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Democratic Debate Highlights Sharp Disagreement On Mideast

By Evan Halper and Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

MANCHESTER, N.H. — The Democratic presidential candidates strongly disagreed over the U.S. role in the Middle East as they debated in New Hampshire on Saturday, with Sen. Bernie Sanders urgently needing a big break to jump-start his campaign.

After extraordinary success early in his campaign, Sanders has not had many events move his way lately. The campaign’s greater focus on foreign affairs and terrorism has shifted the discussion away from his areas of strength, his growth in the polls has stalled and he is running out of time to gain ground on front-runner Hillary Clinton.

In recent weeks, Sanders has sometimes seemed frustrated with that focus on the Middle East and the fight against the Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. But early in the debate, he staked out that issue as a key distinction between himself and Clinton.

“I worry,” he said that “Secretary Clinton is too much into regime change and a little bit too aggressive without knowing what the unintended consequences might be” of military action in the Mideast.

The U.S. should seek a coalition against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, that would include Russia, Sanders said. To keep the focus on that fight, the U.S. should set aside its insistence that Syrian President Bashar Assad leave power, he added.

“It is not Assad that is attacking the United States. It is ISIS,” he said. The U.S. “cannot be the policeman of the world.”

Clinton sharply disagreed.

“Assad has killed by last count about 250,000 Syrians,” she said, and the civil war caused by his government’s actions is “the reason we’re in the mess we’re in.”

“I wish it could be either-or,” she said. But the U.S. needs to work on both tracks — fighting Islamic State and opposing Assad — to be effective. The Sunni Arab fighters that the U.S. wants on its side all oppose Assad and want to remove him from power, she noted.

“If the United States does not lead, there is not another leader, there is a vacuum,” she said. She also suggested that Sanders’ approach would lead to greater involvement in Syria by Iran, Assad’s ally.

More involvement by Iran would be “like asking the arsonist to pour more gasoline on the fire,” she said.

The disagreement over the Mideast was one of sharpest disagreements on a night in which the candidates saved most of their harshest language for a Republican, Donald Trump.

Clinton said the New York billionaire was “becoming ISIS’ best recruiter” because of his proposal to ban most Muslims from entering the U.S. and other remarks that many Muslims see as aimed at them.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley decried what he called the “fascist pleas of billionaires with big mouths.”

O’Malley, who has languished in the polls, was newly aggressive Saturday, going after both Clinton and Sanders on gun control.

He called Sanders to task for his previous support of gun legislation backed by the National Rifle Association that shielded gun makers from civil suits, and for his opposition to the Brady Bill and other gun control laws.

He also attacked Clinton for, as he put it, changing her view on gun laws with every election year.

“Look, what we need on this issue is not more polls. We need more principle,” he said.

“Whoa, whoa,” Sanders replied. “Let’s calm down a little bit, Martin.”

“Tell the truth,” Clinton said. “I applaud his record in Maryland. I just wish he wouldn’t misrepresent mine.”

Clinton also offered a backhanded compliment to Sanders on the gun issue, noting that he had shifted position and was now closer to her view.

“I’m glad to see this — Sen. Sanders has really moved in face of the facts about what we’re confronting in our country,” she said.

Earlier in the debate, Sanders was prodded to apologize for the latest unexpected development to complicate his campaign — a crisis that erupted Friday over snooping by Sanders’ since-fired digital director into confidential voter files that Clinton’s campaign had stored in a Democratic National Committee database. For a time, the party and the Sanders campaign appeared headed for a fight in court, until a truce was reached late Friday night.

Asked about the digital snooping, Sanders said, “I recognize it is a problem,” and admitted, “Our staff did the wrong thing.”

Although he also complained that Democratic Party officials had treated his campaign too roughly in response, Sanders offered an apology to Clinton and to his supporters.

Clinton, in response, repeated a gesture that Sanders had offered her at an earlier debate, when he said he was tired of hearing about the controversy over her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state.

“We should move on, because I don’t think the American people are all that interested in this,” she said.

O’Malley, who has languished far back in the polls, also sought to seize on the issue to try to create an opening for himself, claiming that the daylong argument over the issue on Friday was an example of what’s wrong with American politics.

No place is more crucial for Sanders to achieve a breakthrough than in New Hampshire, an almost do-or-die contest for the senator who hails from neighboring Vermont.

Sanders holds a slight lead in New Hampshire, according to several polls, even as he has been losing ground in Iowa, which holds the first nominating contest. His campaign is working fiercely to hang on to its edge here, where early polls are notoriously volatile.

