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The prediction leading into 2015’s third Democratic debate was that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders would spend several hours engaged in a brutal fisticuffs over his campaign’s data breech and subsequent lawsuit against the Democratic National Convention for revoking his access to the crucial Democratic voter network and further greasing the skids for Clinton. Most of the pre-debate coverage ABC tricked me into watching centered around the controversy, as did the political news cycle all day Friday and Saturday. Mike O’Malley certainly believed it would be the case, because a quick five minutes into the New Hampshire debate, after Sanders politely apologized and Clinton politely accepted his apology, the former Maryland governor came out swinging, accusing the two Democratic frontrunners of wasting everyone’s time bickering while he was hunkered down to do the hard work of fixing the country.
The opening exchange set the tone for the entire evening: Clinton and Sanders made it clear that while they’re not pals, they understand their real adversary is the Republican party; and O’Malley annoyed everyone all not long, including the moderators, by reminding them he exists.
Below are the top five takeaways from the New Hampshire debate.
1. Hillary Clinton isn’t running against Sanders or O’Malley anymore.
In what sometimes came off as a one-on-one sit-down interview with moderator Martha Raddatz, Clinton spent most of the night discussing the intricacies of foreign policy, highlighting her experience and successes as Secretary of State and showcasing a vast, nuanced understanding of the challenges the United States faces in the Middle East, particularly in its battle against ISIS. Multiple times, she called out the GOP for its un-American bigotry and bluster, warning that their rhetoric has the potential alienate the very people the U.S. needs to partner with to destroy ISIS. She spent much more time going after Republican candidates than either Sanders or O’Malley, projecting confidence that the nomination is in her pocket and trying to minimize the perceived differences between the three of them.
2. Bernie Sanders, however, is still very much running against Hillary Clinton.
Sanders smartly seized on every debate question that could spotlight the differences between him and Clinton, sometimes deftly nudging his way into the conversation in a way O’Malley could not manage to do. As expected, Sanders reminded the audience more than once that Clinton voted for the Iraq War in 2002, while he did not, and said that it will go down as one of the biggest U.S. foreign policy blunders in history. He also pointed out that while Clinton seems to favor regime change at any cost, a decision that often leaves a power vacuum that allows terrorist organizations to gain ground and followers, he favors a more cooperative approach to dealing with leaders in the Middle East. Sanders also doubled down on his plans for single-payer healthcare and free college tuition. (Clinton favors tweaking Obamacare and providing free tuition for community college/better aid for four-year college.)
Sanders really seemed to enjoy himself when the conversation turned toward domestic policy, where most of his differences with Clinton lie. After sparring with her over healthcare, he smiled and said, “Now, this is getting fun!” While Clinton’s nomination seems like a foregone conclusion, Sanders and his team remember that she had a bigger lead on President Obama at this point in 2008 than she does over Sanders right now.
3. Honestly, no one knows what O’Malley is still doing in the race.
O’Malley didn’t get any love from anyone. Not from Clinton and Sanders, who moved in tandem between ignoring him and tag-teaming him. Not from the moderators, who shushed him repeatedly while allowing Sanders and Clinton to talk over them. Not from the live audience at St. Anselm College; they groaned in unison when he basically called Clinton and Sanders The Olds, and asked to step in and share “a different generation’s view.” Experts believe O’Malley will drop out after the New Hampshire vote, which takes place on February 9. He’s getting absolutely crushed in the polls and did nothing to endear himself to the voters who’ll participate in the first-in-the-nation primary.
4. ABC really did expect Clinton and Sanders to brawl over data.
The domestic policy questions should have lasted the full second half of the debate, but the moderators seemed to run out of them, circling back around to foreign policy, with Raddatz asking Clinton questions that were nearly identical to the ones she’d posed early in the night, and asking for more detailed clarification. The real low point of the debate came when Raddatz talked around the idea of Bill Clinton as as a spouse in the White House and then asked Hillary if he’d pick out flowers and china like all the other first ladies if she is elected president. It was the only question that seemed to fluster Clinton; she ultimately said she’d still pick out the china and flowers, thank you very much, and would consider her husband’s opinion on economic policy. In a classy follow-up move, Sanders responded by saying Hillary Clinton actually redefined what it means to be first lady, and explained why his wife is one of his most important advisers and would be a valued addition to his team in the White House.
5. Clinton and Sanders want to run against Donald Trump.
The only GOP candidate whose name came up last night was Donald Trump’s, and both Sanders and Clinton said it repeatedly; not only because Trump is the Republican frontrunner, or because he has been the most egregiously racist and xenophobic during this primary season, but also because they very much want him to get the Republican nomination. It was clear last night that Sanders and Clinton are both repulsed by Trump’s antics and feel confident that their approaches to Americanism and actual experience governing this country will allow them to wipe the floor with Trump in a general election. “On our worst day, we have a lot more to offer the American people than the right wing extremists,” Sanders said in his closing statement. Clinton struck out even more fiercely in her closing statement, pulling in women and LGBT people and reminding them that the GOP is as happy to scapegoat them and take away their rights as they are to scapegoat and take away the rights of Muslims and immigrants.
Clinton brought down the house by ending her closing statement with: “Thank you, good night, and may The Force be with you!”
You can read a full transcript of last night’s debate here. May the Force be with us all.