By Chelsea Schilling and Garth Kant
WASHINGTON – “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!”
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That statement drew the wildest applause of the night at the first Democratic Party debate of the 2016 campaign when Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders turned to front-runner Hillary Clinton and told her what he really thinks of her "Emailgate" scandal.
"Thank you!" Clinton declared, laughing loudly. "Me too, me too."
She turned to Sanders and shook his hand.
Five Democratic Party presidential candidates met Tuesday night in Las Vegas for the big event sponsored by CNN and Facebook: Clinton, Sanders, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Gov. and Sen. Lincoln Chafee.
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The debate was televised by CNN from the Wynn hotel and casino in Las Vegas. CNN host Anderson Cooper moderated, and he was joined by co-moderators Juan Carlos Lopez of CNN en Español, and CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash.
Cooper has been listed as a "notable past member" of the Clinton Global Initiative, but on Tuesday he emphatically dismissed claims of his ties to the Clintons, calling the Weekly Standard reports "total bunk."
Emailgate: GOP plot to 'drive down my poll numbers'
When the debate turned to Clinton's email scandal, the former secretary of state blamed Republicans for her woes and declared: "Tonight, I want to talk not about my emails, but about what the American people want from the next president of the United States."
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Clinton continued, "Let's just take a minute here and point out that this committee is basically an arm of the Republican National Committee. It is a partisan vehicle, as admitted by the House Republican Majority Leader, Mr. McCarthy, to drive down my poll numbers. Big surprise. And that's what they have attempted to do. I am still standing. I am happy to be part of this debate, and I intend to keep talking about the issues that matter to the American people."
That's when Sanders interrupted and delivered the big line of the night: "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!"
Watch the exchange:
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But after the cheering died down, Cooper then turned to Chafee and said: "I know that plays well in this room, but I've got to be honest, Gov. Chafee, for the record, on the campaign trail, you said a different thing. You said this is a huge issue. Standing here, in front of Secretary Clinton, are you willing to say that to her face?"
"Absolutely," replied Chafee, adding: "I think we need someone who has the best in ethical standards as our next president. That's how I feel."
Cooper then turned to Clinton: "Secretary Clinton, do you want to respond?"
"No," she replied, smiling as the crowd cheered wildly.
Clinton promises to 'heal the divides'
Sanders drew applause when he called for Americans to mobilize and "take back our government from the hands of billionaires."
Clinton said the U.S. must go beyond raising the minimum wage to "finding ways to make the companies share the profits they make." She said the wealthy must "pay their fair share," and American families should receive paid family leave.
"For me, this is about bringing our country together again," Clinton said. "And I will do everything I can to heal the divides." She cited racial, gender and income "divides."
Accused of flip-flopping, Clinton claimed she does not change her position on issues, arguing that she has been "very consistent" during the course of her life.
"Like most people I know, I have a range of views, but they are rooted in my values and experiences," she said.
Asked whether she is a progressive or moderate, Clinton replied, "I'm progressive, but I'm a progressive who likes to get things done." She accused Republicans of "never having a good word to say about me."
She added, "I don't take a back seat to anyone when it comes to progressive experience and progressive commitment."
When asked if a socialist can win an election in America, Sanders didn't answer directly, but declared, "In a rigged economy, 57 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent. ... When you look around the world, you see every other major country providing health care for all people as a right except the U.S."
Guns and the Oregon massacre
On the issue of guns and the mass shooting in Oregon, Clinton said, "We have to look at the fact that we lose 90 people a day from gun violence. This has gone on for too long, and it's time the entire country stood up against the [National Rifle Association]." She demanded that gun manufacturers be held accountable for shootings and accused Sanders of voting five times against the Brady bill.
Sanders interjected, "All the shouting in the world is not going to do what, I would hope, all of us want, and that is keeps guns out of the hands of people who should not have those guns, and end this horrible violence that we are seeing."
Webb, who once held an A rating from the NRA, said the real issue is "who should be kept from having guns and using firearms." He said many of these individuals are criminals and gang members, but others are mentally incapacitated.
Webb said Americans should be subject to background checks, and guns should be kept from people who shouldn't have them.
Syria and Iraq
On the issue of Syria, Sanders called the situation a "quagmire in a quagmire."
"I will do everything that I can to make sure that the United States does not get involved in another quagmire like we did in Iraq, the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of this country," he said. "I do not support ground troops in Iraq."
Clinton replied, "Nobody does, senator."
Chafee questioned Clinton's judgment in voting, as a senator, for the authorization of force in Iraq:
"We just heard Sen. Sanders say it was the worst decision in American history. So, as we look ahead, if you're going to make those poor judgment calls at a critical time in our history ... we just finished with the Vietnam era, getting back into another quagmire, if you're looking ahead, and you're looking at someone who made that poor decision in 2002 to go into Iraq when there was no real evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. … I know, because I did my homework, and so that's an indication of how someone will perform in the future, and that's important."
