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Hillary Clinton & Bernie Sanders Take Center Stage at First Democratic Debate of 2016 Race

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In the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2016 campaign, five contenders squared off last night in Las Vegas: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee. It was the first of only six debates scheduled for the Democrats this election cycle. The debate covered contentious topics from gun control to climate change to the 2003 vote to invade Iraq. Throughout the night, Senator Bernie Sanders focused much of his message on inequality and the economy. In one of the most tweeted-about moments of the night, Sanders also criticized the media for focusing too much on the controversy over Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was serving as secretary of state. We speak to Jill Stein, the 2016 presidential candidate for the Green Party; Les Payne, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former editor at Newsday; and D. Watkins, columnist for Salon and author of the new book, “The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Let’s move on to the Democratic presidential debate, the first one of the 2016 campaign. Five contenders squared off last night in Las Vegas: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee. It was the first of only six debates scheduled for the Democrats this year. Senator Bernie Sanders focused much of his message on inequality and the economy.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I believe that the power of corporate America, the power of Wall Street, the power of the drug companies, the power of the corporate media is so great that the only way we really transform America and do the things that the middle class and working class desperately need is through a political revolution, when millions of people begin to come together and stand up and say, “Our government is going to work for all of us, not just a handful of billionaires.”

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Sanders also made headlines when he criticized the media for focusing too much on the controversy over Hillary Clinton’s use of private email servers while she was serving as secretary of state.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Let me say something that may not be great politics, but I think the secretary is right. And that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.

HILLARY CLINTON: Thank you. Me, too. Me, too.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: While Senator Sanders has surged in the polls, Secretary Clinton described herself as the outsider in the race.

ANDERSON COOPER: Secretary Clinton, Governor O’Malley says the presidency is not a crown to be passed back and forth between two royal families. This year has been the year of the outsider in politics. Just ask Bernie Sanders. Why should Democrats embrace an insider like yourself?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, I can’t think of anything more of an outsider than electing the first woman president, but I’m not just running because I would be the first woman president. I’m running because I have a lifetime of experience and getting results and fighting for people, fighting for kids, for women, for families, fighting to even the odds. And I know what it takes to get things done. I know how to find common ground, and I know how to stand my ground.

AMY GOODMAN: In one of the feistiest moments of the debate, Hillary Clinton criticized Sanders’ record on guns and his history of voting against measures like the Brady Bill.

ANDERSON COOPER: Secretary Clinton, is Bernie Sanders tough enough on guns?

HILLARY CLINTON: No, not at all. I think that we have to look at the fact that we lose 90 people a day from gun violence. This has gone on too long, and it’s time the entire country stood up against the NRA. The majority of our country supports background checks, and even the majority of gun owners do.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley repeatedly stressed that climate change will cause political instability and called for moving to clean energy.

MARTIN O’MALLEY: I have put forward a plan—and I’m the only candidate, I believe, in either party to do this—to move America forward to a 100 percent clean electric grid by 2050. We did not land a man on the man with an all-of-the-above strategy. It was an intentional engineering challenge, and we solved it as a nation. And our nation must solve this one.

AMY GOODMAN: All five candidates were also asked to identify what they believe is the greatest threat to national security. Former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee spoke first.

LINCOLN CHAFEE: It’s certainly the chaos in the Middle East. There’s no doubt about it.


LINCOLN CHAFEE: And it all started with the Iraq invasion.

ANDERSON COOPER: Governor O’Malley?

MARTIN O’MALLEY: I believe that a nuclear Iran remains the biggest threat, along with the spread of ISIL. Climate change, of course, makes cascading threats even worse.

ANDERSON COOPER: Secretary Clinton, the greatest national security threat?

HILLARY CLINTON: I think it has to be continuing threat from the spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear material, that can fall into the wrong hands. I know the terrorists are constantly seeking it, and that’s why we have to stay vigilant but also united around the world to prevent that.

ANDERSON COOPER: Senator Sanders, greatest national security threat?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: The scientific community is telling us if we do not address the global crisis of climate change, transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to sustainable energy, the planet that we’re going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable. That is a major crisis.


JIM WEBB: Our greatest long-term strategic challenge is our relation with China. Our greatest day-to-day threat is cyberwarfare against this country. Our greatest military operational threat is resolving the situations in the Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more on the debate, we’re joined by a number of guests. Here in New York, we’re joined by Jill Stein, the 2016 presidential candidate for the Green Party. Les Payne is also with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, former editor at Newsday. And D. Watkins joins us, a columnist for Salon, author of the book, The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America.

I want to start with Jill Stein. Your response, overall, to the debate, what was covered, what wasn’t?

DR. JILL STEIN: It was not a new day for the Democratic Party. It was very—you know, it was enriching. It was wonderful to see the focus on economic justice, and that was very welcome. But there it was taking place in the luxury Wynn hotel in Nevada, you know, and this is where we’re having a discussion about economic justice. And Hillary Clinton, as sort of the dominant voice in the debate, is a little hard to believe. She’s sort of talking out of both sides of her mouth: She wants to go against Wall Street, but she won’t support Glass-Steagall. She—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what Glass-Steagall is.

