, suicide, drug overdoses, and so forth. Neither candidate gave a very focused answer to the question, but it hopefully put the issue on their radars for future debates.

Immigration is a good place to consider how Sanders delivers on his plans. He says he would not deport undocumented immigrants. It’s easy to blast the recent Obama deportations, but what about the people covered by Obama’s executive orders? Those orders are being challenged in the courts now and are headed to the Supreme Court. If Obama loses at the Supreme Court, what would Sanders do differently to circumvent the justices? (To be fair, Clinton is in a similar pickle.) Clinton points out that Sanders voted against comprehensive immigration reform when she voted for it in 2007. That sounds carefully targeted to the upcoming Nevada caucus.

Stagecraft note: A calm, thick-skinned, nondefensive tone is almost always the right one for a candidate who feels that he or she has the fundamentals on their side. Despite everything, the fundamentals are still on Clinton’s side. For anyone in that position, the calmer and more generous-seeming the tone, the better.

It’s almost eerie how much overlap there is between Sanders’s and Trump’s appeal on the issues of trade and the decline of manufacturing. But could either of them bring back those jobs that have been lost?

Asked about resentment in white working-class communities, Clinton goes wonky, talking about how to revitalize coal country. Sanders goes right to the heart, blasting free-trade agreements. Which of those will resonate more with people who are out of work?

Clinton name-drops Jim Clyburn, the veteran South Carolina Democrat whose endorsement she’d love to have. He is still neutral and has said he is torn between his “head and his heart.”

Gwen Ifill didn’t quite put it this way, but by some measures, Milwaukee is the worst place to be black in the whole country.

Clinton also could have made a point that President Obama has made repeatedly: The greatest impact of his historic presidency in terms of race will not be in relations among adults but in children who now see that a black man can be, and is, the elected leader of the country.

Many black activists consider “race relations” a euphemism for “how white people feel about black people,” when the real question should be “the degree to which black people are oppressed.”

That’s quite a promise from Bernie Sanders: Incarceration will fall below that of other countries by the end of his first term. Ending the policy of incarcerating illegal immigrants for “illegal reentry” could help. But a large part of America’s incarceration problem is at the state and local level, beyond the president’s reach.

Clinton broadens the discussion on racial injustice beyond the question of mass incarceration and policing: “There are other racial discrepancies” in Wisconsin and other states that must be addressed. “When we talk about criminal justice reform,” the country needs to talk about “jobs, education, housing, and other ways of helping communities do better.” Sanders says he agrees with her.

Bernie Sanders says we need a “radical reform” of the criminal-justice system to fight mass incarceration, but he doesn't offer any specific remedies. Clinton, on the other hand, singles out policing and sentencing as two aspects of reform, then pivots to racial discrimination in other aspects of life. I hope the moderators press them more on this.

A lot of a president’s long-term appeal depends on how people react to hearing him (historically) or her (potentially) over extended periods. I agree with both of these candidates on most points of policy. Not 100 percent sure how I’d look forward to hearing from them repeatedly over next four years.  (And of course the same standard needs to be applied to the GOP field.)  One practical implication: Presidents need to ration how often they appear on air, so as not to wear out their welcome any more quickly than necessary.

I attended a Hillary rally in Milwaukee in the fall where she met privately with Dontre Hamilton’s mother, whom I spoke to at the event. She was impressed with the outreach.

If I’m not mistaken, this is the first real discussion of women’s rights in any of the Democratic debates so far, and in particular of reproductive rights. Sanders bashes Republicans for “hypocrisy”—he says they want small government in many respects, but they also want to tightly regulate women’s right to choose.

Many people have noted that Clinton’s campaign seems to have belatedly realized that more debates are better for her, not worse, because she’s good at debating. Another way it may help her: highlighting the repetitiveness of Sanders’s message, with its hyper-focus on income inequality.

Sanders really missed an opportunity to point out that he would make history as the first Jewish president in response to that question about whether he’d be “thwarting” the first woman president. In his defense, he has been clear that he isn't observant.

It’s interesting that Bernie Sanders is so widely supported by young single people who don’t yet have spouses or kids, but still talks (as most pols do) about “working families,” not “working people.”

The fact that Sanders’s plan for education relies on states to cover much of the cost seems like a major weakness. As CNN reports, Sanders would have states cover about one-third of the cost of tuition. But given how many GOP-led states have rejected Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, which is free at first and 90 percent paid by the federal government after that, what are the odds red states will sign up?

I think that was a graceful answer by Clinton, in response to Judy Woodruff’s question about why more women didn’t support her in New Hampshire. The main goal is not to seem defensive, and she didn’t.

Clinton deflects a question about whether she agrees with Madeleine Albright’s line that “There’s a special place in hell for women that don’t support other women.” Albright, Clinton said, has been saying that for 25 years.

“Secretary Clinton, you’re not in the White House yet,” Sanders says rather haltingly. Was that a line that was supposed to land harder?

Conor: I’ve come around to this argument of Clinton’s. Obamacare was seen as the most incremental way possible to get toward universal coverage, and it was hugely disruptive. What Sanders is proposing would be orders of magnitude more so.

Hillary Clinton repeats her argument that the Bernie Sanders approach to health care would throw us into a “contentious debate” on the issue. I don’t see any possible future where health care policy, circa 2017, isn’t contentious.

Clinton is making some good points about just how culturally entrenched the barriers to Medicare for all are, but telling people that they can’t have something isn't exactly a magnet for adulation.

Sanders: “There is one major country on Earth that does not guarantee the health care of all its people.”

I am all for noting an unfortunate part of American exceptionalism when it comes to the error of our not having broader health coverage. But China is also a pretty major country, and it does not have a health-insurance system that covers everyone or that the United States would want to emulate.

In my ideal world, Hillary Clinton would spend 60 percent of her time arguing why her plan, vision, personality, approach, etc. are so good for the country; 35 percent on why the plan, vision, personality, etc. of Donald Trump et al are so bad; and about half of the remainder on what is wrong with Bernie Sanders. I just don’t see much more than that for anti-Sanders paying off in the long run.

The one question I have about this debate is: Why is it being held in Wisconsin? This was one of the original six scheduled by the DNC. The Badger State primary isn’t until April, and the Democrats will probably be targeting their answers to the voters in the states that cast their ballots next, Nevada and South Carolina.

Bernie’s new ad is an implicit argument against being “divided” by identity politics—the kind of thing I’m more used to hearing from Republicans .

Hillary Clinton essentially agrees with Bernie Sanders’s priorities—then gives specific call-outs to African Americans, Hispanics, and women. That she would do so in her opening was entirely predictable. Its effectiveness could have been blunted by Sanders had he done the same. I’m puzzled that he missed the opportunity.

While mentioning America’s incarceration rate and marijuana arrests, Bernie Sanders easily could have thrown in a “disproportionately affecting African Americans,” but didn’t do so. I wonder why. Reaching black voters has got to be one of his political priorities going forward.

Bernie Sanders goes on hard on the “establishment” in his opening remarks: “The American people are tired of establishment politics, tired of establishment economics.”

Journalists should never be part of the story. But it’s worth mentioning that Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill, the first female co-anchor pair of NewsHour, make up the first female-only moderating team for a presidential contest.

The Democrats are debating for the sixth time tonight, and after two states have voted, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders arrive in Milwaukee in a position virtually no one would have predicted a year ago—essentially tied.