Asked whether she should have seen the Benghazi terrorist attack coming, Clinton dodged the question, but she said it was important to remember that a "murderous dictator" was "threatening to massacre large numbers of the Libyan people," and Arabs wanted the U.S. to help deal with then-Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi
"Our response, which I think was smart power at its best, is that the United States will not lead this; we will provide essential, unique capabilities that we have, but the Europeans and the Arabs had to be first over the line.
"We did not put one single American soldier on the ground in Libya," she said.
Cooper reminded her that American citizens (including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens) did lose their lives in Benghazi.
"I'll get to that, but it's important to explain where we were then," the former secretary of state replied.
But she never did specifically address the deadly terrorist attack on the U.S. compound, concluding, "Unless you believe the United States should not send diplomats to anyplace that is dangerous, which, I do not, then, when we send them forth there is always the potential for danger and risk."
After Sanders railed against Wall Street, Clinton told him: "I respect your passion and intensity. I represented Wall Street as a senator from New York, and I went to Wall Street in December of 2007 – before the big crash we had – and I basically said, 'Cut it out. Quit foreclosing on homes. Quit engaging in these kinds of speculative behaviors.'
Watch Hillary's statements about Wall Street:
"I took on the Bush administration for the same thing. So I have thought deeply and long about what we're going to do, to do exactly what I think both the senator and the governor want, which is to rein in and stop this risk.
"And my plan would have the potential of actually sending the executives to jail. Nobody went to jail after a $100 billion in fines were paid. ... I'm tellin' you, I'll say it tonight, if only you look at the big banks, you may be missing the forest for the trees. We've gotta look at all the other financial institutions."
Obamacare for illegal aliens
Cooper asked Clinton: "Governor O'Malley wants to open up Obamacare to millions of undocumented immigrants and their children, including almost 90,000 people right here in Nevada. Do you?"
She replied, "Well, first of all, I want to make sure every child gets health care. That's why I helped to create the Children's Health Insurance Program, and I want to support states that are expanding health care and including undocumented children and others."
Clinton said she wants illegal aliens to have a chance to buy into Obamacare, but she said they should not receive the same subsidies as U.S. citizens.
"It raises so many issues, it would be very difficult to administer," she said. "It needs to be part of comprehensive immigration reform, when we finally do get to it."
O'Malley responded: "That's some of the old thinking on immigration reform, and it's why it's gridlocked. We need to understand that America is made stronger in every generation by the arrival of new American immigrants. That is why I have put out a policy for comprehensive immigration reform. That is why I would go further than President Obama has on DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] and DAPA [Deferred Action for Parents of Americans]. I mean, we are a nation of immigrants. We are made stronger by immigrants.
"Do you think for a second that simply because somebody is standing in a broken que for a naturalization they're not going to go to the hospital? And that care isn't going to fall on our insurance rates?
"I am going for a generous, compassionate America that says we're all in this together. We need comprehensive immigration reform. It will make wages go up in America."
Webb noted that his wife is an immigrant, a refugee whose "family escaped from Vietnam on a boat." He said she didn't speak English and ultimately graduated from Cornell Law School.
But, he added, "No country is a country without defining its borders."
Then Clinton took a jab at the GOP: "There is such a difference between everything you are hearing here on this stage and what we hear from the Republicans who have demonized hard-working immigrants, who have insulted them."
She concluded, "I came to Las Vegas in early May, met with a group of 'DREAMers.' I wish everybody in America could meet with these young people. To hear their stories, to know their incredible talent, their determination, and that's why I would go further than even the executive orders [Obama] has signed when I am president."
Planned Parenthood and paid family leave
Clinton accused Republicans of using a big-government approach in their efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, and she charged Republicans with denying paid family leave to Americans.
"It's always the Republicans, or their sympathizers, who say, 'You can't have paid leave, you can't provide health care.' They don't mind having big government interfere with a woman's right to choose and to try to take down Planned Parenthood! They're fine with big government when it comes to that. I'm sick of it!"
Watch Hillary's statements:
The crowd cheered.
"We can do these things," she said. "We should not be paralyzed by the Republicans and their constant refrain of big-government this, big-government that, except for what they want to impose on the American people. I know we can afford it [paid maternity leave] because we're going to make the wealthy pay for it. That is the way to get it done."
Clinton vs. Sanders in the polls
Unless Vice President Joe Biden jumps into the fray, it is still a two-person race, with only Clinton and Sanders in double-digits among the declared candidates. In the five months since Sanders announced his candidacy, he has shot up in the polls from 6 to 25 percent.
In fact, the three other declared contenders are not even in the single digits, though they hoped to have breakout moments in the first debate. Not one of them – not Webb, O'Malley or Chafee – even registers one point: All three poll at less than 1 percent.
The latest poll numbers in the Democratic race from RealClearPolitics, which averages the top polls:
- Clinton: 43.3 percent
- Sanders: 25.1 percent
- Biden: 17.4 percent
- Webb: .09 percent
- O'Malley: .04 percent
- Chafee: .03 percent