There are high stakes in the first Democratic debate of 2016. It is the fourth overall debate, but the last chance for candidates to weigh in before primary voting begins on Feb 1. As the candidates prepare to battle in Charleston, S.C., the spotlight will be on the front runners, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, though Martin O'Malley will also be participating. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows Clinton with a 25-point national lead over Sanders, but the opponents are in a dead heat in Iowa and N.H. The tightening race will surely have an impact on Sunday's debate, which is hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute.
Martin Luther King Jr. day is tomorrow and all three candidates evoked his memory in their opening statements.
Only one of these candidates will be president, but they're preparing for their first 100 days in office. Sanders' "campaign is thinking big." He's focusing on making sure "every man and woman have access to healthcare" and raising minimum wage by rebuilding public infrastructure. Clinton wants to create better job and make sure women get equal pay for equal work. She also wants to make the Affordable Care Act better by lessening the out-of-pocket expenses for families. O'Malley wants more labor unions and better pay for all workers.
Clinton and Sanders are going after each other in this debate, especially around the issue of gun control.
Sanders recently changed his mind on immunity for gun manufacturers. When asked about this, Sanders called Clinton "disingenuous" for saying he supports the gun lobby. "I have a D-Minus rating from the NRA. I stood up to the gun lobby. We should not be selling military assault rifles," Sanders claimed.
Clinton didn't back down.
"He voted to let guns go onto Amtrak and into national parks." She also reminded us what this is all about. "Ninety people a day die from gun violence in our country," Clinton said.
O'Malley shined in this moment, telling the audience that both Clinton and Sanders have been inconsistent on their gun control record.
"I’m the one candidate on the stage who passed gun safety measures," he said. He also said he will continue supporting gun control measures because "you don’t need an AR-15 to down a deer."
Black men and women are being gunned down by police officers. The candidates didn't shy away from this issue when asked about the worth of Black lives.
"Sadly, it's reality that [Black men lives are cheap]," Clinton said. "It has been heartbreaking and outraging to see the stories of young men like Walter Scott who have been killed by police officers." She suggests addressing systemic racism in the criminal justice system by retraining police officers and ending racial profiling.
Sanders agreed. "Our criminal justice system is broken."
Black lives matter, according to all three candidates.
Recalling his record as governor of MD, O'Malley said, “Yes, Black Lives Matter." In his state, "we were able to save a lot of lives by improving policing. We’ve created a civilian board and gave them their own detectives.” O'Malley also reminded the other candidates that he "repealed the death penalty.”
When discussing policing as it relates to Black lives matter, Sanders said any time a civilian is killed by law enforcement "it should automatically trigger a U.S. Attorney General’s investigation." This is one way to hold officers accountable. Another way, according to Sanders, is to demilitarize police forces and hire police officers that look like the people they serve in their communities.
Healthcare is a big deal in this debate. Clinton was asked about the heroin epidemic sweeping America.
"Police officers must be equipped with the antidote for a heroin or opiate overdose," she said. "We have to move away from the use of drugs as a crime ... and treat it as a health issue. We need to divert more people to treatment."
Sanders agreed, and also added that the heroin epidemic shows the need for a "revolution in terms of mental healthcare treatment."
Sanders and Clinton have divergent views on healthcare. Clinton didn't back down from calling Sanders out on his view of the Affordable Care Act.
"When you’re talking about healthcare, the details really matter," she said. "The Democratic Party fought since Harry S. Truman to get the Affordable Care Act passed... I want to defend and build on the Affordable Care Act.”
Sanders doesn't intend to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.
"I voted for the Affordable Care Act," he said. "I sat on the committee that wrote the Affordable Care Act." But there's a daunting statistic he only pointed about the Affordable Care Act's effectiveness: "29 million people don’t have healthcare."
Clinton cut him off, noting that 19 million people have health insurance since the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Also, "women don't pay no more than men for health insurance." Suggesting starting all over again is moving "in the wrong direction," according to Clinton.
O'Malley wants to build on the Affordable Care Act by introducing an all-payer system that pays acute care hospitals by how "well they treat their patients."
In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said one of his presidential regrets is not bringing people together. If Clinton is elected, she said she will bring America together because she will "go anywhere to meet with anyone at any time to find common ground."
Sanders used his time to call out Congress for being "owned by big money" and "refusing to do what the America people wants them to do." O'Malley injected Frederick Douglass by saying "We are one."
Sanders is thumping Clinton among young voters. Clinton said she is "going to keep working as hard as I can to reach people of all ages" by making college more affordable among other things.
When it comes to big banks, Sanders and Clinton have very different views. Both came with their ideas blazing for this issue.
When asked about how to reform big banks, Sanders said "I don’t accept money from big banks. I don’t get personal speaking fees from Goldman-Sachs.” Shots fired. He also said big banks are too powerful and have “have too much control over the economy today.”
Clinton said that “no big is too bank to bail" and "no individual is too powerful to jail." However, she thinks Obama's Frank Dodd bill is starting to revamp big banks.
O'Malley reminded his opponents that he has put "forward a plan that was heralded as comprehensive and realistic." He also told Clinton that she didn't go far enough to punish Wall Street. "If a bank robber robs a bank and gets a slap on the wrist, he's going to keep robbing banks."
After Sanders told Clinton she accepted $600,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs, she reminded him that he voted to deregulate banks in 2000.
Taxes are always a big issue in presidential elections.
Sanders confirmed that he may raise taxes to rebuild "our crumbling infrastructure and create 13 million jobs." He'd also get rid of a tax loophole to fund his plans. Clinton doesn't agree with Sanders plan. "I have documented every way I plan to pay for what I'm doing," she said. She would raise income, not taxes, but would tax the wealthy fairly to pay for debt-free tuition and universal daycare.
Climate change is another major issue for Americans. The candidates addressed how to slow down the effects of climate change.
"The debate is over. Climate change is real," Sanders said. "We need to be bold and decisive." He also said that "we must, for the sake of our kids and grandchildren, transform our energy system from fossil fuels to energy efficiency." O'Malley agrees and chided Republicans for not believing in science.
O’Malley wants to use American ingenuity to have clean energy by 2050.
America recently negotiated a nuclear bill with Iran. The candidates were asked about restoring diplomatic relations with Iran.
"We have to move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran while recognizing that their behaviors are something we disagree with," Sanders said. He also said that our relationship with Iran should more positive moving forward.
Similarly, Clinton said that she's very proud of the Iran nuclear plan, especially since she's "responsible for the sanctions imposed" on the country. However, she is cautious about building ties with Iran. "We have to still continue to watch them," she said. "We’ve had one good day over 36 years."