LAS VEGAS – Hillary Clinton and top rival Bernie Sanders clashed repeatedly on Wall Street reform, gun safety and the definition of American capitalism Tuesday night here at the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2016 campaign.
It was the first evidence of real conflict in the Democratic contest, which until now has found the major candidates -- Clinton and Sanders -- reluctant to mix it up or criticize one another. Clinton, the former secretary of state who has seen her once-robust lead in national and state polls wane in recent months while Sanders has surged, showed a willingness to ding the Vermont senator on a range of issues.
But Clinton, whose campaign has been bogged down over questions about her use of a private email server as secretary of state, also received a lift from Sanders when she was asked anew about the email controversy by CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. Clinton reiterated her contention that she had done nothing wrong and that it was time to move on from the matter.
"The secretary is right,” Sanders said. “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” Sanders said to wild applause. Beaming, Clinton thanked Sanders as the two shook hands.
Chafee was the only candidate to take the bait, going off on a tear on Clinton’s emails. Asked by Cooper if she cared to respond, Clinton replied simply: “No.”
The email exchange was a brief moment of detente between Clinton and Sanders.
The fireworks began when Sanders, who describes himself as a democratic socialist, was pointedly asked by moderator Anderson Cooper about whether his views would render him unelectable.
Clinton, a former first lady and former New York senator, came armed with research on the Vermont senator’s voting record, noting that he had voted five times against the Brady handgun bill in Congress, and saying he wanted to give immunity to gun manufactures from lawsuits.
Clinton even challenged Sanders on Wall Street reform — a policy area squarely in his wheelhouse.
The two take different approaches to reining in the financial industry, with Sanders focusing on breaking up the big banks and Clinton proposing a suite of more nuanced reforms on a wider swath of financial institutions.
Clinton said Sanders’ idea would not accomplish what he claims it would, and said hers is stronger. “If only you look at the big banks, you might miss the forest for tress,” she said.
Sanders had none of it, calling Clinton’s Wall Street reform plan “naive,” adding, “Congress doesn’t regulate wall street. Wall street regulates Congress.”
Clinton, who narrowly lost her bid for the 2008 Democratic nomination to Barack Obama, was the focus of much of the two-hour program, televised nationally by CNN.
Sanders and other opponents on the stage including former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee all aggressively pounced on Clinton’s biggest weakness on foreign policy – her vote for the Iraq War in 2002, which she has since called a mistake. She noted that President Obama had named her America's top diplomat even after criticizing her position on the war throughout the 2008 contest.
O'Malley, unprompted, even brought up the Benghazi terror attack, a top Republican talking point.
“I am in the middle here. Lots of things coming from all directions,” Clinton quipped of her position on the debate stage.
Cooper also pressed Clinton on whether she was a flip-flopper, noting how she had changed her position on the the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade bill, marriage equality and whether she considered herself a progressive or a moderate.
"I'm a progressive. But I'm a progressive who likes to get things done," Clinton said in a line that could serve as a mission statement for her campaign. It was a subtle dig at Sanders, whose policy positions appeal to the left flank of the party but could face stiff opposition in the Republican-controlled Congress.
Clinton dished out the hits early on in the debate.
Clinton jumped in unprompted to mount a defense of capitalism after Sanders told debate moderator Anderson Cooper he wants no part in “casino capitalism,” without saying clearly whether he is a capitalist, as Cooper pointedly asked. (Sanders said as recently as Sunday on NBC's “Meet the Press” that he is not a capitalist.)
Sanders added that the U.S. should take lessons from countries like Denmark, which have large welfare states.
Clinton grabbed an opening.
“What we have to do every so often is save capitalism from itself. But we are not Denmark, we are the United States of America,” Clinton said. “We would be making a great mistake to turn our backs on what made the greatest middle class in history.”
Just minutes later, Clinton saw an opening on gun control as Cooper questioned Sanders. Once again, she jumped in to use Sanders voting record against him.
Clinton and Sanders split on pot policy: Sanders said he would probably support a measure to legalize recreational marijuana use, while Clinton said she wasn't ready to do so. Both agreed the use of marijuana had unfairly incarcerated too many people.