Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton clashed sharply on Tuesday over which presidential candidate has the tougher plan to rein in the excesses of Wall Street, putting financial reform at the center of a lively and, at times, impassioned first Democratic debate.
“My plan is more comprehensive and frankly it's tougher,” Clinton said, referring to Wall Street reform proposals offered by Sanders.
Sanders quickly responded: “Not true.”
In the course of the two-hour debate among five rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, Clinton contended that shadow banking is the next area of potential concern and that “you may be missing the forest for the trees” by targeting big banks, as Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley have urged. Her administration would not only give regulators authority to go after big banks, they may also pursue “sending the executives to jail” if needed, she said.
Sanders said the 2016 presidential election is about “whether we can mobilize our people to take back our government from a handful of billionaires” and said Americans will vote for a democratic socialist—how he describes himself—if they understand what it means and that he is not part of the “casino capitalist process.”
The Vermont senator added that billionaire Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and his wealthy friends will “pay a hell of a lot more” in taxes if he is president and called Wall Street a place “where fraud is a business model.” He called out a former treasury secretary to elaborate on the point. “You know what I said to Hank Paulson?” he said. “I said, 'Hank, your guys, you come from Goldman Sachs, your millionaire and billionaire friends caused this problem. How about your millionaire and billionaire friends pay for this bailout?'”
Clinton and her chief rival offered competing cases for why they can fulfill Americans' appetite for change and outsider candidates, with Clinton emphasizing the desire to make history and Sanders saying he can lead a political revolution against Wall Street and the establishment.
“I can't think of anything more of an outsider than electing the first woman president, but I'm not just running because I would be the first woman president,” Clinton said. “I know what it takes to get things done,” she said. “I know how to find common ground and I know how to stand my ground and I think we're going to need both of those in Washington to get anything that we're talking about up here accomplished.”
Sanders said “there is profound frustration all over this country with establishment politics. I am the only candidate running for president who's not a billionaire who has raised substantial sums of money and I do not have a super-PAC. I am not raising money from millionaires and billionaires.”
Between clashes over policy, there was also a moment of camaraderie between the former secretary of state and the senator, as Sanders sided with Clinton over the scrutiny of the private e-mail account she used while at the State Department. “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails,” he said. Clinton responded by extending her hand toward Sanders, who grabbed it and shook it.
Under fire from the first moments of the debate, Clinton volleyed the attacks energetically. She frequently alluded to her history-making ambition of becoming the nation's “first woman president” and emphasized her own extensive résumé.
“I am certainly not running for president because my last name in Clinton,” said the wife of the nation's 42nd president, Bill Clinton.
Responding to a question about charges that she’s a flip-flopper, Clinton maintained that she has “been very consistent over the course of my life” in her positions but that she does “absorb new information—I do look at what’s happening in the world.” One of her most recent shifts came last week when she voiced her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for which she’d helped lay the groundwork while serving in the Obama administration. When she was secretary of state, “I did say that I hoped it would be the gold standard,” she said. The deal announced last week “did not meet my standards,” she added.
During the debate, Clinton repeatedly praised President Barack Obama and sought to associate herself with his agenda, calling him a “great moral leader” on criminal justice reform and backing his policies on climate change and the financial reform law. It may be a clever strategy as Obama is immensely popular with Democrats—83 percent approve of his job performance; just 10 percent disapprove in a recent CBS News poll. It is also notable given that Senate Democrats facing reelection in 2014—many campaigning in red states—actively steered clear of Obama.
Asked about her upcoming testimony before a House committee that was formed to investigate 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the death of an American ambassador but has begun to focus on Clinton's use of a private e-mail server, the former secretary of state call it “basically an arm of the Republican National Committee” that was designed to disrupt her campaign. “I'm still standing,” she said to applause from the partisan audience.
Along with Sanders, O'Malley, who has at times been sharply critical of Clinton, also downplayed the e-mail controversy, saying “we don't have to be defined” by it when there are other issues to discuss.
Only former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, who began the night noting that his public career has been scandal-free, disagreed, saying that there is “an issue of American credibility” and that “I think we need someone that has the best ethical standards” in the next president.
Clinton suggested she's looking forward to her Oct. 22 appearance before her House inquisitors. “I'll be there; I'll answer their questions,” Clinton said. “I never said it wasn't legitimate,” Clinton said, when moderator Anderson Cooper noted there was an FBI investigation into the e-mails and that Obama has raised concerns. “I said that I have answered all the questions.”
