Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton faced sharp attacks – about her closeness to Wall Street, and her vote for the Iraq War – from two more aggressive rivals, in the second Democratic presidential debate Saturday night.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) said Clinton’s Wall Street donors must be expecting something from her, and called her plan for financial reform “not good enough.” The attack, coming from the famously hands-off Sanders, was enough that Clinton remarked that Sanders had “impugned my integrity.” She defended herself by suggesting that Wall Street bankers liked her mainly because she helped lower Manhattan rebuild after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
She also made a quip that could come back to haunt her: “I come from the ‘60s,” Clinton said, when starting a response to a question about protests on college campuses. She did, of course: Clinton graduated from college in 1969. But that line could be fodder for a younger Republican opponent like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) or Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), determined to cast Clinton as the voice of a bygone political era.
But Clinton’s fortunes were likely not severely damaged by Saturday night’s debate.
One reason was that it was held on a Saturday night, in Des Moines, Iowa, on a night when the University of Iowa Hawkeyes were playing a high-profile football game. Another was that her chief rival, Sanders, helped her out – again – by shooing away questions about her use of personal e-mail while secretary of state, and by playing to an audience far to the left of Clinton herself.
Sanders did not merely want to regulate Wall Street to save it from future collapses. He seemed to believe there was little there worth saving at all. “Their business model is greed and fraud,” Sanders said.
Sanders also seemed to limit his appeal when he talked about his tax plan – and mentioning, even in a joke, the prospect of income tax rates nearing 90 percent.
“We haven’t come up with an exact number,” Sanders said, when asked how high he wanted the highest rates to go. “But it will not be as high as the number under Dwight D. Eisenhower, which is 90 percent. I am not that much of a socialist, compared to Dwight D. Eisenhower.”
Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, like Sanders, seemed more aggressive on Saturday night – attacking both his rivals onstage, and Republicans far off of it. He got one of the night’s biggest rounds of applause by referring to GOP front-runner Donald Trump as “That immigrant-bashing carnival barker.” But O’Malley still seemed caught between Clinton, aiming for the middle of the Democratic party, and Sanders aiming for its left wing.
His chief answer seemed to steal a page from Rubio’s playbook to position himself as the candidate of the future. In his opening statement, O’Malley talked about how the challenges of today require “new thinking.” In his closing statement, O’Malley made reference to “polarizing figures from our past,” which seemed to be a dig at both Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
During the debate. Clinton attacked two key policy Sanders policy proposals – one to make public colleges tuition-free, and another to give all Americans government-run health insurance – as impractical or unfair, in a part of the second Democratic debate seemingly aimed at moderate voters.
These two proposals are bedrock parts of Sanders’s call for a “political revolution,” in which expensive new programs would help the poor and middle class overcome the effects of income inequality. Clinton’s message is that Sanders’s plans go too far for their own good.
“I disagree with free college for everybody,” Clinton said. “I don’t think taxpayers should be paying to send Donald Trump’s kids to go to college.” She has called for making public college students graduate debt-free: an idea that would up the overall amounts of aid, but give poorer students more help than richer ones.
Clinton also criticized Sanders’s plan, which he calls “Medicare for All,” for essentially eliminating President Obama’s health-care law. But Clinton took an unusual tactic: she said Sanders’ plan did not build the federal government up enough. It would leave some decisions to the state governments, which might be run by Republicans.
“I would not want, if I lived in Iowa, [Republican Governor] Terry Branstad administrating my health care,” Clinton said, to applause. “I think, as Democrats, we ought to proudly support the Affordable Care Act.”
Both of Clinton’s rivals Clinton turned sharply against her earlier in the second Democratic presidential debate, labeling her as a candidate so close to Wall Street that she could not be trusted to regulate it.
Both Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley appear to see Clinton’s financial support from Wall Street as one of her key weaknesses, in a party increasingly concerned about income inequality. Sanders assailed Clinton, saying that bankers support her because they know she will owe them something. That led him to a remarkable condemnation – not for Sanders, perhaps, but certainly for a major-party presidential debate.
