In his inaugural appearance on the national debate stage Tuesday night, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) jousted with Democratic presidential rival Hillary Clinton over foreign policy, firearms and the free market.
But it was his forceful defense of his opponent that stole the show. After Clinton spent more than two minutes defending her use of a private email server as secretary of state, Sanders accomplished what she had been unable to do since the scandal erupted last March: He eviscerated the news media for its relentless coverage of the issue.
"Let me say something that may not be great politics, but I think the secretary is right," Sanders said. "And that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!"
"Thank you!" Clinton said, smiling broadly and letting out a big laugh. "Me, too! Me, too!"
"And let me say something about the media as well," Sanders continued, arguing that the voters he talks to are worried about income inequality, poverty, trade policy and campaign finance reform — not Clinton's server.
"Enough of the emails!" Sanders said. "Let's talk about the real issues facing America!"
The audience at the Wynn Las Vegas erupted in applause and gave Sanders a standing ovation. Clinton reached out to the Vermont independent and shook his hand.
"Thank you, Bernie," she said. "Thank you."
It was a standout moment for Sanders, who has never in his 45 years in electoral politics faced such a high-stakes encounter. Though the smiles were fleeting, the episode showed that Sanders' policy-focused message continues to strike a chord with the Democrats he's courting.
To be sure, Sanders didn't knock it out of the park Tuesday night. At times during the two-and-a-half-hour debate, his energy flagged and his attention drifted. But he survived the incoming fire that Clinton, former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley, former Virginia senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee directed his way — and he made no major mistakes.
Most important for a candidate who has become the main alternative to Clinton, the purported frontrunner, Sanders had plenty of time to introduce himself to voters just tuning in to the race. According to several news organizations, he and Clinton each spoke for roughly half an hour, while the other candidates trailed behind in speaking time.
Pressed by moderator Anderson Cooper on his description of himself as a democratic socialist, Sanders argued that voters would become comfortable with the term once they learned what it meant — and that it works in Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
"You don't consider yourself a capitalist, though?" Cooper asked.
"Do I consider myself part of the casino-capitalist process, by which so few have so much and so many have so little? By which Wall Street's greed and recklessness wrecked this economy?" Sanders responded. "No I don't. I believe in a society where all people do well, not just a handful of billionaires."
Clinton seized her moment to argue that American capitalism was responsible for creating the middle class.
"I think what Sen. Sanders is saying certainly makes sense in terms of the inequality that we have," she said. "But we are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We're the United States of America, and it's our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism, so that it doesn't run amok and doesn't cause the kind of inequities that we're seeing in our economic system. But we would be making a grave mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class in the history of the world."
Later in the evening, Sanders had an opportunity to revisit his economic vision when Clinton claimed to have a “more comprehensive” and “tougher” plan than he did to take on big banks.
“Well, that’s not true,” Sanders said, cracking a rare smile. “Check the record. In the 1990s … when I had the Republican leadership and Wall Street spending billions of dollars in lobbying, when the Clinton administration, when [former Federal Reserve chairman] Alan Greenspan said, ‘What a great idea it would be to allow these huge banks to merge,’ Bernie Sanders fought them and helped lead the opposition to deregulation.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders
Over the summer, Sanders was criticized for his response to Black Lives Matter protesters who interrupted his events in Las Vegas and Seattle. In the months since, he has labored to build inroads with African-American voters, who have largely supported Clinton.
On Tuesday, Sanders had a chance to speak to that audience. Asked in a pre-taped question, “Do black lives matter or do all lives matter?” the senator did not hesitate.
“Black lives matter,” he said. “The reason those words matter is the African American community knows that on any given day some innocent person like Sandra Bland can get into a car and then three days later she’s going to end up dead in jail, or their kids are going to get shot.”
The U.S., he said, must “combat institutional racism from top to bottom” and reform its “broken criminal justice system.”
Sanders had a tougher time Tuesday addressing another issue that has flummoxed his campaign: firearms.
The senator sought to portray himself as a proponent of gun control, noting his D-minus rating from the National Rifle Association and his support for assault weapons bans. But when Cooper asked whether he stood by his 2005 vote to shield gun manufacturers from liability, Sanders dissembled, calling it “a large and complicated bill.”
“Secretary Clinton, is Bernie Sanders tough enough on guns?” Cooper asked Clinton.
“No. Not at all,” she said, highlighting Sanders’ 1993 vote against the Brady Bill. “He also did vote, as he said, for this immunity provision. I voted against it. I was in the Senate at the same time. It wasn’t that complicated to me. It was pretty straightforward to me that he was going to give immunity to the only industry in America. Everybody else has to be accountable, but not the gun manufacturers.”
As he often does, Sanders said that any comprehensive gun laws would have to pass muster in rural areas, like the state he represents in the Senate. But O’Malley, an outspoken gun control advocate, took exception to that argument.
“Senator, excuse me,” he interjected. “It’s not about rural—“
“It is exactly about rural,” Sanders responded.
“Have you ever been to the Eastern Shore? Have you ever been to western Maryland?” O’Malley asked. “We were able to pass [an assault weapons ban] and still respect the hunting traditions of people who live in our rural areas, and we did it by leading with principle — not by pandering to the NRA and backing down to the NRA.”
“As somebody who has a D-minus voting record, I don’t think I’m pandering,” Sanders responded, flashing with anger. “But you have not been in the United States Congress. And when you want to, check it out. And if you think that we can simply go forward and pass something tomorrow without bringing people together, you are sorely mistaken.”
Asked how his approach to the Syrian civil war would differ from President Obama’s, Sanders changed the subject to the Iraq War, which Clinton supported and he opposed.
“I will do everything that I can to make sure that the United States does not get involved in another quagmire like we did in Iraq, the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of this country,” he said.
After Clinton defended her vote — and her judgment — Sanders said that he had “heard the same evidence from President Bush and Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld about why we should overthrow Saddam Hussein and get involved in the war” as Clinton did. He urged viewers to watch a speech he delivered on the House floor in 2002, during which he predicted the war would not end well.
“I say without any joy in my heart that much of what I thought would happen about the destabilization, in fact, did happen,” he said.
While Sanders’ comments on Iraq won applause, he seemed adrift at other points in the foreign policy discussion.
Asked to weigh in on Russia’s involvement in Syria, Sanders paused, looking confused, and said, “I think Mr. Putin is going to regret what he is doing.”
“He doesn’t seem to be the type of guy to regret a lot,” Cooper said.
“I think he’s already regretting what he did in Crimea and what he’s doing in Ukraine,” Sanders responded. “I think he’s really regretting the decline of his economy and I think what he is trying to do now is save some face. But I think that when Russians get killed in Syria and when he gets bogged down, I think the Russian people are going to give him a message that maybe they should come home — maybe they should start working with the United States to rectify the situation there.”
After two and a half hours on stage, Sanders appeared drained. But in a post-debate interview with CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, the senator said there was one topic he wished he could have spent more time discussing.
“Income and wealth inequality," Sanders said. "I don’t think we spent enough time on that. To my mind, this is the great moral issue. It’s the great economic issue. It’s the great political issue.”