At times, it seemed as if there was more harmony than discord at the first Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday night, especially compared to the no-holds-barred slugfests on the Republican side. The five contenders who met on a Las Vegas stage found many areas of agreement: the crisis of income inequality, the need for more family-friendly policies in the workplace and the urgency of dealing with man-made climate change.
Still, there were a number of areas where the candidates clashed, with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley challenging front-runner Hillary Clinton — former first lady, New York senator and secretary of state — from her left flank.
A few moments illuminated critical policy differences that will undoubtedly help discerning Democratic primary voters make their final decisions among the candidates, who also included Jim Webb, a former Navy secretary and U.S. senator from Virginia, and Lincoln Chafee, the Republican-turned independent-turned Democrat.
Socialists and progressives
Perhaps it was no surprise that in the first Democratic contest featuring a self-described democratic socialist within striking distance of the nomination, there were a questions about how the candidates had come to their political identities.
Asked about whether the United States was ready for a socialist president, Sanders answered, “We're going to win because first, we're going to explain what democratic socialism is. And what democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of one percent in this country … own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. That it is wrong.”
Sanders later doubled down on the terminology, and rejected the label of “capitalist,” so long a mainstay of American politics.
“Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little by which Wall Street's greed and recklessness wrecked this economy?” he said. “No, I don't.”
Clinton, for her part, criticized that ideological frame, speaking of the importance of nurturing the United States’s entrepreunerial spirit while reining in “the excesses of capitalism.”
“We are not Denmark,” she said, referring to one of Sanders' favored examples of a functioning and equitable socialist country. “We are the United States of America.”
Clinton also faced questions about her own political persona, given her leftward drift on a number of issues since launching her presidential campaign.
“I'm a progressive,” Clinton answered. “But I'm a progressive who likes to get things done.”
Sanders may have handed the Clinton campaign a gift when he declared, “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails.”
He was, of course, referencing the months-long scandal that has dogged the Clinton campaign over her use of private e-mail while serving as Secretary of State.
Clinton for her part said she took responsibility for a lapse in judgement.
“What I did was allowed by the State Department, but it wasn't the best choice,” she said.
Clinton added nonetheless that the special congressional committee created to investigate the 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, which has now turned its attention to her e-mail use was launched by Republicans as a nakedly partisan ploy.
“Let's just take a minute here and point out that this committee is basically an arm of the Republican National Committee,” she said.
As expected, Sanders was pressed on his mixed voting record on gun control.
Moderator Anderson Cooper noted that Sanders had voted against the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Bill in 1993 and perhaps even more notably, for National Rifle Association-backed legislation in 2006 that shields gun manufacturers and sellers from legal liability should their products be illegally sold and used in criminal activity.
His opponents were quick to pounce on what they clearly perceived as a weakness in the Sander's consistently liberal record on most other issues.
“This was a large and complicated bill,” said Sanders, who represents a largely rural state where hunting is widespread. He added that he would be open to changing certain provisions.
“It wasn’t that complicated to me,” Clinton fired back, noting that she had voted against the same bill as a senator from New York. “It was pretty straightforward.”
O’Malley, in an emotional plea, said the legislation had prevented the parents of Jessica Ghawi, one of the victims of the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting, from suing the man who sold 4,000 rounds of military ammunition to the shooter.
“You want to talk about a rigged game, senator? The game was rigged,” O'Malley said. “Not only did their case get thrown out of court, they were slapped with $200,000 in court fees because of the way that the NRA gets its way in our Congress and we take a backseat. It's time to stand up and pass comprehensive gun safety legislation as a nation.”
Income inequality was a recurring theme throughout the night, with all five candidates lamenting stagnating middle-class incomes and the steady flow of wealth to the richest Americans. Most of the candidates called for a higher minimum wage, increased infrastructure spending and pay equity for women.
Perhaps the area that produced the most conflict in exactly how to correct the system was Wall Street regulation.
While Sanders and O’Malley have advocated for re-instating the Glass-Steagall Act, a Depression-era law that prevents financial institutions engaging in risky investment and insurance activities from also partaking in retail banking, Clinton has not. The law was repealed in 1999, during the administration of President Bill Clinton, husband of Hillary Clinton.
Clinton argued that her approach was more forward-looking, giving regulators the ability to break up big banks but also being cognizant of other risks bubbling up in the financial sector that could cause another crash.
“My plan is more comprehensive. And frankly, it's tougher because of course we have to deal with the problem that the banks are still too big to fail,” she said. “But we also have to worry about some of the other players.”