Democratic Debate: Substance and Bickering

There certainly was increased friendly fire.

The Democrats took the debate stage for the fourth time Sunday night from Charleston, S.C. The Congressional Black Caucus Institute hosted the debate, which was on NBC and YouTube, and moderated by NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt and Andrea Mitchell.

The debate changed before it even started when Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders released his long awaited healthcare for all plan.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave the first opening statement of the debate. She discussed the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s message, and how he fought until his final day of life. She said, "we need a president who can do all aspects of the job," implying that the others on the stage could not.

Sanders went second, and he also discussed King, and he said that we need "to continue his vision of the country." He went through some of his traditional talking points of the "rigged economy" and campaign finance. He finished by calling his campaign "a political revolution."

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley went third who also talked about King, and how South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from the State House grounds. He said that "we have work to do" after President Obama. He concluded with "I look forward to moving our country forward once again."

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Holt's first question was about the candidates' top three priorities. Sanders went first. He said healthcare is a right, dealing with the economy and creating jobs through infrastructure improvements.

Clinton said she make sure Congress got her plans for the economy, jobs through fixing infrastructure and making sure women received equal pay for equal work. She also discussed improving the Affordable Care Act, decreasing the costs of drugs and the need to "bring the country together."

O'Malley said "equal pay for equal work," collective bargaining and bringing immigrants "out of the shadow economy." He brought up climate change, which he said would create green jobs. His final point was "a new plan for cities."

The next question went to Sanders, and it was about his position on gun laws and immunity for gun manufacturers. He said he has "a D- voting record from the NRA." He also said he "supported from day one [in Congress] an instant background check." After saying he supported Obama's executive actions, he brought up the shooting at the Charleston church, and he said "this should not be a political issue," and touted his experience "from a rural state" with little, if any, gun control.

Holt called him out for not answering the questions about flip-flopping on immunity, and he said there are new changes that he supports.

The lead moderator went to Clinton for a response, and she called Sanders out for all of the pro-gun bills he voted for: "Charleston loophole," guns in national parks and on Amtrak trains, among others. She said she was happy that Sanders changed his position, that there is more work to do on the immunity bill.

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Holt asked O'Malley about whether people should be concerned about whether he would go after people's guns. He said that he is the "only person on this stage who brought people together" for gun control.

The next question went to Clinton. Holt asked Clinton about police. She said the country needs to be a solution "to end racial profiling," which includes re-training of police officers.

Sanders rebutted with "we have a criminal justice system that is broken." He said that this country has more in prison than China — most of whom, he said, are minorities. He said the country needs to deal with CEO pay, rather than minor drug use.

Holt asked Sanders how could win if he does not have support from minorities — because in a new poll, he does not have that support. He countered with the fact that he has increased in the polls, and he beats Donald Trump in the polls, which he said is better than how Clinton fairs.

Holt then asked O'Malley about the "zero tolerance" policing policy in Baltimore, which some say led to the death of Freddie Gray, and how much of the responsibility for Gray's death is his. He said it is his responsibility to find solutions that work.

The next question, from YouTube, was for Sanders, who could not hear all of it. The question was about what he would do to make sure police related deaths are investigated by a third party. He said the Dept. of Justice would investigate in-custody death. He said that "if a police office breaks the law, he needs to be held accountability." He said that he would "demilitarize the police," and make the police departments "look like the communities they serve."

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Holt then asked Clinton about the "war on drugs," which has not been successful. She went through people she has met who have lost relatives to the drug epidemic. She said the federal government will provide aid, and she said that police officers and fire fighters "need to carry the anecdote" that reverses an overdose. She said that addictions would be treated in the healthcare system, rather than in jails.

The moderator then went to Sanders, who said that some of the blame belongs with the pharmaceutical companies. He then tried to get into universal healthcare, but Holt went to commercial, despite pleas from O'Malley to give him "just 10 seconds."

Mitchell asked the question after the commercial to Clinton. "Is it fair to say that Bernie Sanders wants to kill Obamacare?" She said "I respect Sen. Sanders' intentions, but the details really matter." She said, "We finally have a path to universal healthcare…and I don't want us to" fight over healthcare. She wants to improve and build on the existing law.

Sanders then got the rebuttal. He says that his "Medicare for all…gives healthcare to everyone as a right." He said that he, along with Rep. James Clyburn, made the Affordable Care Act better, and that he "voted for it." He said his plan gets rid of private insurance and lowers healthcare costs.

