Everything You Missed From the First Head-to-Head Democratic Presidential Debate


Three days after the two candidates fought to a near-draw in the Iowa caucuses, Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) faced off for their fifth debate on Thursday night on MSNBC.

The pair arrived in Durham, New Hampshire, following heated spats over each other's progressive bona fides. Sharply divided between Clinton's pragmatic brand of liberalism and Sanders' idealistic democratic socialism, the two presented Democratic voters with a stark choice over the direction of the party as President Barack Obama's tenure winds down.

We rounded up the most notable moments below:

1. Clinton defended her progressive bona fides.

Following days of attacks from Sanders on Clinton's credibility as a progressive, Clinton offered a forceful defense of her progressivism, arguing that her pragmatic approach offered a better means of "making progress" than Sanders' more idealistic worldview.

"Sen. Sanders and I share some very big progressive goals," Clinton said. "I've been fighting for universal health care for many years. We're now on the path to achieving it."

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"I don't want us to start over again," she added, in a jab at Sanders' proposal for single-payer health care.

Clinton also said that she supported "affordable college," but not free college, as Sanders has proposed, saying that Sanders' proposal would unfairly benefit the wealthy and disadvantaged alike.

"A progressive is someone who makes progress," Clinton said. "That what's I intend to do." — Luke Brinker

2. Sanders fielded a question about whether Obama is progressive.

Sanders had to walk a line between staying true to his liberal views and not stepping on the achievements and legacy of the man whose job he would like to have next.

"Do I think President Obama is a progressive? I do," the Vermont senator said. "I disagree with him on a number of issues. I think he's done an excellent job."

At the same time, he held his ground philosophically by saying his plans aren't — as Clinton frames them — pie in the sky, or even new.

"Now all the ideas that I'm talking about, they are not radical ideas," Sanders had said earlier in a defense of his progressive platform. "Public colleges and universities [that are] tuition free, that exists in all countries all over the world. It used to exist in the United States... What we need to do is to stand up to the big money interests and the campaign contributors. When we do that we can transform America." — Celeste Katz

3. Clinton said Sanders' definition of "progressive" was absurd.

Clinton and Sanders clashed over the definition of "progressive," reigniting a battle that's gone on over the course of the past week, both through remarks at campaign events and on Twitter. Clinton's most pointed criticism of the firebrand senator came when she said that under his definition of progressive, nobody in the real world actually meets his criteria.

"I've heard Sen. Sanders' comments — it's really caused me to wonder who's left in the progressive wing of the Democratic party," Clinton said. "Under his definition, President Obama is not progressive because he took donations from Wall Street, Vice President Biden is not progressive because he supported Keystone. Even the late, great Sen. Paul Wellstone would not fit this definition because he voted for DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act]. We have differences, and, honestly, I think we should be talk about what we want to do for the country."

Clinton decried the way in which she believes Sanders has claimed the mantle of "gatekeeper for progressivism" and said "I don't know anyone else who fits that definition." — Zeeshan Aleem

4. Clinton called Sanders out for his "establishment" line of attack.

For weeks, Sanders has been dealing with the fallout of categorizing women's groups like Planned Parenthood as "the establishment" during an appearance on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show.

The topic came up again in the debate. As soon as Sanders said the word, Clinton fought back with a well-prepared rebuttal.

"I've got to just jump in here," Clinton said. "Honestly, Sen. Sanders is the only person who would characterize me — a woman running to be the first woman president — as exemplifying the establishment."

Her attack may have been indirect, but Clinton neatly framed the "establishment" attack as being gendered. Whether the American public agrees with her remains to be seen. — Liz Plank

5. Clinton accused Sanders of launching an "artful smear" against her integrity.

In one of the debate's most heated exchanges, Clinton charged that Sanders had resorted to deploying an "artful smear" against her, challenging him to end what she called "attacks by insinuation" on her character.

"Sen. Sanders says he wants to run a positive campaign," Clinton said. "I've tried to keep my disagreements over issues, as it should be. Time and time again, by insinuation, there is this attack that he is putting forth, which really comes down to, you know, anybody who ever took donations or speaking fees from any interest group has to be bought."

"I just absolutely reject that, senator," she continued. "I really don't think these kinds of attacks by insinuation are not worthy of you. Enough is enough. if you've got something to say, say it directly. You will not find that I ever changed a view or a vote because of any donation that i ever received."

Escalating her criticism of Sanders' campaign tactics, Clinton asserted that he had diverted attention from "the issues."

"I have stood up and I have represented my constituents to the best of my abilities, and I'm very proud of that," she said. "I think it's time to end the artful smear that you and your campaign have been carrying out in recent weeks and let's talk about the issues that divide us."

In response, Sanders belittled the suggestion that campaign contributions bear no relationship to policy preferences.

