Saturday’s Democratic Debate: Does 9/11 Justify Wall Street Donations?

Dave Johnson

The Democratic candidates debated for the second time Saturday evening, in Des Moines, Iowa. Because of the terrible terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut, the emphasis of the beginning of the debate focused on a discussion of terrorism, national security and foreign relations. After the first half hour, the debate turned to other issues.

The debate was on Saturday because of a party strategy to minimize the potential audience. The debate began with the moderator saying that “freedom was savagely attacked in the heart of Paris,” with no mention of the ISIS attacks in Beirut.

The moderators seemed to have come from Fox News, repeating Republican talking point after talking point. “Obama legacy is he underestimated ISIS.” “Why won’t you use the words, ‘radical Islam’?” “Border fence to keep our country safe.” “Raising the minimum wage costs jobs.” “There is an FBI investigation of your emails.” “Police are not enforcing the law because they are afraid of being caught on camera.”

The question about terrorism being attributed to “radical Islam” is a way to tar all Muslims as terrorists. But it gave Clinton the opportunity to give an excellent response:

Clinton: “I don’t think we’re at war with Islam. I don’t think we at war with all Muslims. I think we’re at war with jihadists who have–”

Moderator: “Just to interrupt, he– he didn’t say all Muslims. He just said radical Islam. Is that a phrase you don’t–”

Clinton: “I think that you can– you can talk about Islamists who– clearly are also jihadists. But I think it’s– it– it’s not particularly helpful to make the case that– Senator Sanders was just making that I agree with that we’ve gotta reach out to Muslim countries. We’ve gotta have them be part of our coalition.

If they hear people running for– president who basically shortcut it to say we are somehow against Islam– that was one of the real contributions– despite all the other problems that George W. Bush made after 9/11 when he basically said after going to a mosque in Washington, ‘We are not at war with Islam or Muslims. We are at war with violent extremism. We are at war with people who use their religion for purposes of power and oppression.’ And yes, we are at war with those people that I don’t want us to be painting with too broad a brush.”

Another example of the right-centric questioning was a question about terrorism to Sanders:

“Senator Sanders, you said you want to rid the planet of ISIS. In the previous debate you said the greatest threat to national security was climate change. Do you still believe that?”

Sanders answered:

“Absolutely. In fact, climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism. And if we do not get our act together and listen to what the scientists say you’re gonna see countries all over the world– this is what the C.I.A. says, they’re gonna be struggling over limited amounts of water, limited amounts of land to grow their crops. And you’re gonna see all kinds of international conflict.”

Sanders also said, indirectly criticizing Clinton’s vote in favor of war with Iraq:

“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.”

For a comparison of candidates’ plans on security see Campaign for America’s Future’s Candidate Scorecard. “The Candidate Scorecard measures the positions of Democratic candidates for president against the Populism 2015 platform endorsed by organizations representing 2 million Americans. We awarded points only for concrete policy positions, not for rhetoric, and provide links to document our judgments. We have received feedback from each of the leading candidates.”

Debt-Free College

Debt-free college received a lot of discussion in the debate, again with conservative framing, “So who pays for all that?” This sets the answer up to reply to a need for austerity rather than the good that providing education would do for our people and economy.

But this provided Sanders the opportunity to give one of the memorable answers in the debate. The moderator demanded to know how high Sanders would raise tax rates.

“Well, let’s get specific, how high would you go? You said before you’d go above 50%. How high?”

Sanders: “We haven’t come up with an exact number yet. But it will not be as high as the number under Dwight D. Eisenhower which was 90%. But it will be– (LAUGHTER) I’m not a socialist compared to Eisenhower.”

The question also gave O’Malley the opportunity to add:

“I mean, under Ronald Reagan’s first term the highest marginal rate was 70%. And in talking to a lot of our neighbors who are in that super wealthy millionaire and billionaire category great numbers of them love their country enough to do more again in order to create more opportunity for America’s middle class.”

Quotes on debt-free college:

Clinton: “We should have debt-free college if you go to a public college or university. You should not have to borrow a dime to pay tuition. … And together we make it possible for a new generation of young people to refinance their debt and not come out with debt in the future.”

Sanders: “I want those kids to know that if they study hard, they do their homework, regardless of the income of their families, they will in fact be able to get a college education because we’re going to make public college and universities tuition-free. This is revolutionary for education in America – it will give hope to millions of young people.”

