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Highlights from the Fourth Democratic Debate

Here's what you missed.

Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images

The three Democratic candidates gathered in Charleston, South Carolina, on January 17 for their fourth debate of the primary season. Read the highlights from the debate below and follow along at our blog Minutes, where we’ll be covering the action as it unfolds.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders Clash Over Gun Control

NBC began the night with gun control, an issue that has been a source of friction between Clinton and Sanders this week. The Clinton campaign has called out Sanders’s more conservative record on guns, specifically his vote in Congress in 2005 that protected gun manufacturers from lawsuits should their guns be used to commit violent crimes.

Tonight Sanders got the chance to respond, saying, “Secretary Clinton knows that what she says is very disingenuous.” He touted his “D minus” voting record with the NRA, as well as his support for instant background checks and President Obama’s recent executive push on gun control. But NBC moderator Lester Holt pushed him to answer the question: Is his recent reversal on gun manufacturer immunity a genuine one? Sanders clarified, “What I have said is that the gun manufacturers liability bill had some good provisions,” adding, “I would re-look at it, we will re-look at it, and I support stronger provisions.”

Gun control, Rebecca Leber writes, “has the potential to be the deciding issue of 2016. And it’s Democrats, for a change, who stand to benefit.” Tonight we saw that the potential for benefit comes with a bitter political fight. 

Structual Racism Gets Early, and Long Overdue, Attention

Prior to tonight’s debate, the New Republic’s Jamil Smith wrote that “if Clinton, Sanders, and O’Malley aren’t asked” about police brutality, “they should take it upon themselves to raise the issue.” Despite the growing visibility of racial justice advocacy in general, black lives have not mattered in the primary debates of either party other than resulting in a few superficial questions.

On Sunday, however, NBC moderator Lester Holt transitioned early from gun violence to police violence, asking the candidates three consecutive questions, the first of which prompted a brief, but welcome, discussion of “structural racism.”

It may be that NBC took the criticism of previous debates to heart. Or it may be that, the night before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, at an event being hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, in a city roiled by the police killing of Walter Scott and the Emanuel Church massacre, the topic was simply too blaring to ignore. Either way, the attention is long overdue. Now we need more of it. 

Clinton Finally Offers a Good Argument Against Berniecare

In a heated exchange about health care, Clinton made a powerful argument for maintaining and improving the Affordable Care Act, rather than scrapping it for the single-payer system that Sanders has advocated on the campaign trail.

“The Democratic Party in the United States worked since Harry Truman to get the Affordable Care act passed,” Clinton said. “We finally have a path to universal health care. I want us to defend and build on the Affordable Care Act and improve it.”

Sanders fired back, pointing out that 29 million Americans are still uninsured. “We are spending far more per person on healthcare than the people of any other country,” he said. “My proposal: provide healthcare for all people, get private insurance out of health insurance, lower the cost of health care for middle class families by 5,000 bucks.”

Meanwhile Clinton raised questions about how such an ambitious plan would be funded. “We have been raising questions about the nine bills that he introduced over 20 years about how they would work and what would be the impact.”

Clinton Gets Attacked for Her Ties to Wall Street

Economic populism is one of the stronger threads in contemporary Democratic politics, so it’s not surprising that things got testy Sunday night over the candidates’ stances toward Wall Street.

Bernie Sanders reiterated his suggestion that Hillary Clinton is too cozy with big money interests to effectively rein in a reