The fifth debate for Democratic presidential candidates is under way in Durham, New Hampshire. The participants are former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The event, the last Democratic debate before the state’s primary on Feb. 9, is hosted by the University of New Hampshire.
Even before closing statements, the biggest applause of the night came when Sanders answered a question on whether he’d choose Clinton as his running mate by instead talking about the other side of the presidential field.
“On our worst days, we are 100 times better than any Republican candidate,” he said.
Clinton had answered the same question by saying she didn’t want to get ahead of herself, but that Sanders would be her first call to talk about uniting the party if she secures the nomination.
In her closing, Clinton asked New Hampshire voters “to bring both your heart and your head to vote with you on Tuesday.” She acknowledged Sanders’ platform of economic inequality, but again raised the problems of discrimination by race and sexual orientation as being equally critical to address.
“Yes, we have income inequality, we have other forms of inequality we have to stand up against,” Clinton said.
Sanders talked about his late father coming to America from Poland with no money, and how “it would he beyond his wildest dreams” to see his son running for president.
He then launched into his stump speech on America being the “only major country on Earth” that doesn’t guarantee health care and that it has the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country.
“I believe it is just too late for establishment politics and establishment economics,” he said.
The candidates briefly tangled on trade. Sanders tried to strike a contrast with Clinton, who supported the Obama administration’s recent Trans-Pacific Partnership, which organized labor opposed with the argument that it would move too many jobs overseas.
After the final commercial break of the night, Clinton said she didn’t want to settle for one or two main initiatives during the start of her presidency, should she be elected. She rattled off issues that included building more solar panels, passing paid family leave measures and immigration reform.
“We put it out there and we begin to work on an ambitious big, bold agenda,” Clinton said.
Sanders said he would prioritize immigration reform, but that campaign finance reform also would be high on his list, and that his Supreme Court nominees would need to be on board.
“No nominee of mine if I am elected president . . . will get that nomination unless he or she is loud and clear and say they will vote to overturn Citizens United,” he said.
Clinton said she still supported the death penalty, but that the Supreme Court should set standards that must be used by states: “I deeply disagree with the way that too many states are still implementing it.”
Sanders, though, was unequivocal: “I just don’t want to see government be a part of killing, that’s all.”
On the water quality crisis in Flint, Michigan, both candidates came down harshly on the state response.
“We are talking about children being poisoned,” Sanders said, calling it one of the most significant public health crises in years.
“This is an emergency,” Clinton said, adding that the federal government should step in because the state has not done enough.
“I absolutely believe what is being done is not sufficient,” she said.
Clinton again dismissed the controversy over her use of a private email server while secretary of state as a witch hunt by Republicans, similar to what she withstood during the Benghazi hearings. She said she was “100 percent confident” that nothing would come of the federal review of her email use.
Sanders, again, did not take the moderators’ bait to open up a new attack front on Clinton. He had notably dismissed the controversy during an earlier Democratic debate.
“There is not a day that goes by when I am asked to attack her on that issue and I have refrained,” Sanders said.
He then defended himself on accusations that his campaign staff had engaged in misleading tactics, most recently with the release of an ad that may have implied endorsements from newspapers that had not formally backed him.
Asked if she wanted 30 seconds to speak on that issue, Clinton — mirroring Sanders’ declining to criticize her on emails — simply said, “No.”
On the question of veterans’ issues, Clinton and Sanders probably found their easiest agreement of the night. Both said, flatly, that would not seek to privatize the much-criticized Department of Veterans Affairs.
The moderators then moved onto issues of electability. Sanders was asked whether his position on the far left could result in a Republican rout in November.
“A battleground state had me defeating Trump by 19, the secretary by one,” Sanders noted of a recent New Hampshire poll.
He said his campaign has generated the most excitement, and would likely bring the largest turnout.
“I believe if you want to retain the White House, if you want to see Democrats do well across the board, I think our campaign is the one that creates the large voter turnout and helps us win,” Sanders said.
But Clinton said that she was the candidate who had the experience to withstand the onslaught of attacks in a general election. “I believe I am the strongest candidate to take it to the Republicans and win in November,” Clinton said.
During the foreign policy debate, Clinton put Sanders on the defensive for suggesting that steps be taken to normalize relations with Iran.
“We have to figure out how to deal with Iran as the principal state sponsor of terrorism in the world,” Clinton said, noting the recent agreement with the country that limits Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons.
Sanders said he never suggested immediately normalizing relations with Iran: “But I would like to see us move forward and hopefully someday that will happen.”
The two candidates then moved to assessing the largest national security threats to the country. Sanders highlighted North Korea because of its isolation, while Clinton said the country’s nuclear weapons capability was worrisome.
But she said that Russia’s “constant pressure on our European allies” was a cause for concern, as the Obama administration recently suggested.
“We’ve have to send a very clear message to Putin, this kind of belligerence, this kind of testing of boundaries, will be responded to.”
Sanders said he wouldn’t immediately withdraw all U.S. troops in the Middle East, but repeated his resistance to drawing additional ground forces into the various conflicts there.
