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Live blog: Democratic presidential debate

January 17, 2016

Their last meeting before the first caucuses and primary. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)

Three Democratic presidential candidates battled on-stage Sunday night in their fourth debate amid a tightening and increasingly contentious race between former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.). Long-shot candidate and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley was also on stage in Charleston, S.C. at the final faceoff before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

The debate was sponsored by NBC News, YouTube, the Congressional Black Caucus Institute and the South Carolina Democratic Party.

  • Washington Post Staff
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  • Rebecca Sinderbrand
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In the final moments of the debate, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both pointed to the public health emergency caused by contaminated water in Flint, Mich.
Here’s a reminder of why it’s such a hot-button political issue:

“The city’s switch in water supply has been blamed for discolored and strange-smelling water and elevated lead levels in children’s blood. In December, a state task force found that Flint violated rules requiring that it treat water to avoid the pipe corrosion problems that helped make the water toxic, and city, state and county officials are now being accused of a coverup by researchers who believe authorities knew about the health threat to Flint citizens but did nothing to protect them from it.

“Flint reconnected to Detroit’s water system in October after doctors at a local medical center sounded the alarm about the dangerous lead levels. …”

This week, Sanders called on Michigan’s governor to resign over the crisis.

  • John Wagner
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THE CONTENDERS| Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders was asked during the debate about his assertion this month that Bill Clinton’s sexual scandals were “totally, totally, totally disgraceful and unacceptable.”

The Vermont senator said he had responded to a question during a campaign stop in Iowa but has otherwise stuck to the real issues during the race.

He’s done that, Sanders said, despite being continually urged by the media to attack Hillary Clinton.

“Yes, his behavior was deplorable,” Sanders said of Bill Clinton, but Sanders said he’s been “trying to run an issue-oriented campaign.

Clinton nodded from her podium as Sanders spoke.

  • Michelle Ye Hee Lee
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“We made our public schools No. 1 in America more than five years in a row.”

–former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley

THE FACT CHECKER | O’Malley touts this quite often. He’s correct that Maryland public schools placed No. 1 in Education Week’s annual rankings from 2009 through 2013. But new methodology has dropped the state from No. 1 to third place for the 2014-15 school year.

The Baltimore Sun reported that if that methodology had been applied previously, Maryland would have ranked third in 2012, 2013 and 2014. The campaign has said the reduction in ranking does not mean the quality of schools has dropped. (Education Week researchers have said the same.)

“But the fact that the state’s ranking can change when one reputable methodology is exchanged for another illustrates the danger in reading too much into a first-place finish,” according to The Baltimore Sun. It’s also unclear how much O’Malley’s policies contributed to the rankings, since Education Week did not consistently assess public school systems prior to O’Malley’s inauguration, The Baltimore Sun said.

  • Rebecca Sinderbrand
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  • Glenn Kessler
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“Senator Sanders, you’re the only one on this stage that voted to deregulate the financial market in 2000, to take the cops off the street, to use Governor O’Malley’s phrase, to make the SEC and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission no longer able to regulate swaps and derivatives, which were one of the main cause of the collapse in ’08.”


THE FACT CHECKER | Clinton correctly cites Sanders’s vote for the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which deregulated interest-rate swaps and other over-the-counter derivatives. She neglected to mention her husband, then-President Bill Clinton, signed the bill.

  • Rebecca Sinderbrand
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  • Abby Phillip
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THE CONTENDERS| One of the most awkward moments so far tonight was when Hillary Clinton came prepared to confront Bernie Sanders with his own past statements critical of President Obama.

In South Carolina, where African-Americans are a majority of the Democratic electorate, Clinton’s campaign strategy has been to stay as close to Obama’s legacy as possible. African American voters overwhelmingly supported Obama in the last two elections, and in general are overwhelmingly supportive of his presidency.

At the first opportunity, Clinton resurfaced comments Sanders made in 2011 in which he was highly critical of Obama leading up to the 2012 presidential election.

“Senator Sanders called him weak, disappointing,” Clinton said, as Bernie Sanders grimaced on a podium next to her. “He even in 2011 publicly sought someone to run in a primary against president Obama.”

This is what Clinton was talking about.