O’Malley: “I believe that actually affordable college, debt-free college is the goal we need to attain as a nation. … I believe the goal should be debt-free college. … We can have debt-free college in the United States.”

For a comparison of candidates’ plans on making college affordable see Campaign for America’s Future’s Candidate Scorecard.

Minimum Wage

In another conservative framing of a question moderator Kathie Obradovich asked a question about raising the minimum wage by stating this would cause people to lose jobs. She said it “could lead to undesirable and unintended consequences like job loss. What level of job loss would you consider unacceptable?”


“Real inflation accounted for wages has declined precipitously over the years. So I believe that in fact this country needs to move toward a living wage.

It is not a radical idea to say that if somebody works 40 hours a week that person should not be living in poverty. It is not a radical idea to say that a single mom should be earning enough money to take care of her kids. So I believe that over the next few years, not tomorrow, that over the next few years we have got to move the minimum wage to a living wage $15.00 bucks an hour. And I apologize to nobody.

[. . .] You have no disposable income when you’re making ten, $12.00 bucks an hour. When we put money into the hands of working people they’re gonna go out for our goods. They’re gonna go out for our services. And they are gonna create jobs in doing that. That is the kind of economy I believe, put money in the hands of working people, raise the minimum wage to $15.00 an hour.

O’Malley said they had raised the minimum in Maryland while he was governor, “And– so look, the way the– the– a stronger middle class is actually the source of economic growth. And if our middle class makes more money, they spend more money. And our whole economy grows. We did it. And it worked. And nobody headed for the hills or left the state because of the– … The fact of the matter is the more our people earn the more money they spend and the more our whole economy grows.”

Clinton, though, is calling for a raise to only $12. “[T]he overall message is that it doesn’t result in job loss. However what Alan Krueger said in the piece you’re referring to is that if we went to $15.00 there are no international comparisons. That is why I support a $12.00 national federal minimum wage. That is what the democrats in the senate have put forward as– proposal.”

For a comparison of candidates’ plans on the minimum wage, inequality and other economic issues see Campaign for America’s Future’s Candidate Scorecard.

Health Care

Sanders called for Medicare-for-All (a.k.a. “single-payer”) and linked the effort to fix the health care system to campaign finance, “… it’s probably not gonna happen until you have real campaign finance reform and get rid of all these super PACs and the power of the insurance companies and the drug companies. […] But when millions of people stand up and are prepared to take on the insurance companies and the drug companies, it will happen and I will lead that effort. Medicare for all, single-payer system is the way we should go.”

Clinton criticized that, saying, “I don’t think we should have to be defending [Obamacare] among Democrats. We ought to be working to improve it and prevent Republicans from both undermining it and even repealing it.”

She criticized Sanders proposal for Medicare-for-All, saying, “I’ve looked at the legislation that Senator Sanders has proposed. And basically, he does eliminate the Affordable Care Act, eliminate private insurance, eliminates Medicare, eliminates Medicaid, Tricare, children’s health insurance program. … I think as Democrats, we ought to proudly support the Affordable Care Act, improve it, and make it the model that we know it can be.”

Sanders responded, “We don’t eliminate Medicare. We expand Medicare to all people.”

O’Malley tried to say something as well, but, Moderator: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry governor. We’ve got to take a break or the machine breaks down.”

For a comparison of candidates’ plans on fixing the health care system see Campaign for America’s Future’s Candidate Scorecard.

Criminal Justice / Black Lives Matter

O’Malley: “I think the call of your question is how can we improve both public safety in America and race relations in America understanding how very intertwined both of those issues are in a very, very difficult and painful way for us as a people. Look, the truth of the matter is that we should all feel a sense of responsibility as Americans to look for the things that actually work to save and redeem lives and to do more of them.”

Sanders: “According to the statistics that I’m familiar with, a black male maybe born today stands a one in four chance of ending up in the criminal justice system. Fifty-one percent of high school African American graduates are unemployed or underemployed. We have more people in jail today than any other country on earth.

We’re spending $80 billion locking people up disproportionately, Latino and African American. We need very clearly major, major reform in a broken criminal justice system from top to bottom. And that means when police officers out in a community do illegal activity, kill people who are unarmed, who should not be killed, they must be held accountable. It means that we end minimum sentencing … And it means that we take marijuana out of the federal law as a crime and give space for freedom to go forward with legalizing marijuana.”

Clinton: “I recently met with a group of mothers who lost their children to– either– killings by police or random killings– in their neighborhoods.

