If anyone was tuning in to the Democratic debate hoping to see a Mortal Combat-style throw down between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on Saturday night—they would have been disappointed.
That sad group includes Martin O’Malley.
But the debate did draw stark contrasts and testy exchanges between the two Democratic frontrunners on critical issues like foreign policy and financial ties to Wall Street that may turn the heads—and possibly the votes of Democratic voters.
The first question of the debate dealt with the scandal that broke early Friday about how a Bernie Sanders staffer used a momentary lapse in a voter database firewall to poach/or peruse (depending on which camp you speak to) critical campaign information from the Clinton campaign. The breach of the Democratic National Committee’s database added intrigue to a debate that felt obligatory compared to the fiery contests between Republicans, but instead of sparking a brawl, it was quickly extinguished in the first few minutes of the debate.
Sanders apologized to Clinton for his staffer’s decision to take advantage of a down firewall to go through Clinton’s proprietary campaign data, an apology she immediately accepted.
“Obviously we were distressed when we learned of it, because we’ve worked very hard,” Clinton said. “And so now that I think that we’ve resolved your data, agreed on an independent inquiry, we should move on. Because I don’t think the American people care all that much.”
O’Malley, who was also at the debate, had practiced a line about bickering and was not about to let it go. Even though there wasn’t any bickering … or real disagreement.
“[F]or crying out loud, our country has been attacked, we have pressing issues involving how we’re going to adapt to this changing era of warfare,” O’Malley started. “Instead, we’re listening to the bickering back and forth. Maybe that is normal politics in Washington, but that is not the politics of higher purpose that people expect from our party.”
That’s not to say the two Democratic frontrunners did not have crucial policy differences and the debate did get testy at times.
Some of the more heated exchanges between Sanders and Clinton were on Wall Street and the influence of corporate America, where the two diverge dramatically.
“Should corporate America love Hillary Clinton?” moderator David Muir asked.
“Everybody should,” Clinton responded, as the debate hall laughed.
“I want to make sure the wealthy pay their fair share, which they have not been doing,” she said, and then reiterated her support for the Buffet rule that would require millionaires to pay higher tax rates.
But when Sanders was asked the same question, he responded, “No, I think they won’t.”
“So Hillary and I have a difference. The CEOs of large multinationals may like Hillary,” Sanders said. “They ain’t going to like me and Wall Street is going to like me even less.”
Sanders then launched in his list of reforms including re-establishing the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933.
“We have got to break the large financial institutions up,” he said.
The two also butted heads twice on the issue of regime change in Syria and Clinton was put on the defensive about her push to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi that threw the country into chaos.
"I am not giving up on Libya and no one should," Clinton said.
Sanders, who repeatedly touted his vote against the Iraq war—a not so subtle dig at Clinton who voted for it—criticized Clinton as “too much into regime change and too aggressive without knowing what the consequences may be.”
Clinton shot back, “With all due respect, Senator, you voted for regime change with respect to Libya. You joined the Senate in voting to get rid of Gaddafi, and you asked that there be a Security Council validation of that with a resolution.”
On Syria, Sanders said that ISIS should be the first priority in terms of dealing with a threat on American soil; Clinton said you couldn’t defeat ISIS without dealing with Assad.
“I wish it could be either/or. I wish we could say yes, let’s go destroy ISIS and let’s let Assad continue to destroy Syria, which creates more terrorists, more extremists by the minute,” she said. “No. We now finally are where we need to be. We have a strategy and a commitment to go after ISIS, which is a danger to us as well as the region.”
Only one member of the Republican field was mentioned during the two-hour debate. And that was—you guessed it—Donald Trump.
Trump was unanimously condemned for his bigoted rhetoric on Mexicans and Muslims.
Clinton expressed worry that Trump “is sending a message to Muslims here in the United States and literally around the world that there is a ‘clash of civilizations,’ that there is some kind of Western plot or even ‘war against Islam,’ which then I believe fans the flames of radicalization.”
She also alleged he was being used as a recruiting tool for ISIS.
Sanders sought to remind Trump voters that Trump didn’t have their interest at heart when it came to creating jobs.
“[S]omebody like a Trump comes along and says, ‘I know the answers. The answer is that all of the Mexicans, they’re criminals and rapists, we’ve got to hate the Mexicans. Those are your enemies,’” he said. “‘We hate all the Muslims, because all of the Muslims are terrorists. We’ve got to hate the Muslims.’ Meanwhile, the rich get richer.”
Speaking of Trump, the substance-laden debate—punctuated with moments of O’Malley—was a stark reminder of why Trump has become such a phenomenon this cycle: He makes these exercises in democracy entertaining, for better or for worse.