When Sanders launched his bid, voters were almost singularly focused on the economy. His unapologetic economic populism and crusading against Wall Street was welcomed as a refreshing defiance of the status quo by a Democratic base disappointed in how the middle class keeps losing ground, even under the Obama administration.

The Sanders pitch still resonates with the party’s liberal wing. But he’s been less successful at handling the issue that now dominates the race: national security. After the attacks in Paris and then San Bernardino, Clinton embraced the challenge with gusto, laying out detailed proposals in speeches before distinguished crowds of foreign policy thinkers where she already seemed to be playing the role of commander in chief.

Sanders lacked the foreign policy expertise to compete, countering Clinton with calls to encourage the Arab world to become more engaged in the fight against terrorism. The low point for Sanders came when a staffer advised reporters before one news conference that the senator would not take questions on Islamic State.

The Democratic debates are more like a PBS special. The New Hampshire event, just the third of the nominating season, was the second held on a Saturday night, when many would-be viewers have other things to do. The DNC sets the debate schedule, and Sanders’ backers allege that party officials deliberately timed the events so they would have minimum impact and not threaten the lead of the establishment candidate, Clinton.

Regardless, the debates have done little to change the contours of the race. Clinton was up by more than 20 points in national polling averages leading up to last month’s debate in Iowa. In the weeks following, she was still up by more than 20 points, as she is now.

©2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Democratic U.S. presidential candidates (L-R) U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Governor Martin O’Malley discuss issues at the Democratic presidential candidates debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire December 19, 2015.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder


Landscape Altered As Clinton, GOP Prepare For Benghazi Hearing

By Evan Halper and Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The House Select Committee on Benghazi has been furiously preparing for months to interrogate Hillary Rodham Clinton about private email accounts, the server in her house and Americans killed in Libya, but on the eve of the hearing Thursday, it is not Clinton who is on the defensive.

It is the committee.

Congressional Republicans have made so many missteps in the run-up to their marquee event of the presidential primary that the chairman of the committee finally implored his colleagues over the weekend to “shut up talking about things you don’t know anything about.” The Clinton campaign now views the daylong grilling that once threatened to derail her White House bid as a veritable campaign stop.

Clinton slipped out of public view this week to prepare answers for every line of questioning her team can imagine. The three-day cram session reflects the high stakes of the event, with a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showing 44 percent of Americans are not satisfied with Clinton’s response to the attacks in Benghazi and even more saying her email controversy will factor in their vote.

But Clinton is also strategizing how to use the hearing as a springboard to introduce her foreign policy vision. Clinton’s team is betting that the committee, chastened by questions about its motivation, will focus more on Libya than on email — which is exactly what Clinton wants.

“This investigation has not unveiled a lot of new facts,” said one senior Clinton adviser, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the preparations. “And no matter how many hours it lasts, she is not somebody who is going to break. Good luck trying to break Hillary Clinton.”

The hearing that once promised to be a flash point in the email controversy, where Clinton would either put it behind her or sow more doubt in the minds of voters, is no longer quite that.
“A month ago, the stakes would have been much higher,” said David Brock, who leads Correct the Record, a pro-Clinton super PAC. “The Republicans have been knocked back.”
One big reason is Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, Calif., who was poised to be House speaker until he bragged on cable news about the committee’s effectiveness in damaging Clinton. It contradicted assurances by the committee chair, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., that the panel was not targeting anyone.

Another GOP congressman, Richard Hanna of New York, would also describe the committee’s work as partisan, and Gowdy himself, days before the hearing, is returning campaign donations from a political — called Stop Hillary PAC — that recently ran ads attacking Clinton’s handling of Benghazi.

Then there is the threatened wrongful termination lawsuit from a Republican investigator on the committee who says he was fired after refusing to bend to pressure to narrowly target his digging toward Clinton.

It has all left committee Republicans straining to define the hearing as about anything other than attacking her. “This isn’t about Hillary,” Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., said on CNN on Tuesday. “She just happened to be there as secretary of state when this tragedy occurred.” Gowdy sent an exasperated letter to committee Democrats Sunday that began: “(O)ur committee is not investigating Hillary Clinton.”

Yet more Americans think the investigation is overly partisan and unfair than believe it is fair and impartial, the poll found, with 36 percent calling it unfair, compared with 29 percent who see it as fair.

But roughly a third of the public, 35 percent, said they don’t know enough yet to judge the probe’s fairness — an audience both sides presumably will be trying to influence.
The Clinton campaign, the super PACs supporting Clinton, and the Democrats on the Benghazi committee haven’t stopped pummeling.