Appearing on a progressive radio show in 2011, Sanders had this to say about Obama in response to a question:

“I think there are millions of Americans who are deeply disappointed in the president; who believe that, with regard to Social Security and a number of other issues, he said one thing as a candidate and is doing something very much else as a president; who cannot believe how weak he has been, for whatever reason, in negotiating with Republicans and there’s deep disappointment. So my suggestion is, I think one of the reasons the president has been able to move so far to the right is that there is no primary opposition to him and I think it would do this country a good deal of service if people started thinking about candidates out there to begin contrasting what is a progressive agenda as opposed to what Obama is doing. I know that people are demoralized.”

Arguably, Sanders wasn’t himself calling Obama “weak” and “disappointing,” but was referencing a widely held (he claimed) belief among some Democrats who weren’t happy with how Obama had shifted to the right before his re-election campaign.

Still this is a politically problematic statement — for someone running in a Democratic primary to succeed Obama —  that is a matter of public record. And in South Carolina, which has a primary that comes shortly after Iowa and New Hampshire, it is even more problematic for Sanders.

  • Glenn Kessler
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“Senator Sanders called him weak, disappointing. He even, in 2011, publicly sought someone to run in a primary against President Obama.”


THE FACT CHECKER | The Clinton campaign points to an interview that Sanders gave to the Thom Hartmann Radio Program on July 22, 2011, in which Sanders expressed “deep disappointment” with Obama, calling him “weak” in dealing with Republicans.

“One of the reasons the president has been able to move so far to the right is that there is no primary opposition to him,” he said. “I think it would do the country a good deal of service if people starting thinking about candidates out there to begin contrasting what is a progressive agenda.”

  • Michelle Ye Hee Lee
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“He [Sanders] voted to let guns go on to Amtrak, guns go into national parks. He voted against doing research to figure out how we can save lives.”


THE FACT CHECKER | Clinton accurately cited Sanders’s votes.

In 2009, Sanders voted for a measure to allow “law abiding Amtrak passengers” to bring firearms in their checked baggage.

The measure was an amendment to the federal budget blueprint, saying that federal financial assistance will not be provided to Amtrak unless Amtrak allows passengers to check firearms in their baggage.

Sanders voted for another bill in 2009 to allow law-abiding, licensed gun owners to bring firearms into national parks and wildlife refugees.

In 1996, Sanders voted against the Lowey-Castle amendment to restore gun research funding. The amendment, which failed, would have given an additional $2.6 million to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for research on issues related to firearms. The restrictions on CDC funding was put into the federal budget at the urging of gun rights supporters, according to Reuters.

On the campaign trail, Sanders has called on more funding for CDC to fund gun violence studies. Reuters quoted Sanders’s campaign email saying: “”We must authorize resources for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study and research the causes and effects of gun violence in the United States of America.” The email was sent a day after the San Bernardino shooting.

  • Rebecca Sinderbrand
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The view from a Post reporter’s inbox, 10:03 p.m. ET


  • John Wagner
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ON THE ISSUES | Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders acknowledged that taxes would rise on the middle class under a single-payer health care plan that he fleshed out just two hours before the debate on Sunday night.

But the Vermont senator suggested that the increase shouldn’t count as a tax hike because the average family would save thousands of dollars on their out-of-pocket healthcare costs. That’s because under a “Medicare for all plan,” consumers would no longer pay private insurance premiums, deductibles or co-payments, he said.

“A little more in taxes, do away with private insurance premiums, it’s a pretty good deal,” Sanders said.

Clinton has pressed the point that she is the only Democratic candidate who has promised not to raise taxes on those making $250,000 or less.

Sanders and Clinton have also parted ways on a plan pending in Congress that would guarantee paid family leave to workers. Sanders supports the bill, which would be funded by a modest increase in the the payroll tax. Clinton says she could pay for family leave with other funds so as to not impact lower-income workers.

  • Abby Phillip
  • ·

ON THE ISSUES | There is no other debate between Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton more emblematic of the differences between their candidacies than health care.

It is fundamentally a debate about staying the course set by President Obama, or, to let Bernie Sanders put it, ushering in a “political revolution.”

The crux of Clinton’s argument on the debate stage in South Carolina was that preserving President Obama’s legacy is a more important  — and realistic — goal than pushing for a single-payer, universal health care plan.

“The Democratic Party in the United States worked since Harry Truman to the Affordable Care Act passed,” Clinton said. “There are things we can do to improve it, but to tear it up and start all over again” would mean “pushing our country back into that contentious debate.”

