Democrats’ third debate focused on foreign policy and national security, all staking out positions different from and critical of their Republican counterparts.
A new controversy that had rocked the normally cordial Democratic race was expected to be a flashpoint, after a software glitch in data files provided to all candidates by the Democratic National Committee allowed the campaign of Bernie Sanders to see proprietary data from Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The DNC suspended Sanders’s access to the data, provoking charges of favoritism for Clinton, but later restored his access. The Clinton campaign had fired back, saying its critical information had been “stolen” in an “egregious breach” and suggested laws may have been broken.
It was the first question the moderators asked, and Sanders said it was the fault of the software company but that his staffers still acted improperly and apologized to Clinton. She accepted, and the war of words that their surrogates had been carrying on didn’t materialize on the debate stage Saturday evening. There were no charges from Sanders, either, that the DNC had been playing favorites to try to help Clinton, as his campaign and supporters had suggested.
Instead, the debate focused mainly on national security issues, with some big divides becoming apparent between the candidates. Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley each hit Clinton for being too open to regime change in the Middle East. Sanders, who has struggled on foreign policy before, showed a better grasp this time, explaining how he’d engage Muslim fighters to combat ISIS abroad.
But Clinton showed a command of foreign policy — long her strong suit after her time at the State Department — even as moderator Martha Raddatz pressed her on many decisions and positions. Many times she turned her fire toward Republicans, and Donald Trump specifically, as she seemed to already be looking ahead to the general election.
O’Malley tried to interject many times against Clinton and Sanders, often complaining he wasn’t getting enough questions or time, but the two top candidates’ face-offs were the most substantive. He tried to paint himself as the fresh face of the group, even pointing out he was from a different generation, but that distinction didn’t go over well in the debate room.
Our liveblog recap of the ABC debate is below.
10:45 p.m. In closing statements, all the candidates take a hopeful tone and take shots at Republicans. Sanders says that “on our worst day, we have a lot more to offer the American people than the right wing extremists.” “Anger and fear never built America,” O’Malley said, criticizing GOP proposals. Clinton, who goes last, gets in a great ending: “Thank you, good night, and may The Force be with you.”
10:30 p.m. An off-topic question for the end — what role would your spouse play in the White House? It’s obviously aimed at Clinton, herself a former first lady, asking her if Bill Clinton would take the traditional roles of the first lady — china, flowers, or if it’s time to reevaluate the traditional duties. She says he’d be an important adviser on economic issues especially, but that she’s probably still pick out the china and flowers.
Sanders says his wife, Jane, would be an important adviser too and, as a former foster parent, he’d turn to her for advice on children and families.
O’Malley has a good moment when he boasts about his wife, Katie, a district court judge, and says she’d probably keep her job if he were elected.
10:20 p.m. The debate takes a more somber tone and tackles a very local issue in New Hampshire — its heroin epidemic. NPR’s Tamara Keith reported on it back in May. Clinton wants prescriptions to be reined in, and she tells stories of how at her town halls almost everyone has been affected by it.
10:15 p.m On the topic of criminal justice reform, Sanders points to his plan to move marijuana from a Schedule I drug — which carries stiff penalties — to a Schedule II drug. All the Democratic candidates now support this.
O’Malley also says he supports reforming drug penalties and advocating for more treatment, as a way to help ease tensions between African-Americans and the police. But this is a touchy subject for O’Malley — as mayor he advocated for tougher policing — and that’s something that’s riled tensions in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray in the city.
10:05 p.m. Clinton, essentially — read my lips, no new taxes. She promises she wouldn’t raise taxes on the middle class as president, but Sanders won’t make that same claim. He says he needs to hike to pay for his extended family and medical leave — but that it would equal about $1.61 a week, which he argues is worth it in the long run.
10:00 p.m. When O’Malley talks about his free college plan, he also tries to paint himself as more down to earth than his rivals, pointing out he and his wife are still paying off their daughters’ college loans and had to borrow money.
Clinton says her college plan — which would have debt-free tuition, not free tuition — is more sustainable than Sanders’s, while he would have to raise taxes and the deficit to pay for his.
9:55 p.m. Here’s something that could come back to haunt Clinton — when she’s asked about she rising ObamaCare premiums she says they’re “glitches” that will work themselves out but are partly because so many GOP governors haven’t expanded Medicaid or implemented the exchanges in their states.
Sanders wants to go further, calling for a single payer healthcare system.
9:45 p.m. Another big contrast between Clinton and Sanders. When asked if corporate America should love Hillary Clinton, she smiles and says “Everyone should!”
