MANCHESTER, N.H. — A slugfest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton over the Sanders campaign accessing proprietary voter data of Clinton’s never materialized at the Democratic presidential debate Saturday, but differences over foreign and economic policies were highlighted.
The Vermont senator and the former Secretary of State, New York senator and first lady sparred with spirit at the ABC debate at Saint Anselm College, while former Baltimore mayor and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley fought to inject himself into the fracas as his campaign continues to struggle for support.
Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist, had engaged in a high-stakes fight with the Democratic National Committee the day before the debate by filing suit against it in federal court. The DNC had temporarily blocked access to voter data it stores after several campaign staffers accessed proprietary data belonging to Clinton’s campaign. It restored Sanders’ access hours after he filed suit.
Clinton’s campaign fueled the fight Saturday before the debate by accusing the Sanders campaign of theft and issuing an open letter demanding that Sanders answer several questions about the incident.
But when it came up early at Saturday’s debate both Sanders and Clinton seemed to be backing away. Sanders apologized when prompted by ABC’s David Muir.
“Yes, I apologize,” he said. “Not only do I apologize to Secretary Clinton — and I hope we can work together on an independent investigation from day one — I want to apologize to my supporters. This is not the type of campaign that we run.”
Clinton, by and large, returned a favor to Sanders, who famously declared that nobody cared about her “damn emails,” in an earlier debate. Clinton’s use of a private server and email account while serving as Secretary of State has sparked an ongoing FBI investigation.
“I very much appreciate that comment, Bernie. It really is important that we go forward on this,” Clinton said. “And so, now that … we have resolved your data, we have agreed on an independent inquiry, we should move on. Because I don’t think the American people are all that interested in this.”
Despite the détente embraced by Sanders and Clinton, O’Malley complained about the “bickering back and forth,” declaring it “is not the politics of higher purpose that people expect from our party.”
“We need to address our security issues, we need to address the economic issues around the kitchen table,” he said.
Sanders, who has been accused of avoiding foreign policy in favor of his economic message, spent much of the Democrats’ third debate parrying with Clinton on how to deal with the Islamic State and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Foreign policy has dominated the national discourse following terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.
All three candidates agreed that U.S. ground troops should not be used in the battle against ISIS. But there clear differences on whether or not the U.S. should seek to topple Assad, whose country is where ISIS holds its headquarters.
Clinton called for a no-fly zone over Syria and called for Arab and Kurdish troops to handle the ground effort. Clinton also said the nation must embrace Muslim-Americans.
“I met with a group of Muslim-Americans this past week to hear from them about what they’re doing to try to stop radicalization. They will be our early warning signal. That’s why we need to work with them, not demonize them, as the Republicans have been doing,” she said.
But she differed from both Sanders and O’Malley when she said the U.S. should actively look to remove Assad from power.
“If the United States does not lead, there is not another leader — there is a vacuum,” she said.
Sanders said the U.S. must focus first on defeating ISIS.
“Yes, of course Assad is a terrible dictator. But I think we have got to get our foreign policies and priorities right. The immediate — it is not Assad who is attacking the United States. It is ISIS. And ISIS is attacking France and attacking Russian airliners,” he said. “The major priority, right now, in terms of our foreign and military policy should be the destruction of ISIS.”
Then, he said, the U.S. can consider removing Assad from power.
“Yeah, regime change is easy, getting rid of dictators is easy. But before you do that, you’ve got to think about what happens the day after,” he said. “In my view, what we need to do is put together broad coalitions to understand that we’re not going to have a political vacuum filled by terrorists, that, in fact, we are going to move steadily — and maybe slowly — toward democratic societies.”
He also pointed out three times that he voted against the Iraq war in 2002 because he “thought unilateral military action would not produce the results that were necessary and would lead to the kind of unraveling and instability that we saw in the Middle East.” Clinton, a senator at the time, voted for military authorization for former President George W. Bush.
Calling their foreign policy differences “fairly deep,” Sanders said Clinton “is too much into regime change and a little too aggressive without knowing what the consequences may be.”
Gun policy emerged as one of the most contentious issues of the night. Clinton, when asked if arming more Americans was the proper response to home-grown terrorist attacks, said no.
“Guns, in and of themselves, in my opinion, will not make Americans safer. We lose 33,000 people a year already to gun violence, arming more people … I think is not the appropriate response to terrorism,” she said.
