Everything You Missed in the Democratic Debate in Milwaukee


Two days after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) crushed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary, the Democratic presidential candidates met in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Thursday night for their sixth debate.

With Sanders looking to demonstrate that he's more than an early-state fluke and Clinton hoping to hold onto support among voters in the larger, more diverse states that follow Iowa and New Hampshire, both candidates took the stage with much to prove. And with Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid speculating earlier in the day that the party could be headed for a race that lasts all the way to the convention in July, both candidates are steeling themselves for a long, grueling delegate fight.

Mic rounded up the debate's most significant moments below:

1. Clinton's opening statement was a perfect summary of her post-New Hampshire strategy.

Clinton is remarkably disciplined when it comes to staying on message, and most of her opening statements during the debates have touched on a similar set of themes. But in the first debate since she was trounced in New Hampshire, her opening salvo had a decidedly more populist tone — and included a very overt appeal to black voters, who will be crucial to winning the South Carolina primary later in February.

"I know a lot of Americans are angry about the economy, and for good cause: Americans haven't had a raise in 15 years," Clinton said. "There aren't enough good paying jobs, especially for young people, and yes, the economy is rigged in favor of those at the top."

Clinton's use of the word "rigged" in her opening statement was notable, as were her later remarks on the urgent need to get money out of politics. She also went out of her way to say that a president needs to "go further" than addressing a corrupt economy by enacting policies that tackle obstacles for "African-Americans who face discrimination in the job market, education, housing and the criminal justice system" as well as "hard-working immigrant families living in fear." Undoubtedly Clinton was aware as she said this that the next two nomination contests will be the first two that will be heavily influenced by Latino voters (Nevada) and black voters (South Carolina).  — Zeeshan Aleem

2. Clinton and Sanders reprised a familiar argument over health care.

Continuing a long-simmering debate, the two candidates tussled over how best to achieve universal health care coverage, with Clinton arguing that Sanders' plan for a single-payer, Medicare-for-all system would be too disruptive to the insurance market and leave many Americans worse off.

"Here is the truth: 29 million people have no health insurance today in America. We pay by far the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs," Sanders said, arguing for the necessity of going further than President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. "One out of five Americans can't even afford the prescriptions the doctors are writing. Millions of people have high deductibles and copayments."

Clinton tried to walk a fine — if difficult — line between arguing that more must be done to cover all Americans and that now is not the time to revisit the divisive health care issue.

But Clinton saved most of her firepower for an all-out attack on Sanders single-payer plan.

"The Affordable Care Act, as you know very well, is based on the insurance system, based on exchanges, based on a subsidy system. The Children's Health Insurance Program, which I helped to create, which covers 8 million kids is also a different kind of program," Clinton said. "So if you are having Medicare for all, single payer, you need to level with people about what they will have at the end of the process you are proposing." — Luke Brinker

3. Sanders got snarky, telling Clinton she's "not in the White House yet."

Riding the wave of his commanding win in New Hampshire, Sanders took the stage with confidence — and it showed in his tone.

Clinton positioned herself from the get-go as the rational, realistic alternative to Sanders' promises of free health care and college for Americans.

"I have been very specific about where I would raise the money, how much it would cost, and how I would move this agenda forward," she said. "I feel like we have to level with people...  I'm conscious of the fact that we have to also be very clear, especially with young people, about what kind of government is going to do what for them and what it will cost."

Sanders wasn't having it:  "Well, Secretary Clinton, you're not in the White House yet — and let us be clear that every proposal that I have introduced has been paid for." — Celeste Katz

4. Sanders called out the hypocrisy of small-government Republicans backing abortion restrictions.

The Vermont senator — playing to the Democratic primary base — stuck it to the GOP on the wedge issue of reproductive rights, and worked in a self-defense mode against critics who say he'd balloon the size and cost of government.

"All over this country we have Republican candidates for president saying, 'We hate the government, government is the enemy. We're going to cut Social Security to help you. We're going to cut Medicare and Medicaid, federal aid to education to help you, because the government is so terrible.'"

But, he zinged, "When it comes to a woman having to make a very personal choice, ah, in that case, my Republican colleagues love the government and want the government to make that choice for every woman in America," Sanders said. "If that's not hypocrisy, I don't know what hypocrisy is."

Sanders' comments came after Clinton highlighted her support from NARAL. — Celeste Katz

5. Sanders: "...do marijuana..."

6. Sanders lamented the fact that the U.S. incarcerates more people than China.

Sanders and Clinton both discussed their proposals for sweeping changes to the criminal justice system as well as their intention of implementing economic programs designed to revitalize economically depressed neighborhoods that suffer from high crime rates. Sanders became particularly animated while discussing how unusual the U.S. is in aggressively incarcerating prisoners compared to any other country in the world — and promised that he would end that rather grim realm of American exceptionalism.

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"When we have more people in jail, disproportionately African American and Latino, than China does, a communist authoritarian society four times our size, here is my promise: At the end of my first term as president, we will not have more people in jail than any other country," Sanders said. "We will invest in education and jobs for our kids, not incarceration and more jails."

Sanders' promise is well-intentioned, but virtually impossible to deliver on — the overwhelming majority of prisoners in the U.S. are in state and local jails and prisons. — Zeeshan Aleem

7. Clinton said the country has "gone forward" on race relations under Obama.

Asked whether race relations had worsened under Obama and would improve under a Clinton presidency, Clinton lauded the first African-American president's legacy on race, while calling for a forceful effort to tackle institutional racism.

"Well, I'm just not sure I agree completely with that assessment. I think under President Obama we have seen a lot of advances. The Affordable Care Act has helped more African Americans than any other group to get insurance, to be taken care of," Clinton said.