Sanders, before launching off on his diatribe against big banks and income inequality, he frankly admits that corporate America wouldn’t like a President Sanders nor would Wall Street. He hits Clinton on accepting donations from them and highlighting her coziness, and O’Malley jumps in and also hits Clinton on her relationships.
Clinton has a ready comeback, hitting O’Malley for taking Wall Street donations when he was head of the Democratic Governors Association.
9:35 p.m. After the first break, the moderators pick back up, but only Sanders and O’Malley are back on stage. Clinton walks on minutes later, meekly whispering “Sorry.”
9:30 p.m. There’s a lengthy debate between Clinton and Sanders over foreign policy, where he tries to draw a line between the two — she has supported regime change in the past while he has not, warning of unintended consequences. Clinton’s ready with a comeback saying Sanders did support it in Libya, though.
O’Malley again awkwardly tries to jump in, saying he can offer a different generation’s perspective on it — not-so-subtly hitting at the age difference between himself and Clinton and Sanders. There are some boos in the audience as he warns of getting into a Cold War-like scenario.
O’Malley sides with Sanders though, saying that ISIS should be the priority, not removing Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
9:15 p.m. Clinton supports special ops troops but not ground to fight ISIS, like President Obama. Raddatz presses her on whether that’s a slippery slope and could lead to even more ground troops in a Vietnam-like situation. Clinton rejects the question though, saying the U.S. is in a position to lead an air strike and continue to build on that.
9:10 p.m. Sanders has handled foreign policy questions better tonight — and earlier was able to transition well from one question to his economic stump speech. Now, he’s saying to fight ISIS there has to be an international coalition — including Russia — and that “troops on the ground should not be American troops, they should be Muslim troops” and to bring in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
If that doesn’t work, what’s his plan B, moderator Martha Raddatz asks. “My plan is to make it work,” Sanders promises.
9:05 p.m. On Syrian refugees Clinton says resettlement says shouldn’t be halted, and she would prioritize widows, orphans and the elderly
9 p.m. Clinton is the first to hit a GOP candidate by name earlier and she returns again to hit Trump, saying his drastic proposals are actually hurting the U.S. and is becoming “ISIS’s best recruiter.”
8:55 p.m. On the question of gun control, Clinton says more guns aren’t the answer to fighting terrorism. Sanders — who’s been more to the center than his rivals on gun control — says gun ownership is still a right but says he supports more stringent background checks.
O’Malley — seizing an opportunity — muscles in over the protests of the debate moderators, and hits both Clinton and Sanders as “flip-floppers” on gun control and touts his own reforms and an assault weapons ban as a governor and mayor. “What we need on this issue is not more polls, we need more principle,” he says.
But Sanders takes great offense to this — and he gives maybe his most passionate response yet on gun control. He says he supports background checks and closing the gun loophole.
It’s a good issue for O’Malley, but he’s interrupted at least twice tonight and has already complained multiple times about not getting enough questions, and that doesn’t come off well.
8:50 p.m. On foreign policy, Sanders is trying to stake out where he is different from Clinton and again points out he voted against the Iraq War in 2002 while Clinton voted for it — an Achilles Heel for her in 2008. And he suggests Muslims in Middle Eastern countries should help abroad to fight ISIS.
Clinton says Muslims in the U.S. should be brought in to combat extremism at home — something she advocated for in a speech this week. O’Malley says he met with Muslims groups this week, and she notes she did too — she singles out Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims coming to the U.S., saying it’s dangerous and that Democrats must “not demonize them as the Republicans have been doing.”
8:45 p.m. Debate moderators, out of the gate, address the data breach. Sanders explains that the mistake with the DNC’s data vendor had happened before, and his campaign had alerted the DNC then. But he admits that this week “our staff did the wrong thing” by viewing the proprietary Clinton data. But he underscores that the DNC’s response to cut off access to their own data was an overreaction and says he’s glad it’s been restored.
When pressed by the moderators, he says yes, he does apologize to Clinton for his staffers’ actions and says if any more are found to have been involved, they will be fired. But he also raises the question of whether some of his own data was compromised too.
Clinton accepts his apology, and signals she won’t focus on this. “We should move on because I don’t think the American people are all that interested in this.” But she underscores there should still be an independent investigation.
O’Malley jumps in to agree and says American people don’t want bickering and fighting — and plugs his own website in the process as he tries to paint himself.
8:35 p.m. Candidate opening statement wrap-ups:
–Clinton says she has a plan to both protest the country, fight ISIS and grow the economy while also taking on GOP, pivoting to the general election.
–O’Malley takes shots at Trump and his Muslim ban proposal, promising to stop “fascist pleas of billionaires with big mouths.”
–Sanders says he’s running against “establishment politics and establishment economics” and will work to raise wages while preventing climate change.