Clinton, Sanders dominate conversation at Democratic debate


October 13, 2015

NEVADA, LAS VEGAS: Sen. Bernie Sanders said he would support a proposal to legalize recreational use of marijuana, saying he wanted to reduce the number of people sent to jail for drug use or minor possession.

October 13, 2015

NEVADA, LAS VEGAS: Sen. Bernie Sanders said he would support a proposal to legalize recreational use of marijuana, saying he wanted to reduce the number of people sent to jail for drug use or minor possession.

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (L) and Hillary Clinton shake hands during a presidential debate sponsored by CNN and Facebook at Wynn Las Vegas on October 13, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Five Democratic presidential candidates are participating in the party's first presidential debate.© Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“I suspect I would vote yes,” Sanders said, when asked how he might vote in an upcoming referendum in Nevada, where Tuesday night’s first Democratic debate was held. “And I would vote yes, because I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed over non-violent offenses…We have to think through this war on drugs.”

His main Democratic rival, former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, was asked a similar question. Clinton was not ready to take a position.

“No,” she said, saying she wanted to study the results of legalization measures in Colorado and Oregon. “I think that we have an opportunity. . . to find out a lot more than we know today,” Clinton said.

Clinton appeared confident, but her attempts to describe past accomplishments often turned out oddly. She praised the U.S. effort to topple Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, but spent little time talking about the chaos that followed when Gaddafi was gone. To cast herself as tough on Wall Street, Clinton told a story of confronting bankers and telling them to “Cut it out”—a few months before a financial collapse that began with bad bets on Wall Street.

Sanders also appeared confident — even affable, by his own gruff standards — but fought with others about his record on gun control.

And the other three long shots looked like . . . long shots.

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 also spent much time complaining about how he’d been marginalized by the moderators.

And former Senator and Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee 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.

But throughout the debate, the conversation was dominated by the two front-runners.

Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas.

Asked to explain how she would be different than President Obama, Clinton cited her gender.

“I think that’s pretty obvious,” Clinton said, when asked during Tuesday night’s first Democratic presidential debate how her presidency would not be a “third term” for Obama. “I think being the first woman president would be quite a change.”

CNN’s Anderson 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. That was a contrast with Sen. Bernie Sanders, who said that his presidency would differ from Obama’s because he would bring about a “political revolution,” in which far more Americans would turn out to vote, and in which the balance of power was shifted sharply away from the rich.

But former senator James Webb (Va.), speaking after Sanders, questioned whether — even under a President Sanders — that kind of revolution was possible.

“Bernie, I don’t think the revolution’s gonna come. And I don’t think that the Congress is going to pay for a lot of this stuff,” Webb said.

Clinton sought to combat suggestions that she is too closely aligned with Wall Street banks by 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 naïve.”

As the five candidates onstage debated that issue, Chafee, who as a long shot could afford no 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.

Earlier, Clinton was questioned about her use of a private e-mail system while serving as secretary of state. Almost one hour into the debate, Clinton was asked about the e-mails, and about an arrangement uncovered by the House committee investigating the death of four Americans in an attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. 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 State—to conduct government business.

“It wasn’t the best choice,” Clinton said, before attacking the committee itself. She cited a statement made 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 is what they have attempted to do. And 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 CNN’s Anderson Cooper cautioned that it might be less well-received elsewhere. Cooper 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.

Earlier, Clinton offered a full defense of the U.S. military intervention in Libya, despite its end in chaos and the rise of Islamist militias, during the first Democratic debate of the 2016 election.

While Clinton was secretary of state, the U.S. united with other countries in an air campaign that ended with the fall of dictator Moammar Gaddafi, but then led to a breakdown of order, symbolized by the attack on an American diplomatic compound that left four Americans dead. Clinton called that intervention “smart power at its best.”

“We had our closest allies in Europe, burning up the phone lines [asking for military help]. We had the Arabs standing by our side, saying, ‘We want you to help us deal with Gaddafi.’ Our response, and I think that this is smart power at its best, is that we will not lead this,” but rather that America would help a coalition in which others took the lead, Clinton said. “We did not put one single American soldier on the ground in Libya.”

Clinton’s response focused heavily on the heady days after Gaddafi’s fall, and did not linger on the chaos since: The Libyan people had a free election, the first time since 1951, and you know what, they voted for moderates. … There was turmoil to be followed,” she said.

Soon after, Sanders was asked about his application for “conscientious objector” status during the Vietnam War, to avoid being drafted into the military.

“When I was a young man, I strongly opposed the war in Vietnam. Not the brave men like [Sen. James Webb] that fought in that war,” Sanders said, as Webb — a former Marine officer — stood nearby. Sanders said he was not a pacificist. “I happen to believe, from the bottom of my heart, that war should be the last resort . . . [but] I am prepared to take this country into war.”

Clinton, in her first debate since her loss in the 2008 presidential elections, used the candidate who beat her then as a job reference now—citing President Obama’s judgment as a testament to her skill on foreign policy.

“He asked me to be 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 said.

In the first half-hour of the first Democratic debate, the conversation focused on the two front-runners: the standout moments all involved Clinton or Sanders, either as the speakers or the targets of attacks.

O’Malley, trying desperately to stand out, had his most memorable moments criticizing Sanders for not doing enough to limit gun purchases. 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.

Clinton was sharply critical of rival Bernie Sanders on the subject of guns in the first Democratic debate, saying that Sanders had been on the wrong side of votes over background checks for gun buyers, and immunity for gun manufacturers.

Asked by CNN moderator Anderson Cooper if Sanders had been tough enough on guns. “No, not at all,” Clinton said.

“Sen. Sanders did vote five times against the Brady Bill,” which toughed 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, a senator from Vermont, 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 his, which has very little gun control. “Our job is to bring people together,” Sanders said. He tried to pivot the argument to the subject of health care, saying that he wanted to expand mental-health services to people might be suicidal or homicidal.

The top Democratic candidates for president began their first debate of the 2016 race in character, with Sanders (I-Vt.) listing a series of catastrophes and injustices that he said the country was facing—and front-runner Clinton stressing her years of work in public life.

“I’m the granddaughter of a factory worker, and the grandmother of a one year-old child,” Clinton said in her opening statement. She said that her intention was to help all children reach their potential: “I have spent a very long time, my entire adult life, looking for ways to even the odds, to help people have a chance to get ahead.”

But 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 was 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.”

Anderson then turned to Sanders, to ask if he could be elected while identifying as a “democratic socialist.”

“We’re gonna win, because we’re gonna explain what democratic socialism is,” Sanders said, saying that he wanted to replicate conditions seen in other industrialized countries, including free health care and paid family leave.

Clinton eventually stepped in, to offer a kind of 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 is our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism,” she said, which was a reference to Sanders’ statement that he was not a capitalist. “We would be making a big mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class” in the world, she said.

The debate was dominated by Clinton and Sanders.

For Webb, Chafee and O’Malley, the situation is a bit desperate. They are all polling below one 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.

Larry Lessig, a Harvard professor who has launched his own bid for president as a Democrat, was not invited to the debate. The rules stated that only candidates who scored a certain amount in TV network polls were allowed. Most of those polls don’t ask about Lessig, so he couldn’t meet the bar.

Lessig said he was considering a run as an independent, if this was how Democrats were going to treat him.

Courtesy: Washington Post