Hillary Clinton & Bernie Sanders Get Into The Issues In First One-On-One Debate

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders went head-to-head in a debate for the first time tonight. After a virtual tie at the Iowa caucuses, then a pointed back-and-forth with Anderson Cooper and an audience of voters in Derry, New Hampshire at CNN’S Democratic Town Hall, the two remaining Democratic candidates delivered a good-spirited, yet sometimes heated debate at the University of New Hampshire.

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow kicked off the event with one caveat: Tonight’s debate was about clarifying the differences between the two candidates, not the usual talking points. However, that’s not quite how this debate played out. Defining "progressive" made up 20% of speaking slots, with only about 60% focusing on the issues, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Sanders set the tone for much of the debate with his opening statement. “Millions of Americans are giving up on the political process,” he said. “Almost all new income and wealth is going to the top 1%... Sustaining this rigged economy is a corrupt campaign-financing industry.”

Clinton made it a point to agree with Sanders most of the time. But the exchange quickly devolved into a quibble over semantics: Is Clinton progressive enough to lead the Democratic party? Is Sanders moderate enough to win in the general election?

“A progressive is someone who makes progress. That’s what I intend to do,” Clinton said. Sanders, meanwhile, reiterated his strength as a candidate by highlighting his strong lead among young voters. To this point, Sanders continuously emphasized financial corruption in the political process as the central issue.

Overturning the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling on Citizens United vs. FEC — which allowed a massive influx of money to influence the political campaigning process — as well as raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans and reinforcing corporate regulations, were the core strategies Sanders relied upon as a most necessary first step if he is to receive the nomination and be elected president. “The middle class bailed out Wall Street in its time of need,” Sanders said, “Now it’s time for Wall Street to help the middle class.”

As Sanders repeatedly brought up the millions of dollars Clinton has received in support from those economic powerhouses — Wall Street, big oil, pharmaceutical companies — Clinton maintained that taking advantage of the campaign financing system and being “bought off” are not one and the same. “Time and time again, by innuendo, there is this attack that he is putting forth [that] anybody who ever took donations or speaking fees from interest groups has to be bought.” This prompted Maddow to point out that voters are indeed concerned about Clinton’s possible prioritizing of special interest groups over the needs of the American people. Clinton suggested that her ins with what Sanders calls “the establishment” means she may be better equipped to take it on and work toward much-needed reforms.

Clinton fell back on her foreign policy experience and her several major endorsements. However, Sanders pointed out the controversial issues she’s voted in favor of, only to later express regret for those decisions (e.g. the invasion of Iraq in 2002).

After conceding that, of course, as Secretary of State, Clinton had more foreign policy experience, Sanders suggested that Clinton’s stances on foreign policy issues are at the heart of the progressive movement’s objection to her as a presidential candidate. “Experience is not the only point: judgment is,” Sanders said. Referring to Clinton’s support of the Iraq invasion in 2002, he said, “we both looked at the same evidence, and one of us voted the right way; one of us did not.”

Clear-cut differences in policy were few and far between, in comparison to the hair-splitting and semantic bickering, but one major difference: Clinton firmly supports capital punishment but wants it reformed, citing issues among certain states and the troubling ways they’ve been implementing the death penalty. Sanders, on the other hand, would rather abolish capital punishment. “In a world of so much violence and killing, I do not believe that government itself should be part of that killing,” Sanders said.

Clinton ended by noting other forms of inequality, besides economic inequality, which were not dealt with in tonight’s debate: sexism, racism, LGBT discrimination. Overall, the two candidates tempered their passions with mutual respect, even ending by suggesting they would work together closely regardless of who wins the nomination. Bernie Sanders’s final sentiments said it all: “On our worst days...we are 100 times better than any Republican candidate.”

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