“To start all over again with a whole new debate is something that I think would set us back,” Clinton added.

In response, Sanders called Clinton’s assertions “nonsense” and said that in order to deal with the millions who remain uninsured under the Affordable Care Act system, a Medicare-for-all system was the most cost-effective system.

“The vision from FDR and Harry Truman was health care for all people as a right,” Sanders said. “We’re not going to tear up the Affordable Care Act. I helped write it.”

The problem — and the question that Sanders was never forced to answer — is how he would get it done. As Clinton noted — correctly — a single-payer system could not have passed through Congress even when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House.

“Even when the Democrats were in charge of the Congress, we couldn’t get the votes for it,” Clinton said. “We have the Affordable Care Act. Let’s make it work.”

  • John Wagner
  • ·

THE CONTENDERS | Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton deflected a question about why some polls show her trailing Bernie Sanders among young voters by a 2-to-1 margin.

“I have the greatest respect for Senator Sanders and his supporters,” Clinton said, adding that she will continue to try to reach as many people as possible with her campaign. “I hope to have their support when I’m the Democratic nominee.”

Millennials have been among the most ardent supporters of Sanders, a 74-year-old senator from Vermont. He faces a challenge in getting them to the polls, however: Traditionally, that age group has turned out in lower numbers than older voters.

Clinton, meanwhile, has consistently led Sanders among seniors.

  • Glenn Kessler
  • ·

“He [Sanders] voted for what we call the Charleston Loophole.” 


THE FACT CHECKER | Clinton is referring to a recent gun tragedy — the June 17, 2015, killing of nine people by Dylann Roof at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C.  Roof legally purchased his .45-caliber Glock pistol from a store, but the FBI later said he should have failed the background check because he had been charged with possessing Suboxonem, a Schedule III narcotic, without a prescription.

However, because of clerical mistakes, the FBI said the examiner did not get hold of the report before the three-day waiting period ended, so the store went through with the purchase.

Since then, some gun-control advocates have starting calling the three-day waiting period the “Charleston loophole.” The provision emerged in the final version of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act that was passed by Congress in 1993.

Sanders voted repeatedly against the Brady bill, which in its original version had a 10-day waiting period. But he did vote for an NRA-backed amendment, sponsored by then-Rep. George Gekas (R-Pa.), that altered the Brady bill to require instant criminal background checks five years after enactment, even though the technology did not exist at the time. The waiting period would sunset within five years, once the system was expected to be operational.

Until passage of the amendment, the Brady bill at that point had a seven-day waiting period. But the amendment — pushed by a lawmaker close to the National Rifle Association — requiring the instant background system also cut the processing time to just 24 hours if the instant background system didn’t come back with an answer.

Later, after negotiations between the Senate and the House, the final version of the Brady bill emerged with a three-day period to allow law-enforcement officials to process the information.

In the specific case of Roof, the FBI examiner became confused over South Carolina geography, initially contacting the wrong county court to find out the status of the criminal case pending against him. Would an extra four days have made a difference in sorting out the right legal venue? No one knows for sure, but it’s certainly possible.

  • Glenn Kessler
  • ·

“There’s no other industry in America that was given the total pass that the gun makers and dealers were, and that needs to be reversed.”

–Hillary Clinton

THE FACT CHECKER | Clinton is correct that the gun industry was given broad immunity in the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, but she overstates the case a bit by saying it received a “total pass”—or that it was alone.

Vaccine manufacturers, for instance, have limited protection from lawsuits if their vaccine led to an injury. The federal government enacted this immunity to encourage companies to produce more vaccines without the fear of lawsuits, for their benefit to public health. Another example is federal protection for the airline industry from lawsuits arising from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But unlike the gun law, both cases established a compensation scheme for victims to recover money for damages. (Both cases established a compensation scheme for victims to recover money for damages.) Online service providers also have immunity from lawsuits from victims of online defamation.

Moreover, there are some exceptions. Gun dealers can be sued if they knowingly transfer a gun that would be used for criminal purposes, while gun manufacturers can be sued if injuries result from a defective product that is use properly.

  • John Wagner
  • ·

THE CONTENDERS | Democratic hopeful Martin O’Malley defended his record as mayor of Baltimore when asked by the debate moderator if his tough-on-crime policies contributed to the atmosphere that led to rioting  following the death in police custody of Freddie Gray.

