Hillary Clinton’s rivals questioned her commitment to tighter rules on guns, her hawkish foreign policy tendencies and even her age. None of that mattered.
The former Secretary of State batted away questions about her character and her policies during Saturday night’s debate near Manchester, N.H. In turn, she reminded Democrats why she has enjoyed months at the top of the polls: she’s a tough competitor, policy wonk and compelling messenger. Even when facing with stinging criticism, she kept her cool and returned as good as she got on the campus of Saint Anselm College.
“Secretary Clinton changes her position on this every election year it seems,” former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said, criticizing Clinton’s record on gun rights. Clinton had a rejoinder ready. “I applaud his record,” Clinton said, before adding: “I just wish he wouldn’t misrepresent mine.” She then noted that his follow-up criticism of her for ties to Wall Street rang hollow; as head of the Democratic Governors Association, O’Malley courted the same donors.
The three-hour sessions was yet the latest reminder that this Democratic primary season has been something of a farce, and why her rivals have made compelling cases that they, too, find the contest a sham. The policy questions, for the moment, are being run roughshod by Clinton’s personality and political machine.
Barring a major change in the campaign, Clinton stands to be the nominee of a party that remains deeply divided over the future of its policies on social program. Those fractures played out on national television, although no one was expecting record audiences on a Saturday night before Christmas. After all, these three-person debates lack the star power of Donald Trump or even a primetime weeknight audience, and this one came in the middle of the holidays. It’s tough to be politically engaged when neighbors are serving eggnog.
The long-term questions for Democrats, however, persist. There were divisions among the three remaining contenders that reflect the broader debate happening inside the party. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders wants free college, while Clinton wants new college graduates to earn their degrees without piles of debt. Sanders suggested Clinton was too eager to topple enemy regimes, while she pitched him as naïve. And O’Malley tried and tried and tried to land a punch against Clinton, but she dodged him at every swing and only emerged a more likely nominee.
“Now this is getting to be fun,” Sanders said.
In one sharp-tongued but high-minded exchange between Clinton and Sanders, the candidates essentially debated the vision and legacy of the Democratic Party, with Sanders calling for large new government programs and Clinton repeating her pledge for no tax increases on the middle class.
“I don’t think that we should be imposing new big programs that are going to be raising middle class families taxes,” Clinton said, repeating a promise not to raise taxes on families making under $250,000 a year.
Sanders, meanwhile, urged for a single-payer socialized healthcare system and tuition-free college, large budget items that would cost trillions of dollars but that the Senator said would help middle-class families. Clinton, he said, was breaking with her party’s legacy. “She is disagreeing with FDR on Social Security, LBJ on Medicare and the vast majority of Democrats in the U.S. Senate.”
Clinton initiated none of the squabbles with fellow Democrats, but that didn’t mean she let her rivals go unanswered. Several times, she laughed at them before calmly explaining why they were, in her view, off-base.
In another major clash, Sanders and Clinton differed on the United States’ adventurism abroad, reflecting different wings of their party. The Vermont senator spoke for the less hawkish wing of the party by attacking Clinton for her vote in favor of the Iraq War and saying the United States should focus on defeating ISIS, not removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“I worry too much that Secretary Clinton is too much into regime change and a little bit too aggressive without knowing what the unintended consequences might be,” Sanders said.
Sanders and O’Malley offered some of the sharpest criticism the former Secretary of State has yet faced. Yet she parried all comers, without losing her composure or committing major errors. Instead, their criticism of her came off looking ham-handed. Some of the criticism even earned her rivals boos from the audience of 1,000 New Hampshire voters. Most memorably, O’Malley tried to note of the age of both Clinton and Sanders. “Can I offer a different generation’s perspective?” O’Malley said. Later he added, “We need new leadership.”
The debate began with perhaps the biggest controversy of the Democratic primary so far. Sanders began the debate on the defensive over his campaign’s improper access to Clinton’s voter database. Sanders apologized to rival Clinton and sought to move past the drama that roiled their party for the last three days. “Yes. I apologize,” Sanders said. “Not only do I apologize to Secretary Clinton. I want to apologize to my supporters. This is not the type of campaign that we run.” It’s tough to run as a new kind of politician when scandal clouds that pitch.
Sanders, however, continued to blame the Democratic National Committee and its data contractor. “There was a breach because the DNC vendor screwed up,” Sanders said. The DNC, in turn, cut off Sanders’ access to the data temporarily, essentially hobbling his campaign for a day as his aides sought to figure out—and then explain—why Sanders’ data director was poking around inside Clinton’s proprietary databases on voters.
The DNC move, however, was greeted with outrage from Sanders supporters. For them, it was yet another piece of evidence that the Democratic Party’s most Establishment-minded leaders are not-so-subtly pulling for Clinton as the nominee.
For her part, Clinton accepted Sanders’ apology. “Obviously, we were distressed when we learned of it,” Clinton said, pointing to “tens of thousands of volunteers” who have worked to enter data.
She then returned a favor to Sanders, who famously used his first debate with Clinton to shut down questions about her use of a private email server earlier this year. “We should move on because I don’t think the American people are all that interested in this,” she said. After all, she is more than ready to start running against the eventual Republican nominee and be done with her challengers for the Democratic nod.
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