After two days of intense Democratic infighting, Bernie Sanders apologized for his staff’s snooping into Hillary Clinton’s campaign files at the opening of a cantankerous presidential debate Saturday that underscored sharp differences among the candidates on foreign policy, combating terrorism and raising taxes.
The testy exchanges during the debate in the first primary state of New Hampshire marked an antagonistic new chapter in what had been, to this point, a fairly agreeable contest. But from the beginning it was colored with tension from the controversy over the Sanders campaign’s unauthorized access to proprietary Clinton files on a joint voter database maintained by the Democratic National Committee.
The breach led the DNC to cut off Sanders’ access to the database Friday, prompting the independent senator from Vermont to take the issue to court. His access was restored just hours before the debate.
Asked during the debate whether he would apologize to Clinton, Sanders replied: “Yes, I apologize.”
Clinton, in response, said that her campaign was “distressed” by the entree into her files but that she appreciated his apology and wanted to “go forward” to discuss more substantive policy topics.
The conciliatory comments gave former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley his first opportunity of the night to blister both candidates as ignoring “pressing issues” facing the country. “Maybe that is normal politics in Washington, but that is not the politics of higher purpose that people expect from our party,” he said.
The aggressive tenor reflected a race that is careening swiftly toward the votes that will determine the next Democratic nominee. It was the last organized gathering of the three candidates this year; January will bring not only more debates but a ratcheted-up retail campaign presence in this and other early states.
“Can I offer a different generation’s perspective on this? I would suggest to you that we need to leave the Cold War behind us,” he said during one foreign policy exchange, which drew boos from the audience.
He also took after both competitors on the subject of guns. He criticized Sanders for his previous support of gun legislation backed by the National Rifle Assn., and attacked Clinton for, as he put it, changing her view on guns with each election year.
“What we need on this issue is not more polls. We need more principle,” he said, blaming access to assault weapons in the U.S. on “the flip-flopping, political approach of Washington that both of my two colleagues on this stage have represented there for the last 40 years.”
“Whoa, whoa,” Sanders pleaded. “Let’s calm down a little bit, Martin.”
Clinton implored O’Malley to “tell the truth.” “I applaud his record in Maryland. I just wish he wouldn’t misrepresent mine,” she added.
Clinton and Sanders occasionally worked together to try to bat down O’Malley’s criticisms, particularly after his remarks on guns. But the pair also disagreed fiercely on multiple matters, including Syria, healthcare and taxes.
Three times, Sanders raised Clinton’s vote for war in Iraq following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — the vote that helped vault Barack Obama over Clinton during her first run for the presidency in 2008.
“We disagreed on the war on Iraq. I voted against the war,” Sanders said. “I worry too much that Secretary Clinton is too much into regime change and a little bit too aggressive without knowing what the unintended consequences might be.”
Sanders argued that American attention should focus on combating the Islamic State terrorists operating in the Mideast and, as the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist shootings showed, extending their influence across the world. Clinton argued that that approach needed to be accompanied by an international effort to push aside Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Clinton later downplayed the continued unrest in Libya, saying, “I’m not giving up on Libya.”
Although nationally televised, the debate’s most important audience may well have been in the state where it occurred, New Hampshire, which looms as a must-win for Sanders, since he is from next-door Vermont.
He has a narrow lead in New Hampshire, which holds the first-in-the-nation primary on Feb. 9, but he has not been able to make a dent in Clinton’s commanding national lead. (O’Malley has been mired in the low single digits throughout, far behind the top two.)
Sanders and Clinton also clashed on the taxes that she said would be required to fund the social programs that he seeks to create, including universal healthcare and free college for all. Clinton, who has pledged she would not raise taxes on families earning less than $250,000, said Sanders’ promises were unrealistic.
“You are going to have to get more taxes out of the middle class” to fund the Sanders agenda, she said. “I don’t think we should be imposing new big programs that are going to be raising middle-class families’ taxes.”
“Secretary Clinton is wrong,” he said, and added that her objections were akin to those who opposed revered Democratic programs like Social Security and Medicare. And he noted that many of Clinton’s allies in Congress were pushing a landmark paid family leave plan, which would cost middle-class families $1.61 per week — a measure not supported by Clinton, who is promoting a plan that would be funded by other means.
“Secretary Clinton, a buck sixty-one is a pretty good investment,” Sanders said.
Despite the engaged performances by the trailing candidates, there was little to suggest the exchanges would reshape the race.
But Clinton and Sanders tried to put that in the rearview mirror, repeatedly noting that the Democrats on stage agreed more than they disagreed, and represented a better choice than any of the Republicans competing in a frenzied campaign for their party’s nomination.
Halper and Memoli reported from Manchester and Decker from Los Angeles.