Asked by NBC’s Lester Holt what responsibility he bears, O’Malley relayed that “When I ran for mayor in 1999, Lester, it was not because our city was doing well. It was because we were burying over 300 young poor, black men every single year. And that’s why I ran. Because yes, black lives matter.”

In the aftermath of the riot’s last spring, O’Malley was criticized by some who argued that his zero-tolerance policies fostered distrust between police and the African American community.

“We were able to save a lot of lives, doing things that actually work to improve police and community relations,” O’Malley said.

He cited several actions he also took as governor of Maryland, including becoming the first governor south of the Mason-Dixon line to repeal the death penalty and signing a bill that decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana.

  • Michelle Ye Hee Lee
  • ·

“In 1988, there were three candidates running for Congress in the state of Vermont. I stood up to the gun lobby and came out and maintained the position, that in this country, we should not be selling military-style assault weapons. I have supported, from day one, an instant background check to make certain that people who should not have guns do not have guns, and that includes people with criminal backgrounds, people who are mentally unstable.”

–Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

THE FACT CHECKER | Sanders did come out against assault weapons in 1988. But what he doesn’t say is that in 1990, despite his stance assault weapons ban, the NRA helped him get elected to Congress.

Sanders’s opponent in the 1988 election, who had promised not to vote for a ban on assault weapons, changed his mind once he got to Washington. This angered the National Rifle Association, which campaigned for Sanders in the 1990 election. At least Sanders, according to the NRA, was consistent in his stance against assault weapons.

Sanders did vote for instant background checks “from day one.” But his early votes for instant background checks would have killed the Brady bill, which established a background check system and wait periods for people buying handguns from licensed dealers

In opposition to the waiting period mandate in the Brady bill, which Congress passed in 1993, the NRA instead offered an amendment to require instant criminal background checks. This amendment required gun dealers to call a national telephone hotline at the FBI to check if the buyers had criminal records.

But such a technology for an instant check didn’t exist at the time – and criminal court and prison records weren’t yet computerized in about half the states.

So that meant the information could not be incorporated into the FBI’s criminal identification system to be checked with a phone call, as the amendment required. So gun control advocates argued the instant background check amendment would render the Brady bill’s provisions moot.

Sanders did vote to expand background checks in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., shootings. This background check provision was to require a check through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System for all firearm sales and to prohibit straw purchase firearms.

  • Rebecca Sinderbrand
  • ·

ON THE ISSUES | It’s no surprise that the heroin epidemic came up tonight; as Katie Zezima reported last summer, the issue has been visible everywhere on the campaign trail this year — especially in hard-hit New Hampshire:

“Drug addiction and treatment are no longer problems acknowledged only with infrequent stump lines. They are driving a sustained conversation on the presidential campaign trail.

“And that conversation revolves around ending — not stepping up — the war on drugs. It centers on the language of addiction and treatment, on the sharing of deeply personal experiences and on calls from candidates for the criminal-justice system to be restructured to make the government’s response to illegal use less punitive.”

This fall, Hillary Clinton released a $10 billion plan to treat drug addiction.

  • John Wagner
  • ·
In this photo taken Oct. 3, 2015, Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt,  speaks during a campaign rally in Springfield, Mass. The state where Hillary Clinton and Sanders will meet to debate on Tuesday, Oct. 13, for the first time is evidence of why she's still the front-runner. Clinton has staff organizing on the ground for months in Nevada and they know how to navigate the state's baroque caucus system. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, speaks during a campaign rally in Springfield, Mass. The state where Hillary Clinton and Sanders will meet to debate on Tuesday, Oct. 13, for the first time is evidence of why she’s still the front-runner. Clinton has staff organizing on the ground for months in Nevada and they know how to navigate the state’s baroque caucus system. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

THE CONTENDERS | CHARLESTON, S.C. — Forty minutes before taking stage at the Democratic debate here, Bernie Sanders took to the street to join low-wage workers rallying for a $15 minimum wage.

“We are the wealthiest country in the history of the world,” the Vermont senator told a demonstration in front of the Gaillard Center, where the debate is taking place. “People should not have to work for starvation wages.”

“Keep up the good work,” Sanders said before getting into a black SUV and traveling the short distance to the debate, where he is facing off with former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley.

Sanders was encircled on the street in front of the debate hall by workers with Fight for 15, the union-backed movement to the raise the minimum wage.

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