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Dems Again Show Big Contrast With GOP

Dems Again Show Big Contrast With GOP

Sanders Clinton O'Malley
AP Photo by Charlie Neibergall

The Democratic presidential candidates once again showed they have a few differences with each other, but many with the Republican field.

There was no talk of LGBT issues at Saturday night's Democratic presidential debate, but plenty of other policy discussions to process as the candidates met at Drake University in Des Moines.

The debate once again underscored that while there are differences between the three Democratic candidates, they differ from each other far less than they differ from the Republican field, as front-runner Hillary Clinton pointed out.

The former secretary of state, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (who is also a former mayor of Baltimore) all said they want to raise the minimum wage, differing only by how much. Most Republican presidential hopefuls claim raising the minimum wage would result in job losses, but the Democrats said a higher minimum wage will mean more disposable income, which people will spend, therefore leading to creation of jobs.

Sanders said the nation needs to move toward a "living wage." "It is not a radical idea to say that someone working 40 hours a week should not be living in poverty," he said.

There was no demonizing of undocumented immigrants or call to build border walls, unlike that coming from Donald Trump, whom O'Malley called an "immigrant-bashing carnival barker." O'Malley noted that there was zero net immigration from Mexico in the past year, and all candidates said they support bringing undocumented immigrants out of the underground economy with a path to legal status that will enable them to earn better wages.

While the Republican mantra on the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a Obamacare, is "repeal and replace," no such denunciation came from the Democrats, although Sanders wants to replace it with universal, single-payer health insurance. He wants to end the "embarrassment," he said, of the U.S. being the only developed nation that doesn't guarantee health care to everyone. Clinton said the ACA is a great achievement that needs to be built on, and Sanders agreed that it was a step in the right direction.

Moderator John Dickerson of CBS News pointed out that Clinton backed single-payer when she worked on an attempt at health care reform during husband Bill's presidency. "The revolution never came," she said.

Sanders said that revolution won't come overnight, and it won't come without campaign finance reform -- the latter topic underscoring a key sticking point between him and Clinton. He once again described her as far too beholden to corporate interests, especially Wall Street financial companies, that have donated to her campaign. Clinton continued to assert that she would be independent, saying liberal economist Paul Krugman has endorsed her plan for financial reforms and a couple of hedge-fund billionaires have created a super PAC to oppose her.

Clinton also said some of her Wall Street connections come from the fact that as a New York senator she helped rebuild the financial industry after it was devastated, physically and otherwise, by the attacks of September 11, 2001. Sanders made it clear he held no brook for Wall Street types, saying, "The business model of Wall Street is fraud." If the famously trust-busting President Theodore Roosevelt -- a Republican -- were alive, he would want to break up the nation's big banks.

O'Malley, for his part, said there are many good people working in finance, but that he would protect "Main Street" small businesses from the excesses of Wall Street.

Sanders invoked another Republican president from the past when he was asked how high he would raise taxes to pay for the many social programs he advocates, such as free public higher education for all. The highest marginal tax rate wouldn't be as high as it was in the 1950s, he said: "I'm not that much of a socialist compared to Eisenhower." It was one of the applause lines of the night.

Education was an area where Sanders and Clinton diverged; he wants all public colleges and universities to be tuition-free, which she proposes this only for community colleges. She said all people need to have some investment in their education, and that making all public colleges and universities tuition-free would benefit the wealthy as well as the needy. She does back reforms that would allow students to graduate debt-free, she said.

There was also some divergence over gun laws, with Sanders's rivals again pointing out his votes against some reforms. Clinton called for universal background checks on gun purchasers and the closing of a loophole that allows buyers at gun shows to avoid them. There was a bit of unpleasantness among the candidates here, with O'Malley saying Clinton had been on "three sides" of the issue and Sanders taking a jab at O'Malley by saying Baltimore is probably not among the safest cities in the nation.

Foreign policy and terrorism were prominent in everyone's mind in light of the terrorist attacks in Paris Friday, but here the candidates were largely unified, saying the U.S. must have allies rather than taking a go-it-alone attitude in the fight against terrorism. The radical Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, but the candidates also made clear that no one should demonize all Muslims as terrorists. Sanders reiterated that there is a battle going on "for the soul of Islam."

They also endorsed letting a large number of refugees from war-torn Syria into the U.S., while calling for a screening process that would assure no one with intent to harm the country would get in.

On the topic of Clinton's emails as secretary of state -- especially those relating to the attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya -- Sanders reiterated that yes, he is still tired of hearing about the emails, and the media should instead focus on issues that really affect the nation. When Clinton was asked if there are major revelations still to come from the emails, she said, "I think after 11 hours that's pretty clear," referring to her marathon testimony before a congressional committee.

Dickerson's last question involved what challenges each candidate has faced that would prepare him or her for the presidency. Clinton said it would be, as secretary of state, being part of the group that decided whether to go after Osama bin Laden. Sanders said it was working out legislation on veterans' issues that required him to regroup after being unable to win support for his version and work with Republicans to get a bill through. O'Malley said there is likely no challenge a mayor or governor faces that would compare to those faced by a president, but he assured the audience that he knew how to manage people in a crisis.

In their closing statements, O'Malley said he would bring the new ideas the nation needs; what it doesn't need, he said, is "polarizing figures from our past." Clinton said she would do the president's job, which is "to do everything possible to lift up the people of this country." Sanders closed with a call to change campaign finance, guarantee health care, and end childhood poverty -- none of which will happen, he said, without a revolution.

Find a full debate transcript here.

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