Inside the Democratic Debate: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders Spar Over Wall Street, Health Care

Democratic Debate Charleston H 2016

It wasn’t the Republicans, who have provided much of the heat and dominated the news cycle during the 2016 nominating debates. (And it’s possible that NBC News may not get a chance to host a Republican debate, though network executives are hopeful.) But in NBC's first debate of the season and the last one before the Iowa caucuses Feb. 1, the Democrats were as animated as they have been all season thanks to Bernie Sanders’ ascending poll numbers in Iowa, where he’s pulled within the margin of error of national frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

Moderated by Nightly News anchor Lester Holt in his first go-around as lead debate moderator (Holt co-moderated a 2004 debate on MSNBC), much of Sunday night’s debate was dominated by domestic issues including gun violence in America. This, of course, gave Clinton a chance to attack Sanders as being soft on guns, a narrative that her campaign has been hammering in the days leading up to the face-off.

It was a resonant issue for the audience at Charleston, S.C.'s Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, which is directly across the street from Mother Emanuel, where last June a white gunman massacred nine African-American churchgoers at their Bible study class. But so was income inequality, health care and police violence.

The most heated exchanges between Sanders and Clinton were over Wall Street and the influence of money in politics and on the economy. A favorite Sanders theme, the Vermont senator pointed out that in 2015, Clinton was paid in excess of $600,000 in speaking fees by Goldman Sachs. Clinton did not deny the assertion and several fact-checking sites confirmed it.

When Sanders asserted that the American justice system imprisons “young people who smoke marijuana” while bankers walk free, he got perhaps his biggest applause of the night. And a shout-out from Dr. Cornel West: “Tell it, Bernie!”

The audience was filled with stalwarts of the Democratic party: Elijah Cummings, James Clyburn, Donna Brazile, Nancy Pelosi.

Holt and his co-moderator, Andrea Mitchell, succeeded in highlighting some of the differences between Sanders and Clinton, especially on health care and financial reform. But a question from Mitchell to Sanders about Sanders' assessment of Bill Clinton’s past behavior as “deplorable” drew a sharp retort from Sanders.

“That question annoys me, Andrea,” said Sanders. "I’m going to focus on issues facing the American people, not Bill Clinton’s personal issues.”

The audience applauded. But Hillary Clinton also seemed to appreciate Sanders' not taking the bait. When Holt cut to commercial, Clinton and Sanders shared a warm moment and exited the stage together. 

There may have been three candidates on the stage — Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s poll numbers were rounded up so he could make the debate cutoff — but for all intents and purposes, the debate was really between Clinton and Sanders. And everyone knew it. In the final minutes of the debate, Holt asked if there was anything the candidates wanted to say that they did not have a chance to. And then he said: “We’ll start with you, Gov. O’Malley.” Cue uproarious laughter and applause.

Afterward, in the "spin room," where surrogates and supporters try to convince the press that their candidate won the debate, O'Malley lingered to talk to the media. (Robert Smigel was also there, interviewing NBC's Chuck Todd with his surrogate, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.) But neither Clinton nor Sanders made an appearance.