Data Breach Takes Back Seat to Fights Over Foreign Policy and Finance in Democratic Debate
Foreign policy and domestic finance fueled the fiercest disagreements of the night Saturday, as the three Democrats running for president gathered for their third debate six days before Christmas and 24 hours after a data breach that appeared to set the stage for a melee in Manchester, New Hampshire.
But within the first 10 minutes of their nationally-televised encounter at Saint Anselm College, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders dispatched the controversy that had Clinton aides crying theft and Sanders aides crying sabotage the day before.
"I apologize," said Sanders of the staffer he fired for taking advantage of a computer glitch that allowed his campaign to access Clinton's voter files on a Democratic National Committee server. A day before, Sanders sued the DNC for penalizing him by denying him access to the data—access the DNC quickly restored.
"We should move on," said Clinton, taking a much more magnanimous approach than her senior staff, who called out the Sanders campaign for theft. "I don't think the American people are at all interested in this."
Instead, on a night when each of the candidates scored points but none appeared to have the kind of breakout moment that could reshuffle a race Clinton has dominated, the most heated disagreements came over more familiar topics. Democrats argued over the best ways to combat the Islamic State and disperse concentrated wealth, showing considerable passion over the wonkiest of topics.
"Now this is getting to be fun," Sanders deadpanned as he and Clinton talked over each other on college costs and taxes.
The most striking differences came over foreign policy. Clinton strongly endorsed action against Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Both Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley took exception, warning of what Sanders called the "unintended consequences" of dislodging dictators.
Sanders argued that the former secretary of state is "too much into regime change and a little bit too aggressive without knowing what the unintended consequences could be." O'Malley suggested that the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, which the U.S. supported while Clinton was secretary of state, has created a power vacuum that the Islamic State might end up filling.
The three also sparred over who will be tougher on Wall Street. "The greed of the billionaire class, the greed of Wall Street is destroying this economy and destroying this country," said Sanders, noting that he had opposed Bill Clinton's plans to deregulate banking. But Clinton struck back, noting that O'Malley "had no problems" raising money from Wall Street when he headed the Democratic Governors' Association, a political campaign committee.
Despite the intra-party sniping, Clinton and Sanders shared a joke and a warm moment as they walked out of the debate hall during the half-time commercial break. Clinton was slow getting back to her lectern after the break and the moderators started without her. "Sorry," she said, once she got to her spot. It wasn't the only time Clinton's role as a trailblazer for women was highlighted.
Towards the end of the debate, asked Clinton—the nation's first lady from 1993 until her husband, former President Bill Clinton, left the White House in 2000—whether it was time to change the role of a presidential spouse.
"I am probably still going to pick the flowers and the china for state dinners and stuff like that," Clinton said. "But I will certainly turn to him as prior presidents have for special missions, for advice, and in particular how we're going to get the economy working again for everybody, which he knows a little bit about."
The other two candidates were also asked about the role their wives would have, including whether they would work out of the West Wing, and Sanders paid tribute to Clinton for having revolutionized the role of first lady with her advocacy of policy issues such as health care.
The audience, largely made up of members of the Democratic establishment, most of them pro-Clinton, appeared to be enjoying the show. Even some Clinton backers were spotted applauding Sanders. But the audience gasped and "tsk-tsks" could be heard when O'Malley interrupted the 68-year-old Clinton and the 74-year-old Sanders to "offer a different generation's perspective." O'Malley is 52.
The candidates turned their fire on Republicans, particularly the party's presidential front-runner, Donald Trump, the only GOP candidate mentioned by name. Facebook reported that the Democrats' criticisms of Trump's positions were the website's "top social moment" of the debate.
Clinton accused Trump of "demonizing" Muslims and accused him of being the "best recruiter" for the Islamic State. "If you're going to try to put together a coalition in the region to take on ISIS, you don't alienate the countries and the people in the region," Clinton added. O'Malley, meanwhile, decried "the fascist pleas of billionaires with big mouths."
After the debate, Sanders' campaign announced that two more staffers had been suspended over the data breach, in addition to one who was already fired. But Clinton seemed eager to move past the incident. One reason: A fundraising email from campaign manager Jeff Weaver helped Sanders raise more than $1 million on Friday.Before the DNC, in the face of a Sanders lawsuit, restored the senator's access to data, his backers came up with makeshift workarounds, including canvassed the lines at openings of the latest Star Wars movie, Sanders' Iowa state chair, Robert Becker, wrote on a Reddit thread.
While the Clinton campaign tried to stress that she was the victim of the incident – it was millions of dollars of their spending and thousands of hours of their work that went into the data – the Sanders campaign blamed the vendor that managed the data, NGP VAN, for not addressing previous security issues. Sanders aides argued the DNC overreacted in blocking the campaign from accessing not just the party’s data but the campaign’s own information and sued the party, forcing a resolution early Saturday morning.
Privately, Sanders supporters say they think the episode can burnish the senator's credentials as an outsider. Publicly, they're using the incident as an opportunity to hurl attacks at Clinton. An hour before the debate, Sanders senior adviser Tad Devine turned the campaign's embarrassment into a jab at Clinton:
New Hampshire remains a must-win for Sanders. Neighboring his home state of Vermont and with a predominantly white electorate, the Granite State plays to Sanders' strengths and gives him the clearest chance to blunt Clinton's national momentum.
Sanders, who served eight years as mayor of Burlington, Vermont before winning election to the U.S. Congress in 1990 as an independent, led consistently—sometimes by double-digits—in polls from early August to early October. But more recent polls suggest the race has tightened. Sanders led Clinton by 2 percentage points in a recent Boston Herald poll, 10 points in a CNN/WMUR survey and by 7 points in a CBS News/YouGov poll. Public Policy Polling's most recent survey showed Clinton leading by 2 points.
With just six weeks to go before voting begins in Iowa, followed a week later by the New Hampshire primary, Clinton holds comfortable leads of roughly 20 to 30 points nationally in numerous polls.
Republicans were New Hampshire on the day of the Democratic debate. Some of them took aim at each other. And some at the Democrats.
"I gotta get this off my chest: Donald Trump is a jerk," former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said at a town hall in Contoocook, referring to the Republican presidential front-runner.
Ten minutes away from the debate in Bedford, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who’s been making gains in polls of New Hampshire Republicans, took aim at the Democratic field, mockingly referring to Clinton's "tough opponents, Bernie Sanders and Marty O'Malley," to sneers and laughs from the conservative crowd.
"This president and Mrs. Clinton don't know how to negotiate anything that's in America's interest," he said, citing the climate change accord, the Iran deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord. The two are willing to "sell America out to get a line on their resume," said Christie, who once caught flak for hugging Obama after the president visited his state following a devastating hurricane.
(Contributing: Mark Halperin)