Before Sunday night’s Democratic debate even began, NBC moderators were already pronouncing that it was all about Bernie Sanders. The independent senator from Vermont, who has been surging in the polls in recent weeks, narrowing Hillary Clinton’s once unassailable lead, did indeed make the fourth Democratic debate about him, but not in the narcissistic way Donald Trump makes every debate about himself. Sanders made the debate about the policies and vision for America that he has come to embody: Universal healthcare. Criminal justice reform. Fighting inequality. Taxing the super-rich. Tougher banking regulations. Democratic socialism.
Preaching his gospel of socioeconomic justice, Sanders framed the debate in terms of the masses versus the privileged few. “As we look out at our country today, what the American people understand is that we have an economy that’s rigged,” he said in his opening remarks. “And then, to make a bad situation worse, we have a corrupt campaign finance system, where millionaires and billionaires are spending extraordinary amounts of money to buy elections. This campaign is about a political revolution to not only elect the president, but to transform this country.”
In his first 100 days in office, Sanders pledged to bring the country together through progressive social policies such as raising the national minimum wage to $15 an hour (which several major cities have already enacted through local ordinances), providing free healthcare for all Americans and creating millions of jobs through infrastructure projects. “We are going to have a government that works for all of us and not just big campaign contributors,” he said.
And while Sanders did not go out of his way to attack Clinton, he did criticize her association with Wall Street. “I don’t take speaking fees from banks,” said Sanders, a jab aimed directly at Clinton, who has earned millions in speaking fees from big banks. She responded by accusing Sanders of being the only candidate to vote for financial deregulation that led to the 2008 financial recession. “You’re the only one on this stage that voted to deregulate the financial market in 2000,” she said, “to make the SEC and Commodities Future Trading Commission no longer able to regulate swaps and derivatives, which were one of the main causes of the collapse in ’08.” Clinton vowed to prevent Dodd-Frank, a series of new financial regulations meant to prevent future downturns caused by irresponsible finance industry behavior. Sanders responded by saying that it was time to get the government on Wall Street’s case.
Universal healthcare was an area he constantly pointed to as being corrupted by private interests. “Do you know why we can’t do what every other major country on earth is doing?” he asked. The U.S. is unique in being the only advanced-industrialized nation in the world without a universal healthcare plan, which was supposed to be remedied by the Affordable Care Act (or “Obamacare” as its opponents call it). And the costly healthcare system the country has today was a result of private interests, namely the pharmaceutical and private insurance companies that dominate the American health system, according to Sanders. “What this is really about is not the rational way to go forward — it’s Medicare for all — it is whether we have the guts to stand up to the private insurance companies and all of their money, and the pharmaceutical industry. That’s what this debate should be about,” he said.
Sanders invoked Democratic presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman in explaining that his plan for universal healthcare was not a new one, even if the specifics of it had changed only hours before the debate. “The truth is that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman, you know what they believed in? They believed healthcare should be available to all our people,” he said. By comparing his policy proposals with those of venerated American presidents, Sanders sought to position himself as the candidate best suited to revive their pragmatic and progressive policies.
It wasn’t the only time during the debate that FDR was mentioned. Like Roosevelt, whose Works Progress Administration employed 3.3 million Americans and created a construction boom that mitigated the worst effects of the Depression, Sanders has proposed to institute a similar program to employ millions of Americans to help rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure and lift more Americans out of poverty. (Around 27 million workers today are unemployed or underemployed.) He has said his plan would put 13 million Americans at work by investing $1 trillion into infrastructure upgrades targeting highways, airports, energy grids and railroads. But it’s estimated that the U.S. will need to spend $3.6 trillion investing in infrastructure by 2020 just to keep infrastructure in good condition.
Sanders also proposed policies to end the indisputably lower incomes and higher incarceration rates of African Americans into his struggle for a political revolution. In the aftermath of the Tamir Rice non-indictment, Sanders said, “This is a responsibility for the U.S. Justice Department to get involved. Whenever anybody in this country is killed while in police custody, it should automatically trigger a U.S. Attorney General’s investigation.” He also denounced the militarization of American police forces, saying they should be replaced with community policing that reflected the demographics of the communities they served.
NBC moderator Andrea Mitchell asked the candidates whether they foresaw any scenario in which they would approve sending ground forces to fight ISIS in a combat role. Clinton’s three-pronged plan was a continuation of President Obama’s policies, which included coalition airstrikes, strengthening the Iraqi Army, Sunni irregulars and Kurdish forces, and disrupt the flow of funds and fighters into the self-proclaimed caliphate. “I am very committed to both going after ISIS but also supporting what Secretary Kerry is doing to move on a political-dipmatic course to try to begin to slow down the carnage in Syria.”
Sanders proposed training regional Arab militaries to take on ISIS. After two inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American public’s appetite for war has noticeably waned and Sanders tapped into that, recasting what the American mission should be. “Our job is to train and provide military support for Muslim countries who are prepared to take on ISIS,” said Sanders while discussing Middle East policy. “You have incredibly wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They have got to start putting some skin in the game and not ask the U.S. to do it.” Even when it came to removing Bashar Al-Assad, the embattled Syrian president, he said it would have to be done with the help of Iran and Russia. Whether or not the complexities of the Syrian civil war factored into Sanders’ commitment to multilateralism, his approach has mirrored those of Obama, who has eschewed American adventurism for international consensus building.
Sanders weakest performance during the debate was an early exchange about his voting record on guns. “I have made it clear, based on Senator Sanders voting record, that he has voted with the N.R.A. lobby numerous times,” said Clinton. She pointed out that he had voted against the Brady Bill, a bill passed in 1993 that required federally licensed gun dealers to perform background checks on gun buyers. Sanders had voted against the bill five times according to Clinton, a claim that was backed up by Politifact. His voting record has been one of the few areas where Clinton has been able to position herself as further to the left than Sanders.
Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland and often the forgotten candidate in the debate, tried to draw attention towards his own proposals, which he claimed were even more progressive than Clinton’s or Sanders’. He came out in support of increasing union membership, passing comprehensive immigration reform, investing money into revitalizing American cities. Trying to create a niche for himself in the debate, O’Malley repeatedly proposed to move the U.S. to a clean energy grid by 2050, a commitment he tried to get his fellow nominees to pledge to on stage. It was mostly ignored though. NBC moderator Lester Holt wouldn’t even give him time to discuss police reform after pleading for “just 10 seconds” — and then cut to commercial.