Last Democrat Debate 2016

Image courtesy of NBC News

Democratic Candidates Spar in Charleston

| published January 18, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

With only two weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses, Democratic candidates for President met for a debate hosted by NBC News and moderated by NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt and NBC national correspondent Andrea Mitchell.

With front-runner and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders locked in a head-to-head fight for every vote in Iowa, and with former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley fighting to remain viable in a race which has become dominated by the two top tier candidates, all three Democrats had much to gain from a debate at time marked by rapid-fire exchanges, heavy offense and defense, and attempts to make sharp distinctions between their varying positions.

Though there were occasional points on which all three Democrats found general agreement, those brief periods of collaboration and détente rarely lasted for more than a single round. Right out of the starting gate, all three candidates sparred intensely over gun control in front of a South Carolina audience made up of residents of a state where—as NBC’s Lester Holt pointed out—many Democrats likely own guns, either for protection, for recreation, or for hunting.

The gun discussion not only turned heated, but also came early for Bernie Sanders—the one candidate with a more flexible position in favor of keeping guns legal. Sanders has been frequently criticized by his fellow Democrats for his somewhat aberrant views on gun ownership; though he favors background checks and has said he wants federal legislation to close the so-called Gun Show loopholes, Sanders does not favor placing major restrictions on gun ownership by average civilians. O’Malley and Clinton favor much stricter forms of gun control. None of the three candidates are in favor of civilians purchasing high powered automatic weapons.

The debate about guns eventually brought about a discussion about gun violence, which led logically to questions of crime—especially when Holt asked about the growing perception in communities across the country that police departments often do not reflect the demographic makeup of the communities where they patrol the streets and enforce the law. A majority of officers in many police departments are white (or non-African American) in many cities and towns where the majority of the population is black. All candidates on stage lamented this state of affairs, but Sanders especially stressed that a national effort should be made to help police department reflect the demographics of their respective communities.

Clinton and Sanders—tied in Iowa and now closely tied in several other states—are each vying for the allegiance of progressives within the party. Holt said that although Sanders has become extremely popular with younger Democrats—pulling in some 60% or more of support from voters under the age of 30—Clinton remains the favorite of many other traditional Democratic constituents. When Holt pointed out that the Congressional Black Caucus endorsed Clinton over Sanders, and added that Sanders has a polling problem with minorities, Sanders seized the opportunity to retort that his campaign came from a position of only 3% in the early polls last year to a position of challenging Clinton very closely both nationally and in Iowa and New Hampshire.

All three candidates sparred bitterly over health care and the future of Obamacare as well. Clinton and Sanders both highlighted their records of supporting health care for everyone. Clinton accused Sanders of crafting a plan that would tear up Obamacare and force the political debate over health care to return to square one, a process which she believes could take years. Sanders testily said that he has no intention of gutting the Affordable Care Act, and angrily retorted that he was one of the bill’s original authors. Sanders—who has said he supports Medicare for all—said that the root of the problem is found in a lack of campaign finance reform and massive spending by health care corporations and pharmaceutical companies. Sanders has proposed a more comprehensive form of medical coverage which he said will no doubt be unpopular with many businesses and employers.

This was a theme Sanders returned to frequently during the debate. At one point, he challenged Clinton’s self-appointed role as the leader of the progressive movement of the party by reminding viewers of her links to Wall Street investment houses and big banks.

“The first difference,” Sanders said, “is that I don’t take money from big banks. I don’t get personal speaking fees from Goldman-Sachs.” The barb was a reference to the Clintons’ frequent high-value, big-ticket speaking fees, and what Sanders has frequently alluded to as Clinton’s biggest weakness—a general coziness with the big money movers and shakers on Wall Street and among the big banks. Sanders dig sparked some applause and cheers, but also triggered a few audible boos from Clinton backers in the hall. But Sanders went further, making a case for breaking up some of the largest banks and financial institutions.

“What I would do is understand that when you have three out of the four largest banks today [even] bigger than they were when we bailed them out—because they were ‘too big to fail’—it is very clear to me what you have to do,” Sanders said. “you’ve got to bring back a 21st century Glass-Steagall legislation, and you’ve got to break up these huge financial institutions.”

Sanders point: Hillary Clinton, because of the kind of donors she is most comfortable taking money from, will not have the political leeway to make such changes.

This brought on more arguing about financial regulations, Wall Street checks and balances, and campaign spending. Sanders also suggested that politics and Wall Street have become too intertwined, even co-dependent. Sanders said he does not take money from banks or financial institutions. This sparked an even more intense donnybrook over who among the candidates would more aggressively go after banks, mortgage lenders, big investment firms, lenders, and so-called shadow banks.

“Goldman Sachs,” he pointed out, “has given this country two secretaries of the treasury—one by the Republicans, one by the Democrats.” Sanders followed up by reminding Clinton that she had, in the past, received some $600,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs.

But Clinton was having none of it. She fired back at Sanders, reminding voters that of the two, it was Sanders who had voted along with others in 2000 to deregulate financial markets, “taking the cops off the street” and in effect limiting the ability of the SEC and federal commodity regulators to keep an eye on various devices, such as “credit default swaps” and derivatives “which were one of the main causes of the collapse in 2008.”

The intensity of the sparring seemed to swell at times past the ability of Holt and Mitchell to maintain order. At some times, all three candidates were talking at once, even as the moderators sought to interject or maintain decorum, and even as members of the audience hooted, cheered, booed or yelled.

O’Malley fought hard to inject his comments into many of the questions and discussions, but the back and forth between Sanders and Clinton soon overshadowed the central fact that there were three candidates on the stage—not merely two. Holt did an admirable job under the circumstances keeping things on track, but the debate still went over budget in time by the conclusion of the final remarks.

All three candidates also stressed their ability to work with Republicans to craft legislation on health care. But Sanders again reminded those in the audience and those watching on television that he felt the problem was not differences between Democrats and Republicans, but the inability of either party to move away from the power and influence exerted by lobbyists, large corporations and big money. Even sparring with O’Malley, Sanders continued to stress the influence of millionaires and billionaires on the political system. O’Malley said he agreed with Sanders on this point, but in one comment Sanders said he was calling for “a political revolution.”

When the issue of technology, the environment and climate change came up, there was general agreement on the stage. Sanders said that the GOP “is so owned by the fossil fuel industry” that it cannot even acknowledge climate change or use the words “global warming.” O’Malley challenged the other candidates on the stage to bring the country to a point of total green energy by the year 2050.

The sharpest barb came when Mitchell challenged Sanders on a statement he had made days earlier in which—in response to a question at a campaign event—he had declared President Bill Clinton’s “totally, totally, totally disgraceful and unacceptable.” Sanders sought to redirect the debate question onto higher ground by complaining that he faces temptations to take the low road and engage in negative campaigning every day, but he resists this in favor of sticking to the issues. “That question annoys me,” Sanders said.

But when Mitchell tried to pin him down on his opinion of Bill Clinton regarding his alleged sexual affairs while serving as President, Sanders took one parting shot at the former president for his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

“Yes, his behavior was deplorable,” Sanders said, but “have I ever once said a word about that issue? I have not!”

Related Thursday Review articles:

Bloomberg Weighing Third Party Chances; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; January 11, 2016.

Democrats Debate ISIS, Iraq, Syria, and Wall Street; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; November 16, 2015.