Critic's Notebook: Clinton and Sanders (Finally) Throw Punches in Heated Debate

Democratic Debate Charleston H 2016

In their last debate before the Iowa caucuses, the Democratic candidates came out with guns blazing.

If there's one reason to vote Democratic this coming November, it's this: Their televised debates actually manage to end on time.

Sunday's installment in the long-running television reality show that is the 2016 presidential election was a far more spirited, lively affair than past Democratic editions, with the gloves having come off in anticipation of the imminent Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. It was far less of a mutual admiration society, with nary an utterance of "with all due respect." Instead, Martin O'Malley basically called Hillary Clinton a liar, and Clinton and Bernie Sanders attacked each other's records and positions as if they were, well, Republicans.

If this keeps up, someday people may actually start watching these things.

The event was breathlessly hyped by NBC News as "the last debate before the first vote," pretending that what happens in the Iowa caucuses actually matter. Sure they do — just ask Presidents Rick Santorum, Tom Harkin, Mike Huckabee, Walter Mondale, John Kerry and that distinguished winner from 1972, "Uncommitted."

But it clearly mattered to the revved-up candidates, who seemed to have drunk some Red Bull just before going onstage. (That could account for the lengthy break at the halfway point, preventing any awkward bathroom delay that Donald Trump might find offensive).

Each of the candidates evoked Martin Luther King Jr. in their opening statements, and there were frequent references to the horrific massacre at the Emanuel AME Church, located just a stone's throw away from the evening's proceedings.

Gun control was the first major issue discussed, and the candidates answered with guns blazing. Clinton noted that Sanders had voted for what is known as the "Charleston loophole," no doubt trying to make him squirm. But while Sanders twisted himself into contortions trying to defend his past Senatorial actions, O'Malley seized the opportunity, rhetorically wondering "which of them has the most inconsistent record on gun legislation."

"I've never met a self-reflecting hunter who needed an AR-15 to down a deer," he thundered, somehow managing to resist capping it off with a "Booyah!"

The event was sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, providing the opportunity for moderator Lester Holt to pointedly ask Sanders about his poor poll ratings with black people. His answer boiled down to "when they get to know me, they'll love me."

(Memo to Bernie, and this is meant lovingly: If you want to avoid unflattering mentions of your age, clip your nose hair before your next appearance on high-definition television. Also, don't say that you were unable to hear a question, or ask, "Did I say that?" when confronted with a direct quote.)

In the networks' never-ending attempt to exploit social media, the debate was co-sponsored by YouTube, with questions posed by the likes of 23-year-old blogger Connor Franta, who Clinton complimented for receiving 23 million hits, and MinuteEarth, an animated environmental-themed show. But if they really wanted to reflect the video-sharing website, there would have been questions from its most truly popular attractions, such as PewDiePie, the profane video game commentator; DisneyCollectorBR, the woman who posts footage of herself playing with Disney toys; and, well, cat videos.

Some of the sharpest exchanges emerged from the questions about health care, with Sanders advocating throwing the Affordable Care Act out and switching to a single payer, Medicare-for-all system, and Clinton describing the notion as a "utopian pipe dream." A clearly annoyed Andrea Mitchell referred several times to Sanders having released his detailed plan just two hours before the debate, as if she was a college student ticked off by a pop quiz. When asked about the fact that his newly released plan would actually raise taxes on the middle class, Sanders, sounding like a used-car salesman, launched into a complicated description of how taxpayers would actually save money. During that exchange and others, Clinton, who had previously taken pains to say that she was not running for Obama's third term, instead wrapped herself tightly in him like he was a fur coat in a raging blizzard.

Big banks were another major bone of contention, with Sanders and O'Malley competing for bragging rights for who was taking less money from Wall Street.

"I didn't take personal speaking fees from Goldman Sachs," Sanders sniffed, referring to Clinton. He later went on to mention the financial institution so many times it was as if he had secretly become a major stockholder.

When the issue of climate change was raised, O'Malley, who has made it the leading element of his campaign, almost jumped up and down with excitement. But it was Sanders who got off the best line when he said that Trump "believes that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese."

Speaking of O'Malley, why is he still in this, other than providing eye candy in a suit? If his poll numbers were any lower, he'd be a Republican governor. He might as well be holding a handwritten sign reading, "Will be Vice-President for Food." At one point in the proceedings, O'Malley plaintively asked, "Can I get 30 seconds, too?" flashing a sheepish smile.

At the very end of the debate, Holt asked each of the candidates if there was anything they wanted to say that they hadn't gotten a chance to.

"We'll start with Governor O'Malley," he said, garnering the single biggest laugh of the night.  

Clinton clearly enjoyed exploiting her foreign policy strengths, somehow managing to make even her worst mistakes seem like triumphs. She sounded far tougher than Sanders when she said about the recent developments in Iran, "We've one good day over 36 years. I think we need more good days." When asked about her relationship with Vladimir Putin, she put on her best Cheshire cat grin, and said, "It's interesting … ."

She also was asked whether her husband Bill would be a significant adviser, and if their discussions would be held at the kitchen table.

Let's give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that she probably didn't mean to invite salacious thoughts with her response: "It'll start at the kitchen table … we'll see how it goes from there."   

Sanders seemed to speak for everyone when he was asked about his past comments regarding Bill Clinton's "deplorable behavior."

"That question annoys me," he snapped. You could practically feel the Bern.