Clinton and Sanders Clash On Surprising Number of Issues in 2015's Final Debate

The Democratic Party’s top two candidates for president clashed on numerous domestic and foreign policy issues in 2015’s last debate Saturday night, underscoring that Bernie Sanders would go further than Hillary Clinton to redirect private wealth at home for public goals while implementing a more restrained military presence overseas.


In a spirited two-hour debate from Manchester, New Hampshire, the candidates laid out different approaches to confronting ISIS, removing the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, whose civil war has created millions of refugees, and whether the U.S. should pursue regime change. On domestic issues, they disagreed on how much Wall Street’s financial speculators and banking giants should be regulated and taxed, how rising health insurance and prescription drug costs could be countered, and how to make higher education costs and student loans more affordable.

The debate, which also included former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is in the single digits in the polls, began with Sanders apologizing to Clinton for his staff’s handling of a data breach related to the Democratic National Committee’s nationwide voter files, in which a DNC vendor repeatedly sent confidential information to competing campaigns. Clinton graciously accepted his apology, and both were eager to move onto debating more substantive issues.

The debate’s first half was driven by early December’s mass shooting in San Bernardino. Clinton, speaking first, said she would not send U.S. ground troops into Syria but would push Arab nations to use their militaries to take back ISIS-held territory. On the domestic side, she said the technology sector has to find ways to work with national security agencies to track possible attacks, and that Muslim-Americans are needed as “our early warning signal.” She also targeted Donald Trump’s demonization of Muslims, saying, “He is becoming ISIS’s best recruiter.”

Sanders replied that he is among the 77 percent of Americans who do not think the government can stop “lone wolf” attacks. He said the U.S. “must crush ISIS,” yet cautioned against “unilateral military action” leading to regime change, which he said almost always brings unintended consequences. He contrasted his voting record—against the first Gulf war and the invasion of  Iraq—with Clinton’s, saying, “The U.S. cannot succeed or be thought of as the policeman of the world.” He disagreed with Clinton that the Syrian dictator Assad has to be targeted at the same time as ISIS, and said he would apply pressure to Saudi Arabia and Qatar to use their militaries to remove ISIS, saying “this is a war for the soul of Islam,” not America’s fight. “Getting rid of dictators is easy, but what about the day after,” he said, pointing to failed U.S. military interventions in Libya, Iraq, Chile and Iran.

Going deeper into their positions and differences, Clinton defended her role as Secretary of State in Libya, saying the U.S. got involved after Arab and European allies asked for assistance to help civilians and go after its longtime dictator, but after his removal the country’s leaders did not want American aid or intervention, leading to today’s strife and ISIS presence. She also rejected the debate moderator’s question that it was hypocritical for her to support ground troops in Afghanistan but not in Syria, saying that Al Queda attacked the U.S., requiring a fuller military response, and that sending U.S. ground troops (as most Republican candidates have pledged to do) would play into ISIS’ hands by appearing that the West is at war with Islam. She also said creating a no-fly zone would create safe havens for Syrian refugees. The other parts of her strategy involved rebuilding the Iraqi army, rekindling alliances with tribal leaders, changing the Turkish military’s role and better coordinating with Russia (in a just-adopted U.N. Security Council plan). “We can be successful,” she said, noting that the U.S. has no choice but to provide global leadership.

In contrast, Sanders said he did not want a foreign policy where the U.S. military would be present for decades at a time in the world’s troubled spots. “Our differences are fairly deep,” he said, saying he “worried too much” that Clinton favored regime change without considering the consequences. “The primary focus must be destroying ISIS,” he said, and then getting rid of the Syrian dictator over time—not “perpetual war.” Sanders said “there was no magical solution, but we have to get our priorities right. It is not Assad who is attacking the U.S., and attacking France and Russian airlines.” However, Sanders agreed with Clinton’s critique of Trump’s dangerous Islamophobic rhetoric. “You have a very dangerous moment in American history,” he said, adding that Trump’s demonization of Mexicans last summer and Muslims more recently, preys on Americans’ fears.

Sanders agreed with Clinton when she said more “guns will not make Americans safer,” and both favor a range of what Sanders called “sensible” new gun control laws that include better background checks, closing gun show buying loopholes, and stopping the civilian sale of militarized weapons.

Corporate America and Wall Street

When the topic turned to domestic issues, both Clinton and Sanders spoke of the need for a higher minimum wage, pay equity for women, lowering the cost of higher education, more profit sharing and creating jobs by rebuilding American infrastructure and other longtime Democratic Party goals. Where they differ substantially is over the costs and how to pay for it.

Sanders flat-out said that Wall Street and corporate greed has destroyed the American middle class over the past three decades and should be aggressively taxed to pay for programs Americans need, such as tuition-free higher education at public institutions. He said the six largest banks that control the majority of credit cards and mortgages in America should be broken up and that investors who speculate by making millions of trades should pay a financial transaction tax. When asked by the moderator if corporate America would like a President Sanders, he replied, “I think they won’t. Hillary and I have a difference.” Sanders went on to say that as a member of Congress he opposed all kinds of favors for the financial sector, including the bill signed by Bill Clinton that repealed the Depression-era prohibition on commercial banks investing in risky securities.   

Clinton said she wanted to be president for “the struggling, striving and the successful” in America. She said it was ludicrous to think she would prioritize Wall Street, pointing out that two hedge fund billionaires already are running TV ads against her and only 3 percent of her campaign donations are from the financial sector. She said those making more than $1 million a year should pay a 30 percent income tax rate, and that her priority will be helping small businesses to prosper.

When the topic turned to Obamacare and rising prescription drug prices, there also were strong differences. Clinton said that the recent jump in health insurance deductibles and prescription drug prices is because there isn't enough competition and regulation of both industries. “We want to build on it and fix it,” she said of Obamacare, and said that the federal government’s Medicare program should be allowed—as it currently is not—to negotiate on bulk drug purchases.           

Sanders, in contrast, said that as successful as Obamacare was in extending coverage to 17 million people, it is abhorrent that 29 million people do not have access to health care. He repeated that it was a national disgrace that health care is not a right of all Americans, and said that was because insurance and drug companies had been “bribing the U.S. Congress.” He repeated his support for a single-payer health care system like European countries have, saying their per capita costs are far lower than the U.S.

Clinton replied that Sanders' proposals—taxing financial transactions to pay for free higher education and creating a single-payer healthcare system—would cost upward of $20 trillion and lead to a 40 percent increase in the federal budget. “It really does transfer every bit of our health care system to the states,” she said. “We have to be thoughtful of how we will respond.”

Sanders replied that Clinton’s numbers and critique are “wrong” because her assessment of his costs includes the profit margins that are now in the system and are making these expenses so high for middle-class Americans. “You will have to get more taxes out of middle-class Americans,” she said, during a terse exchange, saying she would not propose any program that raises taxes on households earning less than $250,000 a year. Sanders said some of his initiatives, such as paid family leave from work, would only cost “$1.61 a week.” He said, “You can say that is a tax on the middle class,” and emphasized it was affordable and worthwhile.

Clinton and Sanders also disagreed on the extent to which public colleges and university tuition should be free. Sanders said his proposed Wall St. transaction tax could cover the cost of tuition and that the government should act to lower the interest rates now charged on student loans. Clinton countered, “I don’t believe in free tuition for everybody,” saying it should be reserved for the middle-class and poor kids. She said her priority is to create a “debt-free” tuition that wouldn’t follow students into later life.

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