DES MOINES — A Democratic presidential debate here Saturday that began with a sobering discussion of the escalating terror threats from Islamic State militants quickly turned to a sharp ideological clash on domestic issues, ranging from regulating the banking industry to gun control.
Hillary Rodham Clinton repeatedly was put on the defensive by challengers Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. The criticisms began over foreign policy, with questions about her judgment when she was President Obama’s secretary of state and when, as a senator from New York, she voted to authorize the war in Iraq.
And the volume significantly increased when the debate turned to domestic issues, as Clinton objected to what she said was Sanders’s effort to question her character because of her ties to Wall Street and O’Malley’s description of her proposed policy to regulate the financial industry as “weak tea.”
When Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, charged that Wall Street has been Clinton’s biggest political contributor over many years, she shot back that he should not “impugn my character.” Clinton then made a connection between the backing she receives from Wall Street executives and the 9/11 terror attacks that yielded instant criticism from both Republicans and some Democrats.
“Where were we attacked? We were attacked in downtown Manhattan, where Wall Street is,” she said. “I did spend a whole lot of time and effort helping them rebuild. That was good for New York.”
The intensity of the attacks underscored the high stakes for Clinton’s challengers, with each seeking to slow her momentum. The tone suggested that the campaign has moved into a new phase, with what had been gentle criticisms of Clinton replaced by more pointed and direct contrasts.
Sanders and O’Malley, a former governor of Maryland, both delivered stronger, more aggressive performances than in the first debate a month ago. But the upshot of the two-hour encounter on the campus of Drake University appeared unlikely to change the overall shape of a nomination battle that has moved back in Clinton’s direction in recent weeks.
Clinton was passionate in pushing back and countered with her own sharp critiques. She parried each attack and, as in the first debate, showed she was prepared to lash out at what she perceived as her rivals’ weaknesses. She used the discussion of foreign policy to highlight her experience and focus voters on which candidate is most prepared to be commander in chief.
The debate opened on a somber note, with the candidates bowing their heads in a moment of silence for the victims of the Paris attacks that left 129 dead. Moderator John Dickerson asked each candidate to deliver an opening statement responding to the terror attacks. Sanders chose to use his time to restate his basic campaign themes, rather than dealing with the aftermath of Paris.
When Clinton was asked whether she agreed with Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) that the Paris attacks show that the United States is in a war with radical Islam, she responded: “I don’t think we’re at war with Islam. I don’t think we’re at war with all Muslims. . . . We are at war with violent extremism. We are at war with people who use their religion for purposes of power and oppression.”
Clinton asserted that the United States should not play the leading role in combating threats from Islamist militants.
“I think what the president has consistently said — which I agree with — is that we will support those who take the fight to ISIS,” she said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “But this cannot be an American fight, although American leadership is essential.”
O’Malley disagreed. “This actually is America’s fight,” he said. “It cannot solely be America’s fight. America is best when we work in collaboration with our allies. America is best when we are actually standing up to evil in this world.”
Sanders linked the rise of the Islamic State to the war in Iraq and attacked Clinton for her 2002 Senate vote backing the invasion.
“I think she said something like the bulk of the responsibility is not ours,” he said. “In fact, I would argue that the disastrous invasion of Iraq, something that I strongly opposed, has unraveled the region completely and led to the rise of al-Qaeda and to ISIS.”
O’Malley and Sanders raised questions about the breadth of the turmoil in the Middle East and whether U.S. policy was equipped to deal with it.
“Libya is now a mess,” O’Malley said. “Syria is a mess. Iraq is a mess. Afghanistan is a mess. As Americans, we have shown ourselves to have the greatest military on the face of the planet, but we are not so very good at anticipating threats and appreciating just how difficult it is to build up stable democracies.”
As Sanders and O’Malley sought to score points by highlighting what they saw as mistakes by the Obama administration and its predecessors, Clinton tried to showcase the experience that she gained during four years as secretary of state, stressing repeatedly the complicated nature of global issues.
Clinton offered historical context and nuance and spoke in some detail about the roles of specific countries, such as Turkey and Jordan. “This is an incredibly complicated region of the world,” she said. “It’s become more complicated. And many of the fights that are going on are not ones that the United States has either started or has a role in.”
As the discussion moved to economic issues, Sanders seemed to loosen up. He trumpeted many of his lines that have resonated with the liberal grass roots. He called for broad tax reform that eliminates corporate loopholes and a crackdown on Wall Street banks.
“We bailed out Wall Street,” Sanders said. “It’s time to bail out the middle class.”
One of the most intense exchanges came over breaking up big banks on Wall Street, an issue that has motivated the party’s liberal base since the economic collapse of 2008 and that has fueled Sanders’s rise.
Clinton found herself under fire for her campaign contributions from financial executives and history of coziness with Wall Street. When she said she had “a very aggressive plan to rein in Wall Street,” Sanders shot back that it was “not good enough.”
“Here’s the story,” he said. “Let’s not be naive about it. Why over her political career has Wall Street been a major — the major — campaign contributor to Hillary Clinton? Maybe they’re dumb and they don’t know what they’re going to get, but I don’t think so.”
Clinton retorted passionately by invoking the 9/11 attacks and went on to say that her Wall Street reform plan was superior to Sanders’ plan.
“My proposal is tougher, more effective and more comprehensive because I go after all of Wall Street, not just the big banks,” she said.
But O’Malley jumped in and sharply criticized Clinton’s plan. “It is weak tea,” he said. “It is not what the people expect of our country.”
Clinton sought to assert leadership on the issue of gun control, accusing Sanders of not doing enough in the Senate to toughen gun regulations and crack down on the firearms industry.
“We have to go after the gun lobby,” she said.
But O’Malley tried to portray Clinton as a chameleon on the issue, saying that as a Senate candidate in 2000 she had advocated robust gun regulations and then stayed quiet on the issue in her 2008 presidential race before emerging again as a champion on gun control in recent months. “There’s a big difference between leading by polls and leading with principle,” O’Malley said.
When the former Baltimore mayor talked about steps he had taken in Maryland to toughen gun laws, Sanders jumped in, “With all due respect, I think it’s fair to say that Baltimore is not now one of the safest cities in America.”