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DES MOINES, Iowa — So much for the idea that Saturday’s night Democratic presidential debate — just a day after the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris — wouldn’t contain attacks, disagreements and pointed questions at the very beginning.
And they all were aimed at Hillary Clinton, who was expected to thrive with the focus on foreign policy and international terrorism due to her experience as secretary of state.
Instead, she was the one who was knocked off of her game — at least early on.
After the candidates’ opening statements offering sympathy in the wake of the Paris attacks, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley took issue with Clinton’s claim that the United States’ response to ISIS should be multilateral. “It cannot be an American fight,” she said.
O’Malley’s response: “This actually is America's fight. It cannot solely be America's fight,” he said.
Next, Bernie Sanders raised Clinton’s 2002 Senate vote authorizing the Iraq war vote. “I only have one area of disagreement with the secretary. I think she said something like, ‘The bulk of the responsibility is not ours.’ Well, in fact, I would argue that the disastrous invasion of Iraq, something that I strongly opposed, has unraveled the region completely.”
And after that, moderator John Dickerson of CBS News sharply questioned Clinton’s support for intervening in Libya. “How did you get it wrong with Libya if the key lesson of the Iraq war is have a plan for after?”
The takeaway for Clinton after this foreign policy focused debate, especially when it comes to Libya and ISIS: It’s not easy defending the Obama administration’s handling of the Middle East.
The takeaway for Sanders’ and O’Malley’s answers on these same topics: It isn’t easy to offer solutions and remedies to that volatile and complex part of the world.
Those weren’t the only fireworks during the debate.
Clinton and Sanders sparred over Clinton’s political contributions from Wall Street. “I have never heard a candidate," Sanders said, "who has received huge amounts of money from oil, from coal, from Wall Street, from the military industrial complex, not one candidate say: ‘Oh, these campaign contributions will not influence me. I'm going to be independent.’ Well, why do they make millions of dollars of campaign contributions? They expect to get something. Everybody knows that.”
Clinton snapped back, “Wait a minute, he has basically used his answer to impugn my integrity.” She added, “So, 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.”
And Clinton returned fire on the issue of 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. It basically gave the gun lobby even more power to intimidate legislators, not just in Washington but across the country.”
But like he did in the first Democratic debate in October, Sanders gave Clinton a pass on the subject of email practices as secretary of state. “I was sick and tired of Hillary Clinton's e-mail. I am still sick and tired of Hillary Clinton's e-mails.”
Clinton replied, “I agree completely.”