With about two weeks until voting begins in Iowa, Democratic presidential candidates Sec. Hillary Clinton, Gov. Bernie Sanders and Gov. Martin O’Malley took to the debate stage in downtown Charleston on Sunday night, less than a block away from the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church. After dropping two major policy announcements less than 24 hours before the debate, all eyes were on Bernie Sanders. Sanders effectively established himself as the candidate for radical change, while Clinton emphasized the need to build on and improve President Obama’s work. Clashing on healthcare and gun control, Clinton and Sanders dominated the airtime while O’Malley struggled with the moderators to get a word in edgewise. Prior to the debate, many establishment Democrats were shocked to see Bernie Sanders polling at 42/4% in Iowa, compared the Hillary Clinton at 45.9%. The Western Illinois University straw poll, which has been 100 percent accurate since its beginnings in 1975, predicted a win for a Sanders-O’Malley ticket.
Sanders and Clinton clashed fiercely over their strategies for healthcare. Clinton stressed that when it comes to healthcare, “the details matter.” She said that the country finally has a path to universal healthcare, through the Affordable Care Act, and warned that Sanders’ demands would force us to “start over again with a contentious debate.” Mere hours before the debate, Bernie Sanders did an interview with Time and clarified how he would pay for his proposed single-payer, Medicare-for-all system. He has been consistently vague on the campaign trail about his plans to finance several big policy initiatives. Critics, including Hillary Clinton’s daughter Chelsea, have condemned the plan for leaving insurance up to the whims of the states. Sanders disclosed Sunday that his plan to lower insurance costs and expand Medicare would require a tax hike for the middle class. Sanders campaign officials have previously stated that the Sanders plan would not raise taxes on the middle class. However, the campaign argues that a new tax will still cost the average American less than they are currently paying in private premiums.
Sanders defended his plan to expand Medicare, saying what it finally does is “provide healthcare in this country for every man, woman and child as a right.” He dismissed accusations that he’s trying to destroy the Affordable Care Act, replying “I’m on the committee that wrote the Affordable Care Act.” Clinton retorted that she couldn’t understand whether they were talking about the plan Sanders introduced that night or the plan he introduced nine times in Congress. She referenced her fight against big insurance companies in the ‘90s and said that Sanders proposals will force Democrats to “start over again with a whole new contentious debate.” O’Malley interjected and encouraged Democrats to look at systems that work “instead of attacking each other.” In Maryland, O’Malley instituted an all-payer healthcare system.
Clinton has recently been attacking Sanders for being soft on gun manufacturers, flip-flopping on a bill that would grant them legal immunity. Just 24 hours before the debate, Sanders changed his position on a key piece of legislation that would grant legal immunity to gun manufacturers. “Based on Sen. Sanders own record,” Clinton expressed disbelief at this new, tougher stance on guns. “I think Sec. Clinton knows that what she said was very disingenuous,” countered Sanders. He said that from day one he has supported instant background checks and closing the gun show loophole. “This should not be a political issue,” he stated. Martin O’Malley joked that he “would have to agree with both of them…they’ve both been inconsistent.” O’Malley touted himself as the only one on the stage who’s actually brought people together as a Governor to enact real change. He pointed to his record as mayor of Baltimore, which at the time was one of America’s most violent cities. In reference to his successful ban on combat assault weapons, O’Malley quipped “I’ve never met a self-respecting hunter who needed an AR-15 to down a deer.”
Racism and Criminal Justice Reform
When asked if black men’s lives are cheap, Clinton answered that “sadly, it’s reality.” She called for concerted efforts to address the systemic racism in our criminal justice system” by “retraining officers” and researching racial profiling practices. Sanders echoed her sentiments, asking, “Who in America is satisfied that we have more people in jail than any other nation on earth?” In response to a question asked via YouTube, Sen. Sanders said that “whenever anybody in this country is killed in police custody, it should trigger” a federal investigation. He called for the demilitarization of police departments and more accountability for officers who break the law. He dismissed worries that Sec. Clinton is polling higher among minority voters, pointing out that he’s beat the expectations in polling so far. “We are on the path to victory,” declared Sanders. Martin O’Malley responded to accusations that his tough-on-crime policies may have worsened the Baltimore riots that occurred to response to Freddie Gray’s death in police custody. “When I ran for mayor, it’s not because our city was doing well,” answered O’Malley. He asserted that yes, black lives matter and said that his team was able to “save a lot of lives” by improving the relations between police and their communities. He also pointed to his work to decriminalize marijuana.