"There is a reason why these people are putting huge amounts of money into our political system," Sanders said, citing issues like financial deregulation and climate change as areas in which industry contributions shaped policy outcomes. "In my view, it's undermining American democracy and allowing Congress to represent wealthy campaign contributors and the working families of this country." — Luke Brinker

6. Sanders doubled down on his Wall Street proposals.

Both Clinton and Sanders have unveiled Wall Street regulatory plans that differ in a number of ways. But during the debate, Sanders repeatedly emphasized the main difference between himself and Clinton on Wall Street: the belief that size matters.

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Sanders invoked Theodore Roosevelt's famous attack on monopolies in the economy, describing how Wall Street misdeeds and its negative effects on the economy could not realistically be contained unless major banks are forcibly shrunk.

"The six largest financial institutions in America today have assets of roughly $10 trillion, equivalent to 58% of the GDP of America — that's a lot of money," Sander said. "They issue two-thirds of the credit cards. They are ripping off a whole lot of people with high interest rates on the credit cards. They write about one-third of the mortgages."

Sanders warned that the concentration of so many assets in such few hands posed a threat to the economy — and the ability to govern them.

"That is a lot of power for six financial institutions ... I think it's too much power," he said. "Too much economic power, too much political power — the economists that I talk to say we should break them up."

Clinton's inclination is to leave the size of the banks alone, and instead rely on financial regulatory reforms that were put in place in the wake of the 2008 crisis and a host of new ones upon taking office. — Zeeshan Aleem

7. Clinton wouldn't commit to releasing transcripts of her paid speeches.

After co-moderator Chuck Todd asked Clinton whether she'd be willing to release the full transcripts of her paid speeches before major trade associations and corporations in the interest of transparency, Clinton dodged the question.

"I'll look into it," she said, adding that she didn't "know the status" of any transcriptions.

"I can only repeat what is the fact. I spoke to a lot of different groups with a lot constituents that had to do with world affairs," she said. "I probably described more times than I can remember how stressful it was advising the president about going after bin Laden. My view on this is, look at my record." — Luke Brinker

8. Sanders pushed back against the idea that he has no foreign policy doctrine.

A common critique of Sanders is that he has little experience with foreign affairs and has done little to compensate for his shortcomings through hiring advisers. When asked about the notion, the senator said it wasn't true, and that he had already discussed his foreign policy ethos during a speech at Georgetown University in November. The main feature? Multilateralism.

"We have to got to work on in strong coalition with the major powers of the world, and with those Muslim countries that are prepared to stand up and take on terrorism," Sanders said. "I would say that the key doctrine of the Sanders administration would be, no, we cannot continue do it alone, we need to work in a coalition."

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While conceding that his own experience with foreign policy paled in comparison to Clinton, he said that the edge he offered was his judgment.

"Back in 2002, when we both looked at the same evidence about the wisdom of the war in Iraq, one of us voted the right way and one of us didn't," Sanders said.

Sanders continued to speak about his foreign policy in broad strokes, and seems to be banking on his anti-interventionist rhetoric and credentials more than any kind of display of nuance.  — Zeeshan Aleem 

9. Sanders defended his ability to win the White House in a general election.

The debate also turned into a brief history lesson: Sanders fielded a question about past elections where voters nominated a candidate that "made activists excited and they got destroyed in the general election."

The senator pushed back at the implication that he's too far to the left of the mainstream voter to keep the White House in Democratic hands.

"I will be, if nominated, the strongest candidate," Sanders said, noting that as to polls of his odds of defeating a GOP foe in November, "the last one I saw here in New Hampshire had me defeating [Donald] Trump by 19; the secretary defeating him by one."

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Overall, "here's where I think I will be if nominated the candidate," he said. "Democrats win when there is a large voter turnout... I believe that our campaign up to now has shown that we can create an enormous amount of enthusiasm from working people, from young people who will get involved in the political process and which will drive us to a very large voter turnout."

Clinton countered by playing up her political battle scars: "I've been vetted. There's hardly anything you don't know about me. And I think it's fair to say that whoever is in that position, Sen. Sanders or anyone else who might have run, will face the most withering onslaught. So I think I am the person who can do all aspects of the job." — Celeste Katz

10. Clinton had the perfect response to a question about Sanders' campaign tactics.

In one of the many process-focused questions of the evening, Sanders was asked about charges that his campaign has falsely implied that certain organizations and newspapers have endorsed his campaign.

Asked whether she wanted to spend 30 seconds on the issue, Clinton was swift in her reply:


Luke Brinker

11. Sanders called the situation in Flint "absolutely unacceptable."

Sanders grew heated when fielding a question about the lead poisoning crisis ravaging Flint, Michigan, reiterating his call for the ouster of the state's governor.

"I don't go around asking for governors' resignations every day. In fact, I think I never have in my life — but I did ask for the resignation of Gov. Snyder because his irresponsibility was so outrageous," Sanders said. "What we are talking about are children being poisoned. That's what we're talking about."

The senator said he believed that the crisis was symptomatic of patterns of neglect of low-income and minority communities.

"One wonders if this were a white suburban community, what kind of response there would have been," Sanders said. "Flint, Michigan, is a poor community. It is disproportionately African-American and minority, and what has happened there is absolutely unacceptable."  — Zeeshan Aleem