Friday night’s terrorist attacks in Paris dominated the opening of Saturday night’s Democratic presidential debate, with front-runner Hillary Clinton repeatedly forced to defend her actions as secretary of state and those of the president she served.
The first query of the night came from John Dickerson, host of CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” and moderator of the debate at Drake University. He asked Clinton, President Obama’s former secretary of state, “won’t the legacy of this administration be that it under estimated the threat from ISIS?”
Clinton used the question to create separation between herself and Obama, who has been widely criticized for saying last week that ISIS had been “contained.”
“We have to look at ISIS as the leading threat of an international terror network,” Clinton said. “It cannot be contained, it must be defeated.”
In the same answer, however, Clinton also sided with the White House.
“It cannot be an American fight,” she said. “The president has said, and I agree, we must take the fight to ISIS.”
The attacks Friday in Paris that left more than 100 dead and the world in shock prompted an immediate shift in this debate and the larger campaign for the White House. CBS News changed its plans and made foreign policy and security the first focus of the two-hour debate.
The focus on Paris provided an opportunity for Bernie Sanders to draw a new contrast with Clinton. And it provided former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley the chance to turn in his strongest performance of the campaign.
“This is America’s fight,” he said. “It’s not solely our fight. America is best when we are standing up to evil in this world. Make no doubt about it, ISIS is evil. We do have a role in this. Not solely ours.”
Sanders, the U.S. senator from Vermont, opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq and voted against authorizing it. Clinton voted in favor, something Sanders was quick to point out.
“She said something like the bulk of the responsibility is not ours,” Sanders said. “In fact, I would argue that the disastrous invasion of Iraq, something I strongly opposed, has unraveled the region completely and led to the rise of Al-Qaeda and to ISIS.”
Clinton countered that she has said the Iraq invasion was “a mistake,” but said America must realize it “has antecedents to what happened in Iraq and we have to be vigilant about it.”
The three candidates stood together on one point.
“There is widespread agreement here,” O’Malley said. “The United States cannot do it alone. Muslim nations in that region have to fight.”
But, the candidates stopped short of blaming Islam itself for the problem. Dickerson pointed out that U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla,. one of the GOP presidential hopefuls, has said the U.S. is at war with “radical Islam” and asked Clinton if she agreed.
“I don’t think we’re at war with Islam,” she said. “I think we’re at war with jihadists.”
Clinton also said characterizations like Rubio’s are “not particularly helpful.”
“We are at war with violent extremism,” she said. “We are at war with people who use their religion for purposes of power and oppression.”
Neither Sanders nor O’Malley disagreed.
Saturday’s debate comes at a crucial time in the campaign. Sanders rode a summer wave to challenge Clinton in Iowa and beyond, but in the past month Clinton has rebounded and again enjoys double-digit polling leads here. While the race in New Hampshire remains tight, Clinton has enormous margins in South Carolina and a comfortable lead in Nevada.
The first debate, held Oct. 13 in Las Vegas, was a gentle affair and featured limited contrast among the candidates. Sanders had vowed that the debate here would be different. Sanders became a little more aggressive at a candidate forum in South Carolina earlier this month, but that was a forum where each candidate appeared separately.
In Vegas, Sanders essentially gave Clinton a pass on one of her biggest liabilities — the e-mail controversy that continues to dog her. "I think (Clinton) is right," he said. "The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails."
Both Sanders and O’Malley took turns Saturday drawing contrasts with Clinton. Still, the exchanges were tamer than those of Republican debates.
When the topic turned to the economy. O’Malley touted his record as governor of Maryland, and owned the fact that he asked top earners there to pay more.
“I defended not only a AAA bond rating, but the highest median income in America,” O’Malley said. “We will pay for many things we need to do again as a nation.”
O’Malley, who has benefited most from the narrowing of the Democratic field, made the most of his time. He was strong enough to even attract a barb from Clinton, who accused him of choosing an investment banker for a key state board in 2010.
O’Malley called for higher taxes on the richest Americans, an idea Sanders heartily endorsed. Asked how high taxes would be on top earners should he succeed, Sanders quipped, “It won’t be as high as the 90 percent under (President Dwight) Eisenhower. I’m not as much of a socialist as Eisenhower.”
Still, Sanders said, “there has to be real tax reform. And the wealthiest and corporations will pay more when I’m president.”
Later, moderators returned to the economy, specifically whether minimum wage should be raised to $15 an hour, as Sanders has suggested. Des Moines Register columnist Kathie Obradovich told Sanders that top economists have said such an increase would have unintended consequences, like loss of jobs. How many lost jobs are acceptable to raise the minimum wage? she asked.
Sanders was blunt.
“No public policy doesn’t have in some cases negative consequences,” he said.
“It is not a radical idea to say that if somebody works 40 hours a week that person should not be living in poverty,” Sanders added.
Clinton, however, said she agreed with Alan Krueger, Obama’s former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, when he said there is no international comparison for a $15 an hour wage. She supports a $12 minimum.
“But I do believe that is a minimum,” she said, adding that cities like Seattle have shown it could go higher.
The exchange set up a key moment where Clinton was asked how her support from Wall Street executives squares with her calls to regulate Wall Street. The actual question from moderator CBS’ Dickerson was actually more direct: “How do you convince voters that you’re gonna level the playing field when you’re indebted to some of the biggest players?”
Clinton pushed back and said that she introduced legislation while in the Senate to reign in executive compensation and has laid out plans to further regulate big banks. Sanders responded, saying Clinton’s answer wasn’t “good enough.”
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