Commander in Chief
One of Clinton’s advantages over Sanders has been her experience in foreign policy as President Obama’s Secretary of State. Some Democrats have expressed concern that Sanders will be unable to ensure safety against new threats like ISIS or handle tough negotiations with nations like Iran. “We need a president who can do all aspects of the job,” said Clinton. Sanders encouraged a warming of diplomatic ties between the United States and Iran, while Clinton advocated restraint. “We’ve had one good day over 36 years,” she cautioned. When asked if they would commit ground forces in the ongoing Syrian conflict, Clinton answered “absolutely not.” Her strategy would include an air coalition, supporting the Iraqi military and disrupting supply chains. When asked if Obama’s rhetoric about the red line and Assad’s use of chemical weapons had hurt the United States’ credibility, she dodged. Sanders agreed that we must learn the “lesson of Iraq” and avoid the “quagmire” of a Syrian war. He paraphrased the words of King Abdullah of Jordan, saying “this is a war for the soul of Islam…Muslim troops should be on the ground.” He also called on wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar to “put some skin in the game.” When asked if Clinton’s actions as Secretary of State created a vacuum for ISIS to occupy, Sanders said no. He blamed the “disastrous” war in Iraq. O’Malley reminded the audience that governors led America through two world wars. He also opposed ground forces. O’Malley also said that “we are walking through this region without the human intelligence that we need” and called for a strengthening of our intelligence networks.
Former POTUS Bill Clinton came up twice in the debate amid recent questions in the media about Hillary Clinton’s handling of her husband’s sexual indiscretions. When asked if he would advise her in the White House, Clinton replied that she’s “going to have the very best advisors” possible and “you bet I’m going to ask for his ideas.” She also said her husband would serve as a good will ambassador, traveling the country and listening to the needs of minority communities. Sen. Sanders was then asked about comments he’s made in the past, calling Bill’s actions totally unacceptable. “That question annoys me,” replied Sanders. “I cannot walk down the street without being told how much I have to attack Sec. Clinton…I have tried to avoid that.” Sanders state that he will debate his opponents on the issues and the issues only.
Inside the Spin Room
CisternYard News caught up with several DNC leaders and campaign officials to talk about how the debate went. Vincent Sheheen, a member of the S.C. legislature and spokesperson for the O’Malley campaign spoke positively despite O’Malley’s lack of speaking time. “If you like to sit around and listen to your grandmother and grandfather have a grouchy debate, then you would love to listen to Clinton and Sanders. But if you want to look toward the future…then Martin O’Malley really stood out,” he said. Sheheen pointed to O’Malley’s experience in transforming Maryland’s public education system as one of many qualifications for President. When asked if O’Malley would consider a Vice Presidential offer, Sheheen said “I think he’s running for President” and “he intends to win.”
CisternYard News asked Gov. O’Malley what his thoughts were on the fiercer exchanges between his opponents. “I think one of the more spirited moments came when Sec. Clinton tried to say there’s no daylight between us when it comes to reigning in Wall Street,” he said. O’Malley called out Clinton for promising to be tough on banks while simultaneously accepting large campaign contributions. He expressed his regret on not being able to discuss issues like immigration reform and clean energy in more detail. “There are also differences on the issue of gun control which I think we made pretty clear tonight,” said O’Malley. “Both my opponents have flipped and flopped” and “I was the only one on that stage who’s actually gotten comprehensive gun safety legislation passed.”
Gilda Cobb Hunter, a Democrat in the S.C. House, described the debate as “an opportunity for the American people to see three candidates who are ready to lead day one.” Hunter contrasted the Democrats’ “substantive conversation” with the Republican side. “We are not spending our time hurling insults at each other.” Chair of the DNC Debbie Wasserman Schultz also condemned the GOP for mud-slinging. They are “insulting each other personally” and doing “everything they can to embrace extremism,” she said. Wasserman Schultz applauded the three Democratic candidates for making the contrast between the parties “stark.”
On almost every question, Sanders related his answer back to campaign finance reform. CisternYard asked Sanders Campaign Manager Jeff Weaver whether he thought Sanders covered enough ground in the debate. “Well I think he did elaborate on a number of stances,” Weaver answered. “He elaborated on Wall Street reform, on gun control, on foreign policy.” Weaver also stressed that until campaign finance reform is accomplished, meaningful progress on other issues will be nigh impossible. Weaver optimistically referenced Sanders’ numbers in Iowa saying “historically when you have success in early states it translates into momentum in future states.” CisternYard asked Weaver whether the campaign saw women Democrats pulling more for Hillary Clinton. “With younger women,” he replied, “they’re actually pulling for Bernie Sanders…we have more women contributors than Sec. Clinton…we’re doing very well with millennial women.” Rapper and political personality Killer Mike encouraged black voters to look at Sanders’ policies. He said the campaign needs to get “black men to see that his policies can directly help to reverse some of the systemic racism that’s killing them now.” Killer Mike described the Sanders philosophy as a family matter for black Americans. “Look at that picture of Dr. King that’s been on your grandma’s wall your whole life and say to yourself whose policies identify best with that.” Mike also praised Sanders for his handling of the questions on Bill Clinton. “I think he did really well, he remained tactful, he remained respectful and he did not go toward elitism and misogyny. He really played it like a class act and I applaud him for it.”