Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton sought to cast herself as an outsider — because she would be the first woman president — and as a leader who’d sought out confrontations with Wall Street bankers and Chinese leaders during the party’s first debate of the 2016 presidential race.
“America’s been knocked down,” Clinton said in her closing statement Tuesday night, talking about the devastation of the Great Recession. “America’s best days are still ahead.”
The question in the debate’s aftermath will be whether those arguments rang true to voters — who may see the former first lady, senator and secretary of state as a Washington insider, regardless of her gender — and whether the accomplishments Clinton cited are good enough to qualify her for the White House.
Clinton’s chief rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), largely avoided attacks on the front-runner: In fact, he actually helped her escape a question about the scandal over her use of a private e-mail sever to conduct State Department business, saying the American people were “sick and tired” of hearing about the e-mails.
Instead, Sanders used the debate to repeat arguments that he’s made a number of times on the campaign trail, saying that a “political revolution” was needed to fight the power of big money in politics. He was not pressed to explain the mechanics of his sweeping and expensive proposals, which would offer free tuition at state universities and a national health-care system for all Americans.
His most difficult moments — in a sympathetic room in Las Vegas — came when he was pressed to explain his stances on gun control, an issue where Sanders stands to the right of Clinton and other rivals.
“All the shouting in the world is not going to do what I would hope all of us want, and that is keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have” them, Sanders said, calling for more mental-health treatment for people who might be suicidal or homicidal.
The other three candidates came in as long shots, and probably left as the same.
Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley was unusually soft-spoken for a man who desperately needed to seize the spotlight.
Jim Webb, the former senator from Virginia, had strong moments on foreign policy, but he also spent much time complaining about how he’d been marginalized by the moderators.
And Lincoln Chafee, the former senator and governor from Rhode Island, looked like a man who hadn’t prepared: Twice he said he’d voted for a particular bill because a majority of other senators were doing it, and he went along.
The evening was clearly dominated by Clinton and Sanders.
Clinton was immediately put on the defensive by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, the debate’s moderator, who listed instances when she’d changed her political positions, including on same-sex marriage and the recent Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. “I do absorb new information. I do look at what’s happening in the world,” Clinton said. Pressed by Cooper to say whether she was a progressive or a moderate, she said, “I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”
Asked later to explain how she would be different from President Obama, Clinton cited her gender.
“I think that’s pretty obvious,” Clinton said, when asked how her presidency would not be a “third term” for Obama. “I think being the first woman president would be quite a change.”
Cooper followed up: “Is there a policy difference?”
Clinton’s answer was not very specific: She said she would build on Obama’s policies in some areas, and go further in others.
Although Clinton has come out against Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, she used the president as a job reference.
“He asked me to become secretary of state,” she said, after being criticized for her vote in favor of the Iraq war in 2002. “He valued my judgment,” she said, and trusted Clinton’s advice in situation-room discussions.
She offered a full-throated defense of the U.S. military intervention in Libya, despite the chaos and the rise of Islamist militias that followed, but it was another question on Libya that put Clinton on defense and presented one of the more interesting moments of the debate.
Clinton was questioned about her use of a private e-mail system while serving as secretary of state, which has become the focus of a House committee investigating the death of four Americans in an attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi. While at the State Department, Clinton often used a personal e-mail address — and a private e-mail server located at her home in New York — to conduct government business.
“It wasn’t the best choice,” Clinton said, before attacking the committee itself. She cited a statement by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in which he implied that the committee’s best outcome was to undercut Clinton’s poll numbers. “This committee is basically an arm of the Republican National Committee. It is a partisan vehicle . . . to drive down my poll numbers. Big surprise. And that’s what they have attempted to do. I am still standing.”
Sanders, Clinton’s top rival in this race, seemingly came to her defense. “Let me say something that may not be great politics,” he said. “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails.”
That statement drew loud and sustained applause, in a room full of Democratic partisans — even while Cooper cautioned that it might be less well-received elsewhere. The CNN moderator prompted Chafee — one of the three long shots onstage with Clinton and Sanders — to say that he worried that Clinton’s handling of the scandal might harm American credibility.
Cooper asked Clinton: Did she want to respond?
“No,” Clinton said. More laughs. In this room, Chafee’s criticism seemed worthy of a brush-off.