Clinton then criticized his plans, citing what the Affordable Care Act has done. "There are things we can do to improve it," but she does not want the country to face "another contentious debate."

Sanders then rebutted again by saying that 29 million people still do not have insurance, and we spend more than other countries on healthcare. "We are not going to tear up the Affordable Care Act," he said.

O'Malley then jumped in and said what Maryland has been able to do under the Affordable Care Act. He said that he wants to improve it.

Clinton then went off his answer, and she said she would continue to work to decrease cost. She said, once again, that the country should not enter the healthcare debate again because Republicans in the House of Representatives are still trying to repeal the healthcare law.

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Mitchell asked Sanders why Vermont did not embrace a similar plan, and to that he said to ask the governor. He said the reason why states and the country have not done more on healthcare is because of the campaign finance system.

Clinton then jumped in because she says she has experience standing up to people. "We have the Affordable Care Act…let's get the individual costs down."

Holt then asked for Clinton's response to the State of the Union. She touted her previous experience, and there is a possibility to find some "common ground" across the aisle to get things done.

Sanders jumped in, and he said that he worked with Arizona Sen. John McCain to fix veterans healthcare. He said the problem with Congress is the money in politics, not the partisanship. He said the people want an increase in the minimum wage, but they are not doing it. He concluded with, "We need to make Congress responsive to the needs of the people."

Holt asked how he could win as a "democratic socialist." He said that the country "needs a 50 state strategy," and that money needs to be taken out of politics.

O'Malley jumped in about how neither Clinton nor Sanders campaigned for "Vincent Sheheen when he ran for governor."

Sanders then jumped in and said that all three "have denounced Donald Trump," but he then went back to his money out of politics talking point.

Clinton got the next question, which was from a 23-year-old YouTube star, who wanted to know how she and O'Malley would engage with the young people. She talked about "making community college free" and going to "public colleges debt free." "I think this is an election where we need to pull younger people and older people together" to get people to vote.

Holt then asked Clinton why she is losing to Sanders "two-to-one" among young voters.

Sanders got the first question back from the commercial, which was how his Wall St. plan differs from Clinton's. He said that we need a "modern day Glass-Steagall," and he wants to, as he said Teddy Roosevelt would have said "break them [the banks] up."

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Clinton then got the question, and she said that Obama has received money from the banks, and she said Sanders wanted someone to run against him 2012. She praised Dodd-Frank, and "defended President Obama for taking on the big banks."

Sanders rebutted and said he supported him in 2008 and 2012. He said the question is "Can you really reform Wall St." when you get donations and speaking fees? He doubts it.

Clinton then questioned what Sanders did during 2012, and she said take on big banks, and once again praised Dodd-Frank.

O'Malley then jumped in and questioned Clinton's plan.

Clinton said "we have Dodd-Frank," which allows the government to break up banks, to which O'Malley said "we haven't used," and she said she wants to go beyond the legislation. She touted the big names that have supported her plans. She said O'Malley has taken money from Wall St. in the past, and he said he has not done so for this campaign.

Sanders then jumped in and talked about Goldman-Sachs being fined $5 million, and he believes it is a problem that even though there was a fine, there the executives have not been to jail.

Clinton then called out Sanders for voting against a bill that would have regulated Wall St.

Sanders then rebutted and said he has fought deregulation, and he said the government needs to be involved.

Mitchell asked Sanders a question about how he would pay for everything that he wants to do. He said he wants to send kinds to public school for free and lower "student loan interest rates," and he said he would pay for it through "a tax on Wall St." He said Clinton, unlike him, has not said how she would pay for her plan.

Clinton then got a chance to respond, and she said she has said how she would pay for her plans, which includes no debt for college and university students. She said she is the only one of the three "who will not raise taxes on the middle class."

Sanders then talked about his plan, which taxes the middle class. He said "it's a pretty good deal," because taxes go up slightly, but there is no private insurance.

Mitchell then asked if he broke his word because she said he previously said taxes for middle class would only increase "to pay for family leave." Sanders said he did not break his word.

O'Malley then jumped in and said he is "the only one on this stage who has balanced a budget. By law governors need to balance the budget.

