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Some Surprises in Clinton-Sanders Wisconsin Debate

Sanders and Clinton
AP Photo

Along with talk of campaign finance reform and health insurance came tiffs over a former secretary of State and the current president.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders made some of their usual points in Thursday night's Democratic debate -- including statements against homophobia and racism, while highlighting differences on economic policy -- but offered some surprises, such as a bit of arguing over former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and who's more loyal to President Obama.

Clinton, herself a former secretary of State and a former U.S. senator, and Sanders, a current U.S. senator, met at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in a debate broadcast by PBS, CNN, and YouTube, and moderated by PBS's Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff. It came two days after Sanders's victory in the New Hampshire primary.

Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who has represented Vermont as an independent, said the support his campaign has gained indicates that "the American people are tired of establishment politics, tired of establishment economics. They want a political revolution in which millions of Americans stand up, come together, not let the Trumps of the world divide us, and say, you know what, in this great country, we need a government that represents all of us, not just a handful of wealthy campaign contributors."

Clinton responded, "We both agree that we have to get unaccountable money out of our political system and that we have to do much more to ensure that Wall Street never wrecks Main Street again. But I want to go further. I want to tackle those barriers that stand in the way of too many Americans right now. African-Americans who face discrimination in the job market, education, housing, and the criminal justice system. Hardworking immigrant families living in fear, who should be brought out of the shadows so they and their children can have a better future. Guaranteeing that women's work finally gets the pay, the equal pay that we deserve."

Sanders voiced support for bringing down those barriers as well; the candidates displayed broad agreement on the need for reforming the criminal justice system, aiding the poor, creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and assuring the rights of women and LGBT people.

"We are fighting for every vote that we can get from women, from men, straight, gay, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans," Sanders said. "We are trying to bring America together around an agenda that works for working families and the middle class."

Sanders again cited the need for campaign finance reform, curbing the influence of Wall Street financiers and other large corporate donors; he has criticized Clinton for taking such donations. Clinton, who has said that doesn't mean she would do corporate donors' bidding, agreed that big money has too much clout in politics.

"But if we were to stop that tomorrow," she said, "we would still have the indifference, the negligence that we saw in Flint [the Michigan city with a tainted water system]. 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. And we would still have governors like Scott Walker and others trying to rip out the heart of the middle class by making it impossible to organize and stand up for better wages and working conditions. So I'm going to keep talking about tearing down all the barriers that stand in the way of Americans fulfilling their potential, because I don't think our country can live up to its potential unless we give a chance to every single American to live up to theirs."

Sanders asked, if corporate donations don't buy influence, "Why in God's name does Wall Street make huge campaign contributions? I guess just for the fun of it; they want to throw money around." Clinton, however, stressed her independence and noted that President Obama took Wall Street donations yet supported and signed the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory bill, "the toughest regulations since the 1930s."

Another of the candidates' differences was over health insurance. Sanders called again for a universal, government-run, single-payer plan, while Clinton reiterated her support for building on the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, which aims to get to universal coverage eventually while maintaining a role for private insurers. Clinton claimed Sanders is making a promise that can't be kept, while Sanders said that if there is the political will to take on the insurers, drug companies, and medical supply companies, "we can guarantee health care to all people in a much more cost-effective way."

On foreign policy, they agreed on the need for partnerships with other countries to fight ISIS and other terrorists, and for the U.S. and other countries to accommodate refugees from war-torn Syria. Sanders portrayed Clinton as too eager to embrace regime change, as she voted for the Iraq war in 2002 (he voted against it), and he said that bringing down Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi created a power vacuum for ISIS to fill in that country.

Clinton responded, "I do not believe a vote in 2002 is a plan to defeat ISIS in 2016," and she said Sanders had supported regime change in Libya as well. She added that Obama had opposed the Iraq war as well, yet appointed her secretary of State despite their disagreement. (She also has said her vote for the war was a mistake.)

The foreign policy portion of the debate took an unexpected turn when Sanders noted that in her memoirs, Clinton mentioned taking advice from Henry Kissinger, secretary of State under Presidents Nixon and Ford in the 1970s. "Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of State in the modern history of this country," Sanders said. "I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger."

He cited "Kissinger's actions in Cambodia, when the United States bombed that country, overthrew Prince Sihanouk, 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."

Clinton responded that Kissinger also opened relations with China, and she said she has turned to many people for advice. "People we may disagree with on a number of things may have some insight, may have some relationships that are important for the president to understand in order to best protect the United States," she said.

They also had some differences over President Obama. "Today Sen. Sanders said that President Obama failed the presidential leadership test," Clinton said. "And this is not the first time that he has criticized President Obama. In the past he has called him weak. He has called him a disappointment."

Sanders replied, "Madam Secretary, that is a low blow." He said he has worked with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden to make progress in the face of Republican obstruction. "But you know what?" Sanders continued. "Last I heard we lived in a democratic society. Last I heard, a United States senator had the right to disagree with the president, including a president who has done such an extraordinary job."

Clinton countered that Sanders's criticism of the president wasn't merely political disagreement but personal attack. His parting shot, before their closing statements, was "Well, one of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate." In 2008, Clinton vied with Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination.

In another unusual moment, both candidates responded to a question submitted by a citizen through Facebook, asking what leaders over the course of history they would look to as examples, one American, one from another nation. For the American leader, they agreed on President Franklin D. Roosevelt. For a foreign leader, Sanders cited British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, despite Churchill's conservatism, because he stood up to and defeated Nazi Germany in World War II. Clinton picked South African anti-apartheid leader and eventual president Nelson Mandela, "for his generosity of heart, his understanding of the need for reconciliation."

In Sanders's closing statement, he said, "This campaign is not just about electing a president. What this campaign is about is creating a process for a political revolution in which millions of Americans, working people who have given up on the political process, they don't think anybody hears their pains or their concerns. ... What this campaign is not only about electing someone who has the most progressive agenda, it is about bringing tens of millions of people together to demand that we have a government that represents all of us and not just the 1 percent, who today have so much economic and political power."

In her closer, Clinton said, "We agree that we've got to get unaccountable money out of politics. We agree that Wall Street should never be allowed to wreck Main Street again. But here's the point I want to make tonight. I am not a single-issue candidate, and I do not believe we live in a single-issue country. I think that a lot of what we have to overcome to break down the barriers that are holding people back, whether it's poison in the water of the children of Flint, or whether it's the poor miners who are being left out and left behind in coal country, or whether it is any other American today who feels somehow put down and oppressed by racism, by sexism, by discrimination against the LGBT community, against the kind of efforts that need to be made to root out all of these barriers, that's what I want to take on."

For more, take a look at The Washington Post's annotated transcript of the debate here.

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