“The strongest indictment against the committee thus far is that after 17 months and $4.5 million, (it) still can’t tell you what it’s looking for — because it doesn’t know,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., a leading Democratic member of the panel, said in an interview. “That’s the classic definition of a fishing expedition.”

Clinton supporters are spending more than $1 million to blanket the cable news networks with ads attacking the committee Wednesday and Thursday in key early voting states and in Washington. The committee Democrats rolled out a 124-page, footnoted report concluding the investigation is a sham.

“Republicans on the committee are going to be under intense pressure to justify their very existence, to justify the existence of this committee and to prove to the American people that this committee is not just another arm of the Republican National Committee,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday.

Clinton won’t be talking about any of that. She will play the part of stateswoman seeking to work with the legislative branch to strengthen American foreign policy. The hearing that was supposed to put Clinton on her heels, bait her into an unflattering confrontation and damage her credibility is now looking to her campaign like a great venue to shift the focus of the campaign to her foreign policy strengths.

“This is an opportunity to lean in and defend her approach to foreign policy,” said the Clinton adviser. That includes defending a diplomatic presence in Libya and other dangerous places to protect American interests, as well as outlining her view of “smart power” — using diplomacy to build consensus with allies, backed by the appropriate level of military strength.

Clinton will also talk about J. Christopher Stevens, the ambassador to Libya killed in the 2012 attacks, as someone she knew personally. And she will strike a “solemn and substantive” tone in trying to work with the committee on solutions for keeping diplomats side, while also insisting that the lesson to be learned from the Benghazi attacks is not that American diplomats need to retreat from such hot zones.

(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Hall of Fame dinner in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, United States, July 17, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young

Hillary Clinton Draws Contrast With Republicans As She Lays Out Economic Plan

By Evan Halper and Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Hillary Rodham Clinton used an economic policy speech Monday to make an early contrast with her potential Republican opponents, promising to “rely on evidence more than ideology” in an effort to restore financial security for Americans left behind in the recent economic recovery.

Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, said that boosting middle-class wages was the “defining economic issue of our time” and proposed to overhaul the tax code, promote corporate profit-sharing and advance paid family leave to build what she called a “growth and fairness economy.”

“I want to see our economy work for the struggling, the striving and the successful,” Clinton said in her address at the New School in New York. “We’re not going to find all the answers we need today in the playbooks of the past, we can’t go back to the old policies that failed us before, nor can we just replay the successes.”

Corporate profit-sharing was an example of the “new ideas” Clinton said she’d promote as president, saying it would give workers a stake in the success of their employer as a way to “boost productivity and put money directly in employees’ pockets.”

The emphasis on profit-sharing comes amid concerns by Clinton and the many economists advising her that too much of the American economy has become focused on fast earnings for those in top income brackets, to the detriment of rank-and-file workers.

Clinton’s speech represented the first look at what aides say will be a detailed agenda, to be rolled out in the coming weeks, that seeks to push capital toward more durable growth, creating incentives for investments in infrastructure and research, for example, while closing what her advisers say are tax loopholes that promote excessive risk-taking in the markets.

She also promoted familiar Democratic priorities such as pay equity for women, paid family leave and affordable child care, something she said was not a “luxury” but a “growth strategy.”

Her proposals take aim at a problem vexing economists: how to pull America out of a prolonged period of stagnant middle-class wages, even at a time when productivity is on the rise.

Income disparity has become a central issue in the race for the White House, and Republican candidates have ideas that differ from Clinton’s. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is building his economic agenda around a plan to boost growth of the country’s gross domestic product to a sustained 4 percent a year.

Calling inequality a “drag” on the entire economy, Clinton targeted Bush directly for saying last week that Americans needed to “work longer hours” — a portion of the former Florida governor’s discussion of economic solutions that his campaign said critics have taken out of context. Clinton said Bush “must not have met very many American workers,” and challenged him to repeat the claim to nurses, teachers and others who she said “do not need a lecture. They need a raise.”

Discussing tax reform, Clinton called a plan from Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida that would slash taxes on top incomes a “budget-busting giveaway to the super wealthy,” the kind of plan that was typical of the “bad economics” Republicans would propose.

And she attacked the newest GOP contender, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, for “stomping on workers’ rights” by seeking to undermine the strength of public employee unions.

“I will fight back against these mean-spirited, misguided attacks,” she vowed, saying the decline of unions was responsible for a third of the increase in income inequality. “If we want to get serious about raising incomes, we have to get serious about supporting union workers.”

(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.