Sanders said he would not discourage people from buying guns.
“It’s a country in which people choose to buy guns,” he said. “I think half of the — more than half of the people in my own state of Vermont, my guess here in New Hampshire, are gun owners. That’s the right of people.”
Instead, he called for bring together “the vast majority of the people” who believe in “sensible gun safety regulations.”
“Who denies that it is crazy to allow people to own guns who are criminals or are mentally unstable? We’ve got to eliminate the gun show loophole. In my view, we have got to see that weapons designed by the military to kill people are not in the hands of civilians,” he said. “I’m not going to say that everybody is in agreement. It’s a divided country on guns. But there is a broad consensus on sensible gun safety regulations that I, coming from a state that has virtually no gun control, will do my best to bring together.”
O’Malley, who defied moderators by speaking over them, accused both Sanders and Clinton of taking a “flip-flopping, political approach” to the issue.
“Sen. Sanders voted against the Brady Bill. Sen. Sanders voted to give immunity to gun dealers. And Sen. Sanders voted against even research dollars to look into this public health issue,” he said. “Secretary Clinton changes her position on this every election year, it seems, having one position in 2000 and then campaigning against President Obama and saying we don’t need federal standards.”
He called for comprehensive gun safety legislation and a ban on assault weapons.
O’Malley’s charges prompted rebukes from his fellow candidates.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s calm down a little bit, Martin,” Sanders said.
“Yes, let’s tell the truth, Martin,” Clinton added.
Sanders seemed pleased when the debate turned to economic issues. “Now, this is getting to be fun,” he beamed during one exchange.
Clinton promised that she would not raise taxes as president on anyone earning less than $250,000 per year. That was a pledge that her rivals did not match.
Clinton also directly attacked Sanders’ plans for a national single-payer health care system and free college tuition, intimating they are too generous for the country to support.
“It’s been estimated were looking at $18 to $20 trillion, about a 40 percent in the federal budget,” she said. “I have looked at his proposed plans for health care for example, and it really does transfer every bit of our health care system including private health care, to the states to have the states run. And I think we’ve got to be really thoughtful about how we’re going to afford what we proposed, which is why everything that I have proposed I will tell you exactly how I’m going to pay for it, including college.”
While Clinton was likely pivoting to a general election matchup with the eventual Republican nominee, Sanders sought to remind Democratic primary voters who has the more progressive ideas.
“When Secretary Clinton says, ‘I’m not going raise taxes on the middle class,’ let me tell you what she is saying. She is disagreeing with FDR on Social Security, LBJ on Medicare and with the vast majority of progressive Democrats in the House and the Senate, who today are fighting to end the disgrace of the United States being the only major country on Earth that doesn’t provide paid family and medical leave,” he said.
Sanders also sought to highlight the differences with Clinton in how they have raised campaign donations. He again noted Clinton’s coziness with Wall Street and his efforts to oppose deregulating the banking industry.
“I don’t have a super PAC. I don’t get any money from Wall Street. You have gotten a whole lot of money over the years from Wall Street,” he said. “And what you’ll find is that I led — helped lead the effort as a member of the House financial committee against Alan Greenspan, against a guy named Bill Clinton, maybe you know him, maybe you don’t.”
And as a final exclamation point, Sanders, after Clinton said “everybody” should love her, including Wall Street, said he is not seeking support from corporate or Wall Street executives. Will they love him, Muir queried?
“No, I think they won’t,” Sanders said. “So Hillary and I have a difference. The CEOs of large multinationals may like Hillary. They ain’t going to like me and Wall Street is going to like me even less.”
The effort was the most spirited yet by Sanders as the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire primary near. Sanders, in the most recent polling, trails Clinton in the Hawkeye State and holds a narrow advantage over her in New Hampshire. Just one more DNC-sponsored debate will be held before the Iowa Caucus on Feb. 1.
Sanders campaign claimed a victory following the debate, noting that the campaign passed President Barack Obama’s high mark of more than 2.2 million individual campaign contributions during the debate.
Spokesman Michael Briggs said there were more Google searches for Sanders during the debate than any other candidate. He said the campaign had the most retweeted tweet of the night, citing Twitter statistics. And Sanders gained more followers on Twitter than any other candidate, he said.