"But we also know a lot more than we did. We have a lot more social media. We have everybody with a cell phone. So we are seeing the dark side of the remaining systemic racism that we have to root out in our society. I think President Obama has set a great example," she went on. "I think he has addressed a lot of these issues that have been quite difficult."

While the country has "gone forward" under Obama, Clinton urged "an honest conversation about where we go next," emphasizing criminal justice reform, jobs, housing and education.

Meanwhile, Sanders said race relations would "absolutely" improve under his presidency, arguing that his economic populist agenda would disproportionately benefit minority communities.  — Luke Brinker

8. Clinton awkwardly dodged a question about campaign finance.

At one point Clinton was asked about the possibility that extremely wealthy donors with hefty contributions to her campaign could affect her political priorities, much the way liberals express concern over the political effects of conservative megadonors like the Koch brothers on the GOP. Clinton responded with a dodge and posed as entirely ignorant of the way in which her campaign has benefited from extremely powerful super PACs and donations from the financial sector.

"I can't speak for the Koch brothers — are you referring to a super PAC that we don't coordinate with, that was set up to support President Obama that has now decided they want to support me?" Clinton asked. "They are the ones who should respond to any questions."

Clinton then changed the topic to the fact that her campaign has many non-wealthy donors. "Let's talk about our campaigns, I'm very proud of the fact that we have more than 750,000 donors, and the vast majority of them are giving small contributions," she said.

Clinton does have many small donations, although their total volume pales in comparison to Sanders'. In the meantime, over 7% of the funds backing Clinton came from Wall Street as of the end of 2015, if you include the super PACs that her campaign is clearly coordinating with.  — Zeeshan Aleem

9. Clinton bested Sanders when the debate turned to foreign policy.

Clinton may have been pushed back on her heels during the early part of the debate, but the pivot to talk of international relations put her squarely back in her comfort zone.

Asked about readiness for a potential future terror attack, the former secretary of state said the U.S. must "continue to work with the Iraqi army so that they are better prepared to advance on some of the other strongholds inside Iraq, like Mosul, when they are able to do so," Clinton said, "and we have to cut off the flow of foreign funding and foreign fighters, and we have to take on ISIS online."

At the same time, she kept her messaging inclusive — and took the opportunity to draw a sharply negative contrast with the GOP.

"We need to understand that American Muslims are on the front line of our defense," she said. "They are more likely to know what's happening in their families and their communities, and they need to feel not just invited but welcomed within the American society, so when somebody like Donald Trump and others stirs up the demagoguery [against] Muslims that hurts us at home, it is not only offensive but dangerous."

Sanders used a time-tested weapon to strike back at Clinton on foreign relations: Her Senate vote in favor of invading Iraq. — Celeste Katz

10. Sanders excoriated Clinton for her relationship with Henry Kissinger.

When Sanders and Clinton debate foreign policy, the conversation follows a fairly predictable pattern: Clinton brandishes her expertise and demonstrates far more sophisticated knowledge of global affairs, and then Sanders attempts to cut her down by questioning her foreign policy judgment, which is significantly more hawkish than his. But the two hit on a new point of disagreement when Sanders decided to slam Clinton for her friendship with former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, a controversial diplomat who has been accused of involving the U.S. in war crimes in a number of countries in the late 20th century.

"In her book and in this last debate, she talked about getting the approval or the support or the mentoring of Henry Kissinger — now I found it rather amazing, because I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country," Sanders said.

"I'm proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend," Sanders continued. "And in fact, Kissinger's actions in Cambodia, when the United States bombed that country  ... created the instability for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to come in, who then butchered some 3 million innocent people — one of the worst genocides in the history of the world. So count me in as somebody who will not be listening to Henry Kissinger."  — Zeeshan Aleem

11. Clinton attacked Sanders for being overly critical of President Barack Obama.

Clinton embraced her ties to the president as the debate drew to a close, delivering a fiery critique of Sanders for his attacks on the commander-in-chief's policies.

"Senator, what I am concerned about is not disagreement on issues, saying that 'this is what I would rather do,' [or] 'I don't agree with the president on that,'" Clinton told Sanders.

"Calling the president 'weak,' calling him a 'disappointment,' calling several times that he should have a primary opponent when he ran for re-election in 2012, you know, I think that goes further than saying 'we have our disagreements.' ...  I understand we can disagree on the path forward, but those kinds of personal assessments and charges are ones that I find troubling," she said, garnering applause from the Milwaukee audience.

Sanders tried to rebalance the debate scales by implying Clinton herself was hardly one to talk about being in lockstep with the president.

"One of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate." — Celeste Katz

12. Clinton: "I am not a single-issue candidate, and I do not believe that we live in a single-issue country."

Clinton's closing remarks centered on the theme that she's a multifaceted candidate who has the ability to deliver on reforms across a wide variety of policy domains, hinting that beyond taking on an economy that serves the wealthy, the work of a president included attending to marginalized communities through highly targeted programs.

After listing culprits like big insurance companies that Sanders usually aims at in his populist message, Clinton said: "But if we were to stop [them] tomorrow, we would still have the indifference, the negligence that we saw in Flint. We would still have racism holding people back. We would still have sexism preventing women from getting equal pay. We would still have LGBT people who get married on Saturday and get fired on Monday."

What's Clinton trying to get at here? She's arguing that Sanders' sweeping economic vision won't in and of itself mitigate the struggles that define liberal identity politics. Clinton promised to attend to those problems. "I am not a single-issue candidate, and I do not believe that we live in a single-issue country," Clinton said. — Zeeshan Aleem