Clinton, however, was not as generous to Sanders earlier in the debate. She was sharply critical of Sanders on guns, saying that the senator had been on the wrong side of votes over background checks for gun buyers and immunity for gun manufacturers.
Asked by Cooper whether Sanders had been tough enough on guns, Clinton said, “No, not at all.”
“Senator Sanders did vote five times against the Brady bill,” which toughened restrictions about who could buy guns, Clinton said. She also cited a bill that was designed to shield gun manufacturers from liability in lawsuits. “I voted against. I was in the Senate at the same time. . . . It was pretty straightforward to me.”
Sanders is to the left of most of the Democrats in this race on most issues — but gun control is an exception. Sanders was first elected to Congress in part because the National Rifle Association fiercely attacked his opponent.
In the debate, Sanders told the others that they should understand the perspective of voters in a rural state like Vermont, which has very little gun control.
“Our job is to bring people together,” Sanders said, as he tried to pivot the argument to the subject of health care, saying that he wanted to expand mental-health services to people who might be suicidal or homicidal.
There were other points of friction between the two candidates.
When Anderson asked Sanders whether he could be elected while identifying as a “democratic socialist,” he said: “We’re gonna win, because first we’re gonna explain what democratic socialism is.” Sanders said that he wanted to replicate conditions seen in other industrialized countries, including free health care and paid family leave.
Clinton stepped in, offering a veiled criticism of Sanders — which, in this debate, may be the only kind of criticism there is.
“We are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America, and it’s our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism,” she said, referring to Sanders’s statement that he was not a capitalist. “We would be making a grave mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class” in the world, she said.
Sanders struck back when Clinton was questioned about her relationships with Wall Street. She sought to combat suggestions that she is too closely aligned with the big banks, saying she had personally scolded Wall Street bankers to “cut it out,” months before the financial crisis of 2008.
“I respect the passion and intensity. I represented Wall Street, as a senator from New York,” Clinton said, after hearing Sanders outline a plan to break up big banks. She described meeting with Wall Street bankers in 2007. “I basically said, cut it out. Quit foreclosing on homes. Quit engaging in these speculative behaviors.”
The financial crisis happened anyway, of course. A few moments later, Sanders offered what passed — in this low-drama debate — for a zinger.
“Congress does not regulate Wall Street. Wall Street regulates Congress,” Sanders said. “Going to them and saying please do the right thing is kind of naive.”
As the five candidates onstage debated that issue, Chafee, who could afford few missteps, appeared to make one. Asked why had supported a measure that repealed a decades-old regulation and empowered Wall Street banks, Chafee’s answer appeared to be that he didn’t fully understand the bill.
“I just arrived in the Senate. I think we get some [do-overs],” Chafee said. At the time, his father Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.) had died, and he had been appointed to fill the same seat.
What does that say about you, Cooper asked?
“I think you’re being rough. I’d just arrived. It was the first vote, and it was 90 to 5,” Chafee said.
For Chafee, Webb and O’Malley, performance in the debate was critical. They are all polling below 1 percent, according to the average of polls at Real Clear Politics. If they were Republicans, they’d be relegated to the undercard, debating other margin-of-error candidates at dinnertime.
But in the smaller Democratic field, there is room for them. And all of them needed to make an impression, in order to attract donors and voters. There will be five more Democratic debates, but — if they can’t stand out in this one — the three long shots may not make it to all of the others.
O’Malley, trying desperately to stand out, had his most memorable moments in the opening and closing statements as he seemed to try to take some of Sanders’s thunder by seizing on economic inequality. He also challenged Sanders on his stance on gun control, noting that as governor, he led Maryland in passing such measures.
“We passed comprehensive gun safety legislation, not by looking at the pollings or looking at what the polls said,” he said. But he said such measures have little chance in Congress, in a pointed reference to Sanders.
Webb, at one point, complained of not being called on at all. “I’ve been standing over here for about 10 minutes here,” he said, before finally being asked his opinions about foreign policy.
Webb tried to score some points where he could. He took a jab at Sanders call for a “political revolution” to bring him to the White House and other changes to Washington. Webb questioned whether — even under a President Sanders — that kind of revolution was possible.
“Bernie, I don’t think the revolution’s going to come. And I don’t think that the Congress is going to pay for a lot of this stuff,” Webb said.