Clinton scores strong in debate, while Sanders shows limitations

Here's what happened at the first Democratic debate

The first Democratic presidential primary debate was held on October 13, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Five candidates: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O'Malley, Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb - took to the stage in hopes of propelling their can
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The first Democratic presidential primary debate was held on October 13, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Five candidates: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O'Malley, Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb - took to the stage in hopes of propelling their can

Bernie Sanders’ mission Tuesday was to broaden his appeal beyond liberal Democrats and come across as a potential president. He didn’t, and the Democratic race for the White House remains Hillary Clinton’s to lose.

The former secretary of state was tough, nimble and largely unruffled Tuesday in the Democratic presidential candidates’ first debate of the 2016 campaign.

She still has far to go to close the deal. She still faces charges she’s too quick to change her views to suit her political needs. She still has to explain to the Democratic base her ties to Wall Street and the wealthy class that Sanders has effectively railed against. And she still has questions to answer about the contents of and need for a private email server while at the State Department.

But she showed important political savvy Tuesday when she highlighted an important difference with Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, on guns, one of the nation’s most emotional issues.

Sanders voted against the 1993 Brady bill signed into law by President Bill Clinton, which required federal background checks for gun purchasers and a waiting period. Sanders also supported a 2005 measure shielding firearms makers and dealers from liability lawsuits in certain cases. Clinton, then a U.S. senator from New York, voted no.

Asked if Sanders was tough enough on guns, Clinton didn’t hesitate. The woman often criticized as being emotionless showed the sort of passion supporters so badly wanted to see.

“No,” she said, “not at all. . . . It’s time the entire country stood up against the NRA.”

She recalled Sanders’ record. He angrily shot back that he, too, wanted sensible gun control measures. In a time when mass shootings have become numbingly routine, Clinton’s clarity registered with the party base.

This has gone on too long and it’s time the entire country stood up against the NRA.

Hillary Clinton

Sanders’ explanation – that he represents a state where gun ownership is popular – was hardly the response likely to expand his constituency.

Sanders, or for that matter the three other candidates on the stage, needed this debate to emerge as a viable alternative with potential to broaden his appeal, much as Barack Obama began to do in the fall of 2007.

Obama, though, had been a U.S. senator for less than three years and was unshackled by his legislative past. Sanders, a member of Congress since 1991, is. Obama could get lofty and effortlessly shape positions on incendiary issues as needed. Sanders is a detail guy with a record.

He’s emerged as Clinton’s chief challenger because of his ability to channel his passion for change, and feeling for the plight of people who still feel crushed by the placid economy, into a political movement. But the same forces that have fueled his insurgent candidacy also limit its potential, and those limits were on display Tuesday.

Sanders is a self-described “democratic socialist,” a term that frightens a lot of people. He gave a vigorous, occasionally angry response when asked what that meant. He offered data dramatizing the wide rich-poor gap in this country.

“What democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own almost 90 percent . . . own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent,” he said.

But is a democratic socialist electable? Sanders said Sunday he was not a capitalist, and Clinton was quick to offer a distinction.

She eagerly defended capitalism, adding how “we have to save capitalism from itself.” The goal, she said, is to curb the excesses of capitalism, but not reject the system that helped build a strong middle class.

Sanders wants government-run health care, free college tuition and a trillion-dollar infrastructure program. At a time when many Americans are tired of expansive, intrusive government, he remains vulnerable on his notion of what socialism means.

Clinton will continue to have her own record to defend. Sanders protested Washington’s coziness with Wall Street. Clinton defended regulatory changes; Sanders vigorously argued they weren’t enough.

Our campaign finance system is corrupt and is undermining American democracy.

Sen. Bernie Sanders

Clinton won’t escape the notion she’s too close to the big money crowd. Two SuperPACs, which can raise unlimited amounts of money from special interests, support her. Sanders won’t take SuperPAC funds.

She’s not safe, but Clinton survived an important test.

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid

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