One of the most marked differences among the candidates came during a lengthy discussion about foreign policy. Clinton defended her foreign policy acumen in light of her vote, as a senator, for the Iraq war, accusing rivals of “loose talk” and saying her support of a no-fly zone in Syria is a way to give the U.S. leverage against Russia.
She said if Obama doubted her judgment he would not have made her his first secretary of state. “He valued my judgment,” she said, adding that she spent a lot of time in the Situation Room.
Sanders and Chafee said Clinton's support of the invasion of Iraq as a U.S. senator reflects on her judgment. It's an indication of “how someone will perform in the future,” Chafee said. O'Malley, asked whether Clinton was too quick to take military action, said “I would not be so quick” to support a no-fly zone in Syria, and called it a “mistake.”
Gun control may be the one issue on which Clinton can damage Sanders with the left, and she made the most of it. Asked if the Vermont senator is tough enough on guns, Clinton's answer was swift.
“No. Not at all,” she said.
Clinton argued that mass killings have “gone on too long and it's time the entire country stood up against the” National Rifle Association. She attacked Sanders for voting against the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act and to shield gun manufacturers and dealers from liability if their firearms are used criminally.
“He was going to give immunity to the only industry in America—everybody else has to be accountable, but not the gun manufacturers,” she said.
Sanders noted that he has supports a ban on assault weapons and instant background checks, but noted that views on guns are different in his rural state of Vermont. “All the shouting in the world” won't keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them, he said.
He said gun laws would only pass “when we develop that consensus.”
Sanders reiterated that he's willing to “take another look at” at his 2005 vote to shield gun makers and dealers, a measure that Clinton, then a U.S. senator from New York, noted that she voted against that bill.
O'Malley, who enacted gun control as governor of Maryland, also attacked Sanders over his gun record and said he instead led “with principles, not by pandering to the NRA.”
Sanders defended his vote in 2007 to kill a comprehensive immigration reform bill, backed by then-President George W. Bush, that included a pathway to citizenship. How can Hispanics trust him, the questioner asked, when “you left them at the altar”?
“I didn't leave anybody at the altar,” Sanders said. “I voted against that piece of legislation because it had guest-worker provisions in it which the Southern Poverty Law Center talked about being semi-slavery. Guest workers are coming in, they're working under terrible conditions, but if they stand up for their rights, they're thrown out of the country.”
At the time, Clinton voted for that legislation, which failed. In 2013, Sanders voted for a comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate but died in the House. “We need a path toward citizenship, we need to take people out of the shadows,” he said. Clinton chimed in and took aim at Republican presidential candidates for harsh rhetoric against immigrants.
The debate, hosted by CNN and Facebook, was shorter and more manageable than the two Republican debates that have been held so far, which have featured a field of candidates more than three times as large that had to be divided into two separate time slots.
As top performer in polls, Clinton had the center spot on stage at the Wynn hotel and casino. She was flanked by Sanders and O'Malley, with former Virginia Senator Jim Webb and Chafee on the wings. Sanders had done some ideological tacking in the days leading up to the debate to bring his position on guns closer in line with that of his party's mostly pro-gun control constituency.
Clinton began preparing for the debate in early August. Her mock sessions have been led by Ron Klain, a former Biden chief of staff who remains close to the vice president and who helped prepare Obama for general election debates against Mitt Romney in 2012. Washington attorney Bob Barnett, who is Clinton's book lawyer and has been involved in Democratic presidential debate teams since 1976, played Sanders. Clinton policy adviser Jake Sullivan, a former Biden national security adviser, played O'Malley. Clinton did not prepare as intensively for Webb, Chafee, or Biden.
Clinton had led Democrats in fundraising this year. But in the third quarter, Sanders came much closer to Clinton than expected, raising $26 million to her $28 million, according to figures that both candidates have made public. Third quarter campaign finance reports from all of the presidential campaigns are due at the Federal Election Commission on Thursday. In Iowa, where the first ballots of the 2016 contest will be cast in Feb. 1 caucuses, Clinton leads the Democratic field in Iowa by 6.3 percentage points, according to an average of recent polls in the first caucus state tracked by Real Clear Politics. Sanders leads the field in New Hampshire by 9.2 percentage points in the latest RCP average of polls from the first primary state.