Clinton, Sanders Spar in Second Democratic Debate

Democratic U.S. presidential candidates Senator Bernie Sanders (L), former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley pose on stage ahead of the second official 2016 U.S. Democratic presidential candidates debate in Des Moines, Iowa, November 14. Jim Young/Reuters

Updated | On Saturday night, less than 24 hours after armed gunmen killed more than 127 in Paris in what analysts called the largest terrorist attack since September 11, 2001, the Democrats gathered in Iowa for their second primary debate in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. The debate began with a moment of silence for those killed in the attacks and was a stark contrast to earlier debates, especially among the Republicans, which were marked by squabbling among candidates and moderators.

Given the Paris attacks, watchers expected a heavy emphasis on national security and terrorism, subjects on which former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton generally excels. Also onstage were independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley.

In their opening statements, Clinton and O'Malley both spoke about the need to defeat Islamic terrorism. Sanders, meanwhile, emphasized the need to address income inequality. Asked by the debate's moderator, John Dickerson, whether the United States had underestimated the Islamic State (ISIS), Clinton spoke of the need to arm those who would fight Islamic terror groups.

Democratic Debate Candidates Get Ready to Spar
Democratic U.S. presidential candidates, from left, Senator Bernie Sanders former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley. Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters

Sanders attempted to link Clinton's vote to invade Iraq with the rise of ISIS. "I have said the invasion of Iraq was a mistake," she responded.

"I am not a great fan of regime change," Sanders said. "We have to understand that the Muslim nations in the region...are going to have to get their hands dirty....They are going to have to take on ISIS. This is a war for the soul of Islam." Clinton shot back that some Middle Eastern nations, such as U.S. ally Jordan, have shouldered an outsize burden in dealing with Islamic terrorism and taking refugees.

Asked by Dickerson whether she would be willing to use the phrase "radical Islam" to describe the Islamic State and other jihadist terror groups, Clinton said the U.S. is not at war with Muslims. Sanders agreed. "I don't think the term is what's important. What is we have ISIS and al-Qaeda who do believe we should go back several thousand years," he said.

On the issue of refugees—more than 1 million of them have fled Syria since the beginning of the civil war there —O'Malley said the U.S. should take in 65,000. "There are other ways to lead and to be a moral leader in this world than on the opposite end of a drone strike," he said. Clinton agreed, but said that the U.S. should screen refugees closely to prevent possible jihadists from entering the country.

Some genial jousting over wages and incomes and growth was lackluster but did highlight a few important policy differences between the candidates, as well as challenges they all face. All of the candidates favor higher tax rates on the wealthy and assorted tax expenditures to help middle-class families, whether those are geared at helping them afford college or buy a first home. On health care, Sanders's Quixotic bid for a single-payer system distinguished him from his rivals, as did O'Malley's call for treating capital gains like other income. Still, the candidates' piecemeal approaches seemed unequal to the looming problems of slow growth, stagnant wages and income inequality.

Sanders scored some humor points when he said that, under his administration, the highest tax rate would still be lower than the 90 percent rate under President Eisenhower. "I'm not that much of a socialist compared to Eisenhower," Sanders said, drawing the first cheers of the night.

Asked about immigration, the candidates took the opportunity to distance themselves from Republicans, many of whom oppose giving undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. "All of us on this stage agree we need a comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship," Clinton said. Sanders framed the immigration issue in economic terms, using the question to call for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. "I believe this country needs to move toward a living wage," he said, adding, "I apologize to nobody for that."

The most contentious segment of the night was when the debate turned to Wall Street and campaign finance reform. Moderators raised Sanders's past criticism of Clinton, who has received millions in campaign donations from Wall Street donors. Clinton defended her record, arguing she has taken a hard line against big banks, but, for Sanders, Clinton's defense was "not good enough." Somewaht bizarrely, Clinton also invoked her response to the September 11 attacks when asked about her stance on Wall Street; moderators later took her to task for it by asking her to respond to a tweet critical of the 9/11 mention.

During the Wall Street debate, O'Malley and Sanders both argued for the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagal Act, which limits how banks can invest. But Clinton said that reinstating Glass-Steagal is "nowhere near enough" and claimed her proposal goes further than Sanders's.

"The business model of Wall Street is fraud," Sanders said. "Wall Street representatives will not be in my cabinet." O'Malley added, "I am not the candidate of Wall Street."

The question of Clinton's emails was also raised. Sanders reiterated that he was "sick" of hearing about the secretary's emails, while Clinton pivoted away from the issue to attack Republicans' opposition to Planned Parenthood.

The debate then turned to health care and education. While Republicans continue to advocate for the repeal of Obamacare, the Democrats on stage praised the Affordable Care Act, while noting that Democrats should go further to ensure all Americans have health insurance. Sanders criticized private health insurers, while Clinton chartered a more moderate path, advocating public-private partnerships.

In their closing statements, Clinton and Sanders both called on voters to support their efforts to shore up the American middle class. While Clinton invoked her experience in the highest levels of government, Sanders stuck to his ideological guns, asking voters to endorse his reformist vision.

Throughout the debate, Clinton stuck to her strengths, emphasizing her foreign policy experience, an area in which both of her opponents lack. She pivoted away from tough questions, choosing instead to remind voters of her record and past successes.

Sanders, meanwhile, emphasized Clinton's Wall Street connections without being overly aggressive. He also stayed on message, emphasizing the need to address income inequality repeatedly throughout the night. Sanders's message will likely continue to resonate with young voters, with whom his calls for economic justice largely resonate.

O'Malley proved something of a third wheel, receiving considerably less speaking time than the other two candidates, though he was no less hawkish on foreign policy than Clinton and, like Sanders, advocated for economic reform. O'Malley repeatedly emphasized his experience gained as governor of Maryland as proof that he is ready for the Oval Office. But whether he can escape from Clinton's and Sanders' shadows remains to be seen.