DR. JILL STEIN: Glass-Steagall being the law that separated speculative banking from everyday consumer banking and basically allows banks to take risks—or, I should say, it prevents banks from taking risks at consumers’ burden, so that it permits bailouts, and—or, I should say, it prevents bailouts from going forward. So, you know, Glass-Steagall was repealed under the Clinton administration and needs to be brought back. But Senator Clinton does not support it.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s actually go to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders sparring over their plans to address abuses on Wall Street.

ANDERSON COOPER: Senator Sanders wants to break up the big Wall Street banks. You don’t. You say charge the banks more, continue to monitor them. Why is your plan better?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, my plan is more comprehensive, and, frankly, it’s tougher, because of course we have to deal with the problem that the banks are still too big to fail. We can never let the American taxpayer and middle-class families ever have to bail out the kind of speculative behavior that we saw. But we also have to worry about some of the other players—AIG, a big insurance company; Lehman Brothers, an investment bank. There’s this whole area called shadow banking. That’s where the experts tell me the next potential problem could come from.

ANDERSON COOPER: Senator Sanders, Secretary Clinton just said that her policy is tougher than yours.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, that’s not true.


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Let us be clear that the greed and recklessness and illegal behavior of Wall Street, where fraud is a business model, helped to destroy this economy and the lives of millions of people. Check the record. In the 1990s—and all due respect—in the 1990s, when I had the Republican leadership and Wall Street spending billions of dollars in lobbying, when the Clinton administration, when 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. Today, it is my view that when you have—


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: —the three largest banks in America are much bigger than they were when we bailed them out for being too big to fail, we have got to break them up.

AMY GOODMAN: Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Journalist Les Payne, your response?

LES PAYNE: Well, I agree that it was—they were in swank surroundings, but at times I think Hillary and Sanders lifted it and put it in a back alley. I think that it was—the issues were joined. I thought that on the—I think Hillary refused to throw her husband under the bus on Glass-Steagall and did her thing. And I think, throughout the debate, I found her pivoting. When she was attacked, she pivoted. She was—on Glass-Steagall, she pivoted, said her issue was stronger. When he attacked her on Iraq and why she voted for the war, she said, “Yeah, but I was named secretary of state.” And she even embraced O’Malley, I mean. So I thought she was on her game. But then again, she’s a good debater. She’s been debating since high school. She was on the high school debating team. If the next president is to be selected by who is the better debater, then Clinton would certainly be in the running, and perhaps deserves to be the front-runner.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Les, I’m wondering, in terms of the overall picture that you got of this debate versus the first two Republican debates, is there any particular lessons you can draw from the combined activities of these candidates versus what happened with the Republican candidates?

LES PAYNE: Well, I think the Republicans went for the personal. I think that the issues were joined here. I thought that Anderson Cooper and company did a pretty good job of getting the issues joined. I thought the questions were sharp. I thought that—it was a debate. And I think, for instance, someone observed that, for instance, when the audience was allowed to ask, “Does black lives matter?”—”black” was never mentioned in the first two Republicans’ debate, and “African-American” was mentioned only one time, and that was by Rand Paul, so that they clearly stayed away. For the six major issues that they dealt with, the Republicans did not deal with them at all. So, I think if you want to compare the two, I mean, it was a debate versus, you know, a kind of a personal waltz around Trump.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I was struck, though, by how little there was on questioning on foreign policy of the candidates. With the exception of some discussion on Iraq and Syria, there was very little to try to elicit the differences between them when it comes to foreign policy. Jill, do you want to—

DR. JILL STEIN: Yeah. I mean, not only that there wasn’t much said, but that what was said was really pretty uniform. It was all kind of in the mode of the tough guy, American militarist approach to foreign policy. And there was no—you know, there was this incredible cognitive disconnect. You know, the Middle East is going up in flames. We have about five failed states right now, going on many more. And we have created ISIS. And the thinking is that we can fix ISIS by doing more of what created ISIS. And there was absolutely no meaningful dialogue about this quagmire that we are plunging into headlong.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to play some of the clips from the debate, but before we do, D. Watkins, your overall take on the Democrats and what they addressed last night in Las Vegas?

D. WATKINS: It was great television. It was interesting and funny. But from where I come from in Baltimore, I’m responsible for working directly with the people. And the way some of these candidates talk, I feel like they don’t even know a poor person. You don’t even know what’s going on out there. Everything sounds great, and it’s cool to throw around rhetoric about gun control and Black Lives Matter. Oh, cool, I’m happy, I’m happy that made it into the debate. But I also feel like some of these politicians will say whatever they have to say just to be elected, and that’s not going to change the conditions of anyone living in a place like Baltimore City right now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Any particular statement by any of the candidates surprise you in terms of its refreshingness, in terms its being on point?

D. WATKINS: Yeah, Martin O’Malley’s love for African Americans surprised me, because as—when he was the mayor when I was a kid, I didn’t know. I didn’t feel that. I know a lot of my friends been through the system—and they shouldn’t have gone through the system—because of those—the high, ridiculous amount of arrests that happened while he was mayor. Dudes going to jail for sitting outside on the steps, dudes going to jail for riding their bike on the curb—like, that’s crazy.

AMY GOODMAN: D. Watkins, hold that thought. We’re going to break and then come back to Martin O’Malley addressing just that issue. We’re talking to D. Watkins, who is author of The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America. We’re also talking to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Les Payne and with Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein. Stay with us.

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