The Democratic presidential debate in Milwaukee with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has ended. It is the sixth debate for the Democrats and the first since Sanders’ victory in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday. It aired on PBS and CNN.
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Clinton used her closing statement to try to reframe the Democratic campaign. She sought to paint Sanders as a one-note candidate.
“I am not a single-issue candidate and I don’t believe we live in a single-issue country,” Clinton said.
She then rattled off support for unions and families in Flint, Michigan, dealing with contaminated water. She agreed what Wall Street, big companies and pharmaceuticals had too much influence in Washington, but that wasn’t the only issue facing Americans.
“If you were to stop that tomorrow,” Clinton said, you would still have “negligence,” Flint, racism and sexism, bias against gays and lesbians, and, in a Wisconsin reference, “governors like Scott Walker trying to rip out the heart of the middle class” by destroying unions.
Sanders returned to his usual themes of Wall Street, the “rigged economy” and the campaign finance system. He said if Americans stood united behind his campaign, he could topple the status quo.
This campaign, Sanders said, is about a “political revolution.”
A viewer, coincidentally following up on an earlier question, asked Sanders to name two leaders who have influenced his foreign policy views.
Sanders named Franklin D. Roosevelt, who he said “redefined the role of government.”
“That’s what I see our campaign is about: Don’t give up on the political process,” Sanders said. “Don’t let the Trumps of the world divide us.”
He also named Winston Churchill.
“Nobody can guy that as a war time leader he stood virtually alone in rallying the British people” against Nazi Germany, Sanders said.
Clinton named FDR and former South African President Nelson Mandela.
But she then segued into highlighting Sanders’ criticism of Obama as “weak” — obviously an attempt to woo Obama supporters to her and sparking one of the most heated moments of the night.
“I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves for getting us out” of the 2008 recession, Clinton said. She said Sanders’ remarks were more of what she expect from a Republican candidate.
Drawing out each word of his response, Sanders said: “That is a low blow.”
He said he worked on many issues with the president, but he had the right to disagree with Obama, even if they were friends.
“I think it is really unfair to suggest I have not been supportive,” “Have you ever disagreed, with a president, I’m sure you have.”
“Calling the president weak. Calling him disappointment. Saying he should have a primary opponent in 2012 . . . I find particularly troubling,” Clinton said.
“One of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate,” Sanders concluded.
Sanders criticized Clinton for saying one of the foreign policy advisers she listened to was Henry Kissinger of the Nixon-era. He called Kissinger “one of the most destructive” American officials in history because of his support of the Vietnam War, the bombing of Cambodia and the overthrow of other governments.
Clinton defended her stance, saying she listened to a wide array of opinions. She said journalists have asked Sanders who he listens to and he hasn’t answered.
“Well, it ain’t Henry Kissinger,” Sanders said.
Putting aside Vietnam, Clinton cited Kissinger’s work in opening relations with China.
A discussion on foreign policy began with a question to Clinton about whether Americans were safe today.
“I think we are readier than we used to be, but it’s a constant effort,” Clinton said. “We have made a lot of improvements in our domestic security since 9/11 . . . but we see the attack in San Bernardino and realize” there’s more to be done.
“And we have to take on ISIS online,” Clinton said, calling the terrorist group a persistent propagandist and a “celebrator of violence.”
She said working with friendly Muslim governments and protecting American Muslims would be part of forming a coalition.
But she added: “When someone like Donald Trump stirs up the demagoguery against American Muslims, that hurts us at home and overseas . . . when a leading candidate for president of the United States insults their religion.”
Sanders segued into one of his criticisms of Clinton: her vote in 2002 to approve invading Iraq.
Sanders said he opposed it “because I didn’t believe” then-President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. He said another disagreement with Clinton centered on “regime change.” He said it’s “easy to overthrow a dictator,” but there has to be a plan for what comes next.
“This is nothing new. This has gone 50 or 60 years, where the United States has been involved in overthrowing governments,” to ill effect, Sanders said. “As president, I will look very carefully at unintended consequences.”
Clinton fired back, saying a “vote in 2002” to oppose the Iraq invasion “isn’t a plan in 2016” to fight ISIS.
Clinton sought to fight Sanders’ insinuation that because she received Wall Street donations and had a“Super PAC” (big spending, independent political-action committees) helping her, she couldn’t be independent.
Obama, Clinton said, “was the largest recipient of Wall Street contributions of any one on the Democratic side ever. But he stood up to them” after the 2008 stock market meltdown.
Clinton said she would “take on any vested interest” and help average Americans.
Sanders returned to one of his campaign themes.
“Let’s not insult the intelligence of the American people,” Sanders said, asking: Why does Wall Street give so much in political contributions.
“I guess for the fun of it. They just want to throw money around,” he said, drawing laughs. He also singled out pharmaceutical companies and the fossil-fuel industry for influencing policies through massive political contributions.
Sanders said overhauling the campaign-finance system to limit big donors’ influence was the first step toward enacting better policies for average citizens.
Both said they would want to expand Social Security benefits, though in different ways.
“You don’t judge a nation by how many millionaires and billionaires” it has, Sanders said, “but in how we treat the most vulnerable, fragile people and by those standards, we’re not doing too well.”
Sanders he would lift the cap on taxable incomes in regard to Social Security to cover an expansion.
“Yes, the wealthy, the top 1.5 percent, would pay more in taxes,” but seniors and disabled veterans would receive more Social Security benefits, he said.
Clinton said rather to spread benefits to everyone, she would “prioritize those that need help most,” such as low-income seniors and widows.
“We have no disagreement about the need to buttress Social Security,” Clinton said.
Both Democrats said they supported “comprehensive” immigration reform that would provide a “path toward citizenship” for the estimated 11 million undocumented workers currently in the country — a contrast to some Republicans who have called for deporting them.