And hearing their stories was so incredibly, profoundly heartbreaking. Each one of them, you know, describes their child, had a picture.

[. . .] it’s not just a question for parents and grandparents to answer. It’s really a question for all of us to answer. Every single one of our children deserves the chance to live up to his or her god-given potential. And that’s what we need to be doing to the best of our ability in our country.”

For a comparison of candidates’ plans on addressing racial issues see Campaign for America’s Future’s Candidate Scorecard.

Does 9/11 Justify Wall Street Donations?

The major story coming out of the debate was candidate Hillary Clinton’s invoking of 9/11 to justify her Wall Street speaking fees and campaign contributions.

Sanders (from CBS transcript): “Now, why do they make millions of dollars of campaign contributions? They expect to get something. Everybody knows that. Once again, I am running a campaign differently than any other candidate. We are relying on small campaign donors, $750,000 and $30 apiece. That’s who I’m indebted to.”

Clinton: “Oh, wait a minute, senator. You know, not only do I have hundreds of thousands of donors, most of them small, I am very proud that for the first time a majority of my donors are women, 60 percent. So I– I represented New York. And I represented New York on 9/11 when we were attacked.

Where were we attacked? We were attacked in downtown Manhattan where Wall Street is. I did spend a whole lot of time and effort helping them rebuild. That was good for New York. It was good for the economy. And it was a way to rebuke the terrorists who had attacked our country.”

Needless to say, this exchange got quite a reaction online, and one of the moderators brought this up.

Nancy Cordes: “… one of the tweets we saw– said that I’ve never seen a candidate invoke 9/11 to justify millions of Wall Street donations until now the idea being that, yes, you are a champion of the community after 9/11. But what does that have to do with taking big donations?

Clinton: “Well, I’m sorry that whoever tweeted that– had that impression because I worked closely with New Yorkers after 9/11 for my entire first term to rebuild. And so yes, I did know people. I had a lot of folks give me donations from all kinds of backgrounds, say, “I don’t agree with you on everything. But I like what you do. I like how you stand up. I’m going to support you.” And I think that is absolutely perfect.”

Sanders: “Well, I– if I might– I– I– I think the issue here is that I– I applaud Secretary Clinton. She did. She’s the senator from New York. She worked– many of us supported you in trying to rebuild that devastation. But at the end of the day Wall Street today has enormous economic and political power. Their business model is greed and fraud. And for the sake of our economy they must– the major banks must be broken up.”

This has not been received well. The D.C. insider Daily 202 cites example after example of outlets criticizing Clinton’s remarks, “Breathtaking cynicism.” “The major gaffe of the night.” “What was she thinking?” “Really cray-cray.” “It was so odd, and so shameless…” “Could really come back to bite her.” Daxid Axelrod said that it was “her one really false note. That was an example of her being too political.” There has been widespread reaction since the debate, with many, many news outlets echoing that Clinton said this.

Clinton’s use of 9/11 is being called a “gaffe” and it could turn out to be an even bigger problem because of the party’s effort to minimize the audience for the debates. Invoking 9/11 might be her only “false note” in an otherwise good performance, but without the audience a debate usually would receive, people will only hear about this. They will not have any frame of reference for how she otherwise did. So the party’s effort to “run out the clock” on Clinton’s lead and keep people from hearing from Sanders might turn out to be too clever by half.

For details on the candidates’ plans see Clinton vs Sanders vs O’Malley On Fixing Banking and Campaign for America’s Future’s Candidate Scorecard.

Other Notable Moments

Hillary on guns: “Senator Sanders– had a different vote than I did– when it came to giving immunity to gun makers and sellers. That was a terrible mistake. … Since we last debated in Las Vegas nearly 3,000 people have been killed by guns, 21 mass shootings including one last weekend in Des Moines where three were murdered, 200 children have been killed. This is an emergency.”

Moderator: “You say that– Senator Sanders took a vote that– on immunity that you don’t like. So if he can be tattooed by a single vote and that ruins all future– opinions by him on this issue, why then is he right when he says you’re wrong vote on Iraq tattoos you for offering your judgment?”

Clinton: “I said I made a mistake on Iraq.”

Sanders again defended Clinton on the email issue.

The debate was best for O’Malley, possibly, but unlikely to raise his polling. Sanders reached his stride after the section on terrorism. Clinton’s invoking of 9/11 to justify Wall Street donations and speaking fees is likely to hurt her standing with the Democrats who will decide who their candidate will be.

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