Burlington, Vt. — The first Democratic presidential debate focused mostly on economic issues, although foreign policy differences emerged on how to handle the crisis in the Middle East.
The debate Tuesday night in Las Vegas brought together the five candidates running for the Democratic nod for the presidency.
Making his first appearance on a national debate stage was Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., perhaps the most serious Jewish contender ever for the presidency, whose bid has shown resiliency in the face of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the front-runner.
There was broad agreement on advancing President Barack Obama’s health care reforms and making higher education more affordable, as well as reining in Wall Street and removing corporate money from elections.
There were sharp differences on foreign policy, with Clinton fending off jabs from her rivals for her hawkishness, with several mentioning her backing for the Iraq War in 2002 and 2003, when she was a senator from New York.
Clinton said she would forcefully confront Russian President Vladimir Putin and his recent interventions on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria.
“It’s important, too, that the United States make it very clear to Putin that it’s not acceptable for him to be in Syria creating more chaos, bombing people on behalf of Assad, and we can’t do that if we don’t take more of a leadership position, which is what I’m advocating,” Clinton said.
Sanders, who voted against the Iraq War, said Syria was a “quagmire in a quagmire.”
“I’m the former chairman of the Senate Veterans Committee, and in that capacity I learned a very powerful lesson about the cost of war, and I will do everything that I can to make sure that the United States does not get involved in another quagmire like we did in Iraq, the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of this country,” he said.
The only mention of Israel came from former Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., who was the sole candidate on the stage to sharply criticize the recent nuclear deal with Iran.
“I believe that the signal that we sent to the region when the Iran nuclear deal was concluded was that we are accepting Iran’s greater position on this very important balance of power, among our greatest ally Israel, and the Sunnis represented by the Saudi regime, and Iran,” he said.
Iran came up toward the end of the debate, when O’Malley identified the country as the greatest foreign policy challenge, and Clinton listed it among those who would regard her as an enemy.
Sanders, who has opposed some gun controls, endured sharp criticisms from the other candidates. He defended his record, saying that representing a rural state, he had to take into account a large pro-gun constituency.
However, the prevalent theme among the candidates, who also included former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, was one of comity. Frequent expressions of mutual admiration drew a contrast with the vituperative Republican debates.
Sanders drew the largest applause line of the evening when he refused to criticize Clinton for doing some State Department business on a private email, a scandal that has preoccupied the Republican led Congress for months.
“The American people are sick and tired about hearing about your damned emails!” he said. “Enough of the emails, let’s talk about the real issues facing America.”
He and Clinton shook hands, and there were cheers in Las Vegas, and at a pro-Sanders debate party at the University of Vermont in Burlington.