early and often

What You Missed in the 5th Democratic Debate

Democratic Presidential Candidates Hillary Clinton And Bernie Sanders Debate In Durham, New Hampshire
It was a lot saltier than this photo suggests. Photo: Justin Sullivan/2016 Getty Images

It’s been an exciting week of firsts that don’t feel like firsts in the 2016 race. After years of hearing pundits talk about the race, Iowans finally voted on Monday, and following 11 events billed as debates, last night we saw the first discussion that actually involved two candidates delving into their competing visions for the country. Here are the highs and lows from MSNBC’s New Hampshire debate.

Most Repetitive Martin O’Malley Jab:
RACHEL MADDOW: “Tonight, this is the first time that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have squared off exactly like this. Face-to-face, just one-on-one, just the two of them.” We get it. Let’s not kick the guy while he’s … somewhere in Maryland?

Only References to Inequality of the Non-Income Variety:
Clinton noted that we’re facing the “continuing challenges of racism, of sexism, of discrimination against the LGBT community, of the way that we treat people as opposed to how we want to be treated,” in her opening statement. Those topics never really came up, so she repeated the line at the end of the debate, adding, “Yes, we have income inequality, we have other forms of inequality that we need to stand up against and absolutely diminish from our society.”

The First Shot Fired:
Clinton ended her opening statement with a jab at Sanders’s idealism, saying, “I’m fighting for people who cannot wait for those changes, and I’m not making promises that I cannot keep.”

Argument Least Likely to Win Over Young Voters
CLINTON: “I also believe in affordable college, but I don’t believe in free college, because every expert that I have talked to says, look, how will you ever control the costs. What I want to do is make sure middle-class kids, not Donald Trump’s kids, get to be able to afford college.”

Most Unsettling Compliment:
SANDERS: “You know, sometimes there’s a lot of drama here. I have known Secretary Clinton for 25 years and respect her very much.”

Unlike the Republican candidates, Sanders and Clinton are almost always very gracious to each other. But after watching four of these debates we know lines like this mean the sniping is about to begin.

Weirdest Argument About Who’s Part of the Establishment (From a Democrat):
Last month Ted Cruz claimed that Donald Trump is the favorite candidate of the Republican Establishment, and on Thursday, Clinton argued that despite spending the past 25 years in Washington, she’s not part of the Democratic Establishment because she’s a woman. “Senator Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the Establishment,” she said.

Least Spontaneous Answer:
We all know candidates practice their debate answers beforehand, but it’s odd to see them do it on national TV, two nights in a row. At Wednesday’s CNN town hall, Clinton said:

I’m a progressive who likes to get things done. And I was somewhat amused today that Senator Sanders has set himself up to be the gatekeeper on who is the progressive because under the definition that was flying around on Twitter and statements by the campaign, Barack Obama would not be a progressive, Joe Biden would not be a progressive, Jeanne Shaheen would not be a progressive, even the late, great Senator Paul Wellstone would not be a progressive.

And on Thursday night she repeated the speech, with a few embellishments:

I am a progressive who gets things done. And the root of that word, progressive, is progress. But I’ve heard Senator Sanders’s comments, and it’s really caused me to wonder who’s left in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Under his definition, President Obama is not progressive because he took donations from Wall Street; Vice-President Biden is not progressive because he supported Keystone; Senator Shaheen is not progressive because she supports the trade pact. Even the late, great Senator Paul Wellstone would not fit this definition because he voted for DOMA.

Clinton’s Least-Convincing Excuse:
When asked if she’ll release the transcripts of her paid speeches, an issue which has come up multiple times on the campaign trail, Clinton said, “I will look into it. I don’t know the status, but I will certainly look into it.” 

Sanders’s Favorite Foreign-Policy Response:
On the issue of sending more U.S. troops to fight ISIS, Sanders said he basically agreed with what Hillary said — however, “Where we have a different background on this issue is we differ on the war in Iraq, which created barbaric organizations like ISIS.” Her retort: “A vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS.”

Sanders’s Most Concerning Foreign-Policy Response:
When asked whether North Korea, Iran, or Russia is the biggest threat to the U.S., Sanders didn’t rank them. Opting not to answer wasn’t worrisome, but then he added, “Clearly North Korea is a very strange situation because it is such an isolated country run by a handful of dictators, or maybe just one, who seems to be somewhat paranoid. And, who had nuclear weapons.”

Biggest Waste of Time:
There was an entire section on the campaign process and scandals Democrats don’t care about. At one point Maddow asked Clinton if she thinks Sanders “would win the general election if he were nominated.” (She said she’s focused on her own campaign.) At least she wasn’t asked to explain why he’s so popular.

Most Confrontational Moment in the 2016 Democratic Primary (So Far):
After Sanders alluded to her Wall Street ties once again, Clinton told him to stop making insinuations and call her a Wall Street fat cat to her face. “I really don’t think these kinds of attacks by insinuation are worthy of you,” she said. “And enough is enough. If you’ve got something to say, say it directly.” This led to 

One of the Best 10-Minute Exchanges in the History of American Political Debates:
“You will not find that I ever changed a view or a vote because of any donation that I ever received,” Clinton continued. “So I think it’s time to end the very artful smear that you and your campaign have been carrying out in recent weeks, and lets talk about the issues.”

Sanders still refused to attack Clinton directly, but he said that from Wall Street deregulation in the 90s to the high cost of prescription drugs, it’s clear that massive campaign contributions influence the political process. Clinton shot back that a lot of that special-interest money has been used to attack her, and, in a bold move, pointed out that Sanders voted to deregulate swaps and derivatives in 2000 … as then-President Bill Clinton proposed. 

Squandered “Khalessi Is Coming to Westeros” Moment:
CLINTON: “Today, you’ve got hedge-fund billionaires aligned with Karl Rove, running ads against me to try to get Democrats to vote for you. I know this game. I’m going to stop this game.”

Sorry, the line we were looking for was: “I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.” 

What You Missed in the 5th Democratic Debate