“The combat on the ground must be done by Muslim troops with our support,” he said. “We must not get involved in perpetual warfare in the Middle East.”
Clinton came back to her experience in the Obama administration and knowledge of the areas. “We have to build coalitions,” she said.
After Sanders defended his lack of expansive foreign policy speeches so far, Clinton criticized his naivete, noting his “inviting Iranian troops into Syria,” and “asking Saudi Arabia and Iran to work together, when they hate each other.”
“Questions have been raised and questions have to be answered,” Clinton said. “I think this is a . . . job interview we are conducting.”
Sanders assailed the tax “loopholes” that allow the largest corporations to shield profits in offshore accounts. He said he’d work to close the loopholes and “we’re going to use that money to rebuild our infrastructure.”
“Can I work with corporations, are there good corporations? . . . Absolutely,” he said. “On the other hand, there are many corporations who have turned their back on the American workers.”
The moderators then turned to foreign policy, with Clinton defending the Obama administration’s escalation of troops to fight the Islamic State group, though saying she’s specifically against added combat troops on the ground.
“Given the threat that ISIS poses to the region and beyond . . . it is important to keep the Iraqi army on a path where they can take back territory. . . . They’re doing the fighting; we’re doing the support and enabling.”
Sanders followed her by saying she agreed with much of Clinton’s plan, but quickly noted his vote against the Iraq War, which he has consistently held against Clinton for her vote in support of it.
Clinton again was forced to defend herself on her paid speeches to Goldman Sachs when a questioner asked her to release the transcripts of those appearances. She replied that she “would look into it.”
“I spoke to a lot of different groups,” Clinton said, noting the broader topics of her speeches. “I probably described more times than I can remember how stressful it was advising the president going after bin Laden.”
“My view on this is ‘Look at my record, look at what I am proposing,’ ” Clinton said.
Sanders didn’t pile onto the question, instead transitioning to the “weak regulatory system” and the need to break up the largest financial institutions to avoid another bailout.
“The business model of Wall Street is fraud,” he said.
Moderator Chuck Todd asked Sanders why, if he is such a critic of corporate influences on elections and super PAC spending, he wasn’t participating in a public campaign financing option for presidential candidates.
“Nobody can become president based on that system,” Sanders said, calling it antiquated.
Maddow asked Clinton about the speaking fees she amassed from financial institutions for speeches in recent years.
“I think I may not have done the job I should in explaining my record,” Clinton said, noting the wide range of organizations she addressed, including summer camp operators as well as banks. She added that big banks are actually working against her in the presidential campaign.
“I will be the person who prevents them from ever wrecking the economy again,” Clinton said.
Part of the crowd booed when Clinton called Sanders’ attacks on her ties to Wall Street and her acceptance of large speaking fees from financial institutions following her term as secretary of state “an artful smear.”
She urged Sanders to “talk about the issues.”
“If you’ve got something to say, say it directly,” Clinton said.
Sanders responded with his angriest words of the night, rattling off his frequent criticisms of the economic system and the influence of corporate interests.
“There is a reason why these people are putting huge amounts of money into our political system,” Sanders said.
When the debate on the issue wound down, commentator Rachel Maddow quipped, “obviously we’ve touched a nerve.”
Sanders’ defended his history of running against Democrats as a third-party candidate by highlighting his caucusing with Democrats. Still, he noted that the party needed to better respond to people with economic concerns.
“Let me be frank, I want to see major changes in the Democratic Party, I want to see working people and young people come into the party in a way that doesn’t exist now,” he said.
He tried to turn Clinton’s support by most Democratic governors and senators as a criticism of being part of “the establishment.”
Clinton responded forcefully.
“Honestly, Senator Sanders is the only person who would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment,” Clinton said. “It is really quite amusing to me.”
She pivoted to what she called Sanders’ lack of details about how he would accomplish and fund aspirational proposals like a single-payer health care system.
Clinton brushed off attacks that she isn’t progressive enough: “A progressive is someone who makes progress,” she said.
She suggested that, by Sanders’ assessment, neither President Barack Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden would be considered progressives based on particular votes they’ve taken in the past.
“I don’t think it was progressive to vote against the Brady Bill,” Clinton said, attacking Sanders’ record on gun control.
Sanders, however, said he believed that Obama was “a progressive” who has done a good job. He added that Democrats who have criticized some of Sanders’ plans as far-fetched were not striving high enough, noting that public funding for higher education and increased infrastructure spending were things worth fighting for.
“What we have got to do is wage a political revolution,” Sanders said.
In their opening statements, each candidate repeated their respective campaign rallying cries.
“Millions of Americans are giving up on the political process, because they understand the economy is rigged,” Sanders said, waving his finger upward. “Almost all income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent.”
He assailed “unlimited” corporate spending on political campaigns as a “corrupt campaign finance system.”
Clinton also used the term “rigged” to refer to the economy, but quickly pivoted to issues of race and equality, which she has tried to claim as her own. She specifically noted improving protections for the LGBT community.
“I’m not making promises that I cannot keep,” Clinton said, a reference to ambitious spending and health care proposals from Sanders.