“If Congress doesn’t do the right thing, we will use the executive power” to create a path, Sanders said.
“We should be deporting criminals, not hard-working families,” Clinton said. “Hopefully after the elections, some Republicans will come to their senses and realize we are not going to deport 11 million people” who are already here.
Clinton criticized Sanders for voting against a 2007 immigration reform bill. The Vermont senator said he opposed the 2007 immigration “guest worker” proposal because it opened the door to exploitation of workers, adding that some watchdogs said it would impose working conditions “akin to slavery.”
Sanders said race was a part of the poverty issue, but contended it was a “general economic issue.” He said factory jobs, which provided middle-class status for so many, are now gone.
“What do you have now? A job at McDonald’s?” Sanders said. “That’s why there is massive despair.”
He said working-class families of any race or ethnicity were hurting now.
Clinton said the nation should spend more money in communities saddled with “consistent, generational” poverty, whether white or black. She cited towns that were dependent on the coal industry for generations.
Continuing on race relations, Clinton was asked what she could accomplish that President Barack Obama, the United States’ first African-American president, couldn’t.
She took issue with the characterization, saying Obama brought about progress, especially in health care. She said “what he did was exemplify the importance of the issue.” She said in general, racism has been reduced over time.
“We are seeing the dark side of the remaining, systemic racism” in society, Clinton said. “We can’t rest. We have more work to do.”
Sanders said the 2008 economic downturn and growing power of major corporations hurt African-American communities more than others.
Prompted by a viewer question, the two Democrats criticized the fact that African-Americans have higher incarceration rates than whites and have been involved too often in deadly clashes with police.
“This is one of the great tragedies in our country today and we can no longer sweep it under the rug,” Sanders said.
“We have to end over-policing in African-American neighborhoods,” Sanders said. He said black and whites use marijuana in equal amounts, but that blacks were four times as likely to be arrested for it.
He called for “fundamental police reform,” saying local police departments should be “de-militarized.” He said in his first term he would drive down the number of people in jails and prisons.
Clinton contended she has been on this topic far longer than Sanders. She said solutions must be broader, including providing more educational and housing opportunities.
Clinton, earlier in the day, picked up the endorsement of the Black Congressional Caucus.
Clinton found herself on the defensive about losing the female vote to Sanders in New Hampshire. PBS moderators asked her if her appeal to be the first female president wasn’t resonating.
Clinton said she wanted to empower women even if they choose not to vote for her. But she said she hoped as the campaign continued, they would realize she has the most experience at accomplishing things, not just promising them.
Sanders contested the idea that his campaign would thwart history.
“Well, you know, from a historical viewpoint,” Sanders began, indirectly referring to his start as a socialist. “I think a Sanders victory would be a historical accomplishment as well.”
“I’m not asking people to support me” just because I’m a woman, Clinton shot back, “but because I am the most qualified to be commander in chief.”
Sanders said he had a “100 percent pro-choice record” and that he routinely carried the female vote in Vermont.
Sanders reiterated his plan to crack down on Wall Street and tax loopholes.
“I will do away with outrageous loopholes that allow companies to stash money away in the Cayman Islands” and other nations, Sanders said. “We will use that money to rebuild our infrastructure.”
“Wall Street . . . yeah, I do believe that after the American people bailed them out,” Sanders said, “Wall Street should pay a speculation tax,” which he said he would use to make public colleges tuition-free.
“That should be a right of all Americans, regardless of the incomes of their families,” Sanders said.
Clinton said, “Senator Sanders plan rests on” getting Republican governors – such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker — to spend billions of dollars per year to make colleges “tuition free.”
“I’m skeptical of that,” Clinton said.
Health sparked the first fight between the candidates.
Clinton went on the offensive, saying Sanders’ promises about enacting single-payer, universal health care “don’t add up.” She specifically cited his promise that a family would have to spend but $500 to get $5,000 in coverage.
“Every progressive economist who has studied that has said the numbers don’t add up,” Clinton. “We should level with the American people about what we can do” about affordable health insurance.
Sanders took issue with her analysis.
He said he believed in “health care as a right,” not a privilege.
Clinton said “many people would be worse off” under Sanders’ proposal.
Sanders called that “absolutely inaccurate.”
Clinton said the nation shouldn’t scrap Obamacare and get stuck in another long-running debate over health insurance.
“The last thing we need is to throw our country into a contentious debate about health care again. We are not England. We are not France. We inherited a system . . . built on insurance through employment.”
Clinton said she’d rather expand from the current system than “start all over again.” She said her plan would cost about $100 billion per year.
Sanders said costs for universal health care would be paid by higher taxes on the wealthy and big corporations.
“Every plan I have proposed would be paid for,” Sanders said.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont opened the Democratic presidential debate, saying his campaign has momentum because more voters are warming to his core message: that the economy and political systems are rigged for the rich.
“I think what our campaign is indicating is that the American people are tired of establishment politics, establishment economics,” Sanders said at the Milwaukee, forum. “They want a political revolution. . . . [They won’t] let the [Donald] Trumps of the world divided us. . . . We need a government that represents all of us, not just wealthy contributors.”
Hillary Clinton, who lost to Sanders in New Hampshire two days ago, agreed the “economy is rigged for those at the top.” But she sought to appeal to African-Americans and other minorities, who are largely seen as backing her.
Clinton said African-Americans are discriminated against in jobs, housing and education, and that immigration laws were dividing families.
“I believe America can only live up to its potential when every individual can live up to his or her potential,” Clinton said.
The debate came as stakes are increasing rapidly. Nevada holds its caucus Feb. 20 and South Carolina holds its primary Feb. 27. Then comes “Super Tuesday,” March 1, when 14 states and territories will hold Democratic caucuses or primaries.