6 takeaways from the Democratic debate

Posted at 6:27 AM, Feb 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-05 06:31:00-05

DURHAM, New Hampshire — No more fake niceties. No more patience. No more Martin O’Malley to get in the way.

Hillary Clinton re-launched her campaign Thursday night, going directly after Bernie Sanders regarding his attacks on her record, stressing her foreign policy experience, and making the case to Democrats that it’s time to stop dreaming and get real.

Sanders didn’t hold back either, continuing to rail against the political establishment and campaign finance system. And he hit Clinton again on her Wall Street connections and vote for the war in Iraq.

Here are the takeaways from the intense MSNBC Democratic debate:

Clinton goes after Sanders for his ‘artful smear’ campaign

In her second presidential campaign, Clinton clearly doesn’t want to win through a war of attrition. She’s sick of Sanders casting himself as the protector of the progressive realm against the corrupting influence of the Clintons, and she is ready to extinguish the Bern now.

After yet another Sanders swipe at Clinton as part of a political establishment bankrolled by Wall Street and drug companies, she unloaded.

“Time and time again, by innuendo, by insinuation, there is this attack that he is putting forth which really comes down to, you know, anybody who ever took donations or speaking fees from any interest group has to be bought. And I just absolutely reject that, senator, and I really don’t think these kinds of attacks by insinuation are worthy of you. And enough is enough,” Clinton said.

Then she challenged him: “If you’ve got something to say, say it directly, but you will not find that I ever changed a view or a vote because of any donation I ever received.”

And finally, Clinton made it just a little bit more personal, saying: “I think it’s time to end the very artful smear that you and your campaign have been carrying out in recent weeks.”

And she follows with the definition of ‘progressive’

It’s been a struggle for months for Clinton to find a way to tell Sanders’ supporters that she’s on the same page with them policy-wise — it’s just that their big ideas could never, ever make it through Congress.

She tried a new way of explaining their differences on Thursday night, and it was her best yet.

“A progressive is someone who makes progress,” Clinton said.

It was easy to see Clinton’s exasperation with Sanders. The pattern repeated itself: He’d propose a liberal policy and be cheered. She’d say she agrees, and then add that she has a specific plan to make it happen.

“I’m fighting for people that cannot make those changes and I’m not making promises that I cannot keep,” Clinton said.

But Sanders’ response is potent, too

In going right at Sanders, Clinton took a big risk.

She is hoping to pick up a few points in New Hampshire, and slow Sanders’ momentum nationally. But in doing so, she could infuriate the young voters who Sanders has drawn into the political process.

At first those young voters were fine with Clinton — liked her, even. They just saw Sanders as more genuine. Now, the tone at Sanders’ rallies makes clear, she will have significant work to do to win them over should she win the nomination.

Sanders didn’t hit Clinton directly when he responded, but he didn’t shrink, either. He lambasted 1990s-era Wall Street deregulation (under Bill Clinton, of course), the Koch brothers and ExxonMobil.

“That is what goes on in America,” Sanders said. “There is a reason, you know, there is a reason why these people are putting huge amounts of money into our political system,” he said, “and in my view it is undermining American democracy and it is allowing Congress to represent wealthy campaign contributors and not the working families.”

Clinton’s still weak on Wall Street

Wall Street continues to be full of potholes for the former secretary of state.

Her pragmatism and her accusations of an “artful smear” on Sanders’ part don’t erase the political problem caused by her paid speeches at Goldman Sachs — which she had joked about in a CNN town hall the night before, saying with a laugh that the $675,000 in speaking fees she received was what they’d offered.

On Thursday, Clinton admitted her mistake.

“I may not have done the job I should in explaining my record,” she said, arguing that she was tough on bankers behind closed doors and has been in the 2016 campaign, as well.

Sanders’ weakness: Foreign policy

Thirteen years and two presidential campaigns later, Clinton’s vote to go to war in Iraq still haunts her. Her experience on foreign policy — as Sanders himself admits — is much deeper. But just like then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in 2008, Sanders keeps using that Iraq vote as Kryptonite on the subject.

She finally found an answer to Sanders’ criticism: “A vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS.”

It allowed Clinton to finally capitalize on a significant weakness of Sanders.

There’s a reason Clinton’s campaign decided to embrace four more Democratic debates: She’s a bare-knuckle brawler, and she’s not going to lose the nomination because she wasn’t willing to hit Sanders hard enough.

Sanders, meanwhile, will pull his punches — especially on subjects where he’s tepid.

The big one is foreign policy. It never comes up at his town hall meetings, and it’s not at the top of his supporters’ priorities. On the debate stage, it shows.

Clinton’s pledge: No email surprises

The email issue continues to hang over the Clinton campaign — and the question of whether there’s some ticking timebomb there that could decimate her campaign in a general election after she wins the nomination.

Asked directly whether she could “reassure” Democrats on this, Clinton said: “Absolutely I can.”

MSNBC’s Chuck Todd pressed further regarding an FBI investigation into the matter. “I am 100 percent confident. This is a security review that was requested. It is being carried out. It will be resolved.”

Sanders — as he has before — declined the opportunity to take a direct shot at Clinton on the emails. But he did remind viewers that he could attack her if he wanted to.

“The secretary probably doesn’t know that there’s not a day that goes by when I am not asked to attack her on that issue,” he said, “and I have refrained from doing that and I will continue to refrain from doing that.”