The next question was receded by a YouTube video, but it came from Holt and it was about how to get people t give up their SUVs. Sanders said "the debate is over," and that if we do not do anything now, the problem of climate change will get worse. He said he does not understand how there is a party that believes climate change is a "hoax," and he said he has "the most comprehensive legislation in the Senate" to get the country away from fossil fuels.

O'Malley was next, and he offered the other candidates on the stage "a challenge" to create a plan to put the country "on a green electric grid."

Mitchell asked the next question after the break, which was about "diplomatic relations" with Iran. Sanders said "we need to move as quickly as we can" to restore relations. He said the diplomacy involved in the nuclear negotiations "has allowed relations to thaw," but he does not want an embassy in Tehran tomorrow. He wants the country to move like it moved with Cuba. He does not like the anti-Western rhetoric.

Clinton said she was "proud" to be part of the agreement, and said that we need to move forward with Iran, and that now they need to "stop their other bad behavior." She included Syria in her answer, so Mitchell asked whether the U.S. should send group troops into that country, and she said no.

Clinton said she wants to use diplomacy "to end the carnage in Syria."

Sanders went next, and said "I think he [Obama] is doing the right thing. He said he "would do everything in his power to avoid" getting the U.S. "into a perpetual war…."

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O'Malley then went next and he said that the U.S. needs to engage in diplomacy to prevent the need "to engage…Marines…." He praised the candidates for not using the term "boots on the ground."

Mitchell then asked about the vacuum in the Middle East that led to the Islamic State, and he blamed it on President George W. Bush's War in Iraq, which said he voted against. He said "our job is to train and provide support for Muslim countries" to fight against the Islamic State. He called on the wealthy Arab countries "to put skin in the game," and help the United States in this effort.

She then asked Clinton about the "red line" Obama drew for Syria. She said that not following through on the red line led to the outcome of getting the chemical weapons out of Syria. Mitchell then asked again whether or not Obama should have "followed through," and Clinton did not answer the question. Like Sanders, she said that Iraq led to the vacuum, which led to the current situation.

Sanders then jumped in and said that he and Clinton have a disagreement over the quagmire. He said that the country's "first priority" needs to be the Islamic State and the second priority should be Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

O'Malley then got his turn to talk, and he wants to "prevent another safe haven" for terrorists.

Holt then asked Clinton if she would "hand [Russian President Vladimir] Putin a reset button." She said, "It depends what I can get for it." She continued and said, "We need to figure out how to deal with him," and she called her relationship with Putin "interesting," adding that he is someone you need to "standup to."

The next question came from YouTube, and it was about "privacy versus security." O'Malley said "the federal government should get a warrant" to enter "either the front door or the back door." He said that there should be a "public advocate" when the government asks a judge for a warrant.

Holt then asked Sanders about dealing with terrorist threat at home. He said the government "need[s] to work with Silicon Valley," among other points.

Clinton got 30 seconds after the break, and citied how Obama Administration officials went to Silicon Valley to deal with this issue, but Mitchell questioned what they got out of that meeting, to which Clinton said she heard different things than Mitchell.

O'Malley responded, and then Sanders, who said that the U.S. has "a $600 billion military budget…very little of that budget…goes into fighting ISIS and international terrorism…." He said that he would change the priorities of the Dept. of Defense.

Holt asked what role former President Bill Clinton would have in her administration, specifically whether it would be a "kitchen table" position or a formal position. She said that "it will begin at the kitchen table," and implied that it could turn into a formal position. She said she would search for the best ideas across the country.

Sanders then rebutted and said his fellow candidates and "good ideas," and pledged that "Goldman-Sachs will not produce a secretary of the Treasury in the Sanders Administration."

Mitchell then asked Sanders about the male Clinton, and he said he is debating Hillary Clinton, and that they will talk about the issues.

The final question is to all of the candidates: "Is there anything else you wanted to say tonight?" O'Malley started, and said brought up immigration and the Dept. of Homeland Security detention camps, Puerto Rico and "nation building in our own hemisphere." He said that the country needs new leadership "for a new era of American prosperity."

Clinton went next, and she said she is "outraged" over the water situation in Flint, Mich. "I want to be a president who takes care of the big problems" and the problems of everyday Americans.

Sanders also discussed Flint, and he said he "demanded the governor's resignation." He then went to his traditional stump speech about campaign finance. He says the country needs to eliminate super PACs, and he called for a "political revolution." He finished with the country is for the people "not wealthy campaign donors."

Reach News Editor Max Schwartz here; follow him on Twitter here.