“Their business model is greed and fraud,” Sanders said of Wall Street. “And for the sake of our economy, they must, the major banks must be broken up.”
O’Malley followed with a slightly toned-down message, saying there are many good people in the financial industry. But he said that Wall Street bankers used their power to rig the government systems meant to oversee them, resulting in a situation where the banks can count on taxpayers to bail out their failures.
“That’s not capitalism, Secretary Clinton. That’s crony capitalism,” O’Malley said. “We need to step up, and we need to protect main street from Wall Street.” He said Clinton could not do that as “the candidate from Wall Street.”
Clinton responded that Sanders had “impugned my integrity.” She suggested that she had allies on Wall Street because she had helped lower Manhattan rebuild after the Sept. 11, 2011 terrorist attacks, which occurred while Clinton was a U.S. senator from New York.
O’Malley called Clinton’s plans to regulate Wall Street “weak tea.”
All three Democratic presidential candidates offered enthusiastic proposals to raise taxes – in one way or another.
“I will pay for it by yes, taxing the wealthy more,” said Clinton, when asked how she would pay to make public college education debt-free. “I can do it without raising the debt. Without raising taxes on the middle class.”
This was, more than any other moment in the debate, a signal of how much Clinton’s main challenger – Sanders, an avowed “democratic socialist” – has changed the terms of the Democratic primary. Sanders proudly talks about raising taxes on the wealthy as a means of funding government efforts to make public college free, and to provide health insurance coverage to all Americans.
As Clinton and O’Malley try to gain on Sanders, they have absorbed some of his ethos. So in this debate, taxes had a moment. They were no longer a necessary evil, indulged as little as possible. They were something, oddly, to brag about.
O’Malley, for instance, followed Clinton by defending his record in Maryland, which included increases in sales and income taxes.
“We did in fact raise the sales tax by a penny, and we made the public schools the best schools in America for five years in a row,” O’Malley said, noting that he also raised taxes on the top 14 percent of earners. “While other candidates will talk about the things they would like to do, I actually got these things done.”
Sanders himself got the last word. He was pressed about how high he wanted to raise taxes on the highest earners. He demurred, with the Sanders equivalent of a joke.
“We haven’t come up with an exact number, but it will not be as high as the number under Dwight D. Eisenhower, which is 90 percent,” Sanders left. The audience laughed. “I am not that much of a socialist, compared to Dwight D. Eisenhower.”
That was the audience’s first laugh of the debate, which had been dominated in its first hour by sober discussions of terrorism and national security.
A few minutes later, O’Malley drew the debate’s first sustained applause, by mentioning the Republican front-runner Democrats love to hate.
“That immigrant-bashing carnival barker, Donald Trump…” O’Malley said.
This second debate, carried out in the shadow of the terrorist attacks in Paris Friday night, revolved around national security and foreign policy in its early minutes. All three candidates rejected the phrase “radical Islam” to describe the militant groups opposed to the United States and its allies, saying that this phrase unfairly tarred an entire religion for the violence of one faction.
“You can talk about ‘Islamists,’ who clearly are also jihadists,” Clinton said. But she said that phrase – “radical Islam”—was the wrong one to use. “We are not at war with Islam or Muslims. We are at war with violent extremism.”
“I believe calling it what it is...radical jihadis,” said O’Malley, adding that a formulation that includes “Islam” would alienate American Muslims, whom O’Malley called “our first line of defense.”
Conservatives have criticized President Obama for his unwillingness to say that same phrase, using it as an illustration that Obama’s unwillingness to offend Muslims has blurred his administration’s strategy for fighting militants. How can these groups be defeated, conservatives say, if Democrats are not even willing to admit what they are?
Earlier, Sanders criticized Clinton for her vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq in 2003 -- saying it created instability that led to the rise of the Islamic State – in the early minutes of the debate.
The criticism was mild by political standards, but unusually sharp for Sanders – who has made his distaste for negative campaigning a hallmark of his career.
“I don’t think any sensible person would disagree that the invasion of Iraq led to the level of instability that we have now,” Sanders said, after John Dickerson, moderator of the CBS News debate at Drake University, pressed him about whether he was explicitly criticizing Clinton. “That is one of the worst foreign policy blunders in the history of the United States.”
“I have said that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake,” Clinton said in response, though she said that the chaos in Syria and other Muslim countries now had roots that stretched much further back than the 2003 invasion.
Both Sanders and O’Malley criticized America’s record in foreign military interventions – a way of criticizing Clinton, who helped lead American foreign policy as secretary of state. O’Malley told a story about meeting the mother of a service member.
The Democratic field has narrowed significantly since the party’s first debate on Oct. 13 with CNN: Former senator Jim Webb of Virginia and former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee dropped out. Vice President Biden — who seemed so close to a presidential bid then that CNN had a lectern standing by for him — has decided not to run.
O’Malley remains in the debate, but he is barely in the race. In polls of both early-state voters and national Democrats, his support hovers below 5 percent. He is now attempting to take down Clinton and Sanders, blasting both as representing “the failed thinking of the past” in a recent meeting with pro-immigration activists.
Clinton and Sanders rank No. 1 and No. 2 in the polls, but their roles in the race have changed since the first debate.
Clinton, who looked like a shaky front-runner a month ago, enters the second debate as the strong favorite again.
Her turnaround was helped, in large part, by Sanders himself. In their last meeting onstage, the Vermont senator defied all political logic, and shut down a question about his opponent’s most visible weakness.
“The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails,” Sanders said, after Clinton was asked about her use of a private e-mail server to conduct government business as secretary of state.
Clinton got more unwitting help from House Republicans, who brought her in for 11 hours of questioning about the 2012 attacks that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya. The GOP questioners had no coherent theory of the case against Clinton — some seemed to imply that the diplomatic compound in Benghazi was so important to her that she had lied about the nature of threats against it, but another seemed to suggest that Clinton didn’t know it existed. Clinton came out largely unscathed.
The combined effect of those two episodes was to allow Clinton to move past a controversy that she had struggled to shake.
Clinton’s support has since climbed nationally and in the crucial early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Sanders, by contrast, has struggled to build upon his momentum from the summer.
Clinton now leads Sanders by 24 points in Iowa, according to poll averages done by Real Clear Politics. In New Hampshire, where Sanders had built a 12-point lead in September, the margin is now down to 1 percent.
Those two states are crucial to Sanders’s hopes. If he can’t win both, he will have a hard time overcoming Clinton’s advantage in later-voting states, and in the race for “superdelegates,” — party poo-bahs whose support is won individually, not in primary races.
“He has no chance if he doesn’t win Iowa,” said David Axelrod, the chief strategist in both Obama presidential campaigns, told The Washington Post this week. “Even if he were to win New Hampshire, it could be written off as a home-state victory because he’s from across the border.”
Sanders has tried to build his base by reaching out to blacks and Latinos, but even his Latino-outreach rally in Nevada drew a largely white crowd.
He has also struggled to draw distinctions with Clinton, without seeming to break his personal vow against negative campaigning.
“I have many disagreements with Hillary Clinton, and one of them is I don’t think it’s good enough just to talk the talk on campaign finance reform. You’ve got to walk the walk,” Sanders said in a candidate forum in South Carolina last week. “I’m the only Democratic candidate who does not have a super PAC.”
Clinton has two super PACs backing her candidacy.
And, at another point in South Carolina, Sanders attacked Clinton for being late to the movement opposing the Keystone XL oil pipeline. But he couldn’t bring himself to name her: “Unlike some other unnamed candidates” Sanders said, “the issue of Keystone was kind of a no-brainer [for me].”
Sanders’s advisers have said that Saturday’s debate — even at a late hour Saturday night — was a key chance for him to make his case to a national audience.
In fact, they told the New York Times that Sanders was ready to talk about Clinton’s handling of her e-mails — the very question Sanders had dismissed out of hand last time.
But only, they said, if a moderator asked Sanders about it. He wasn’t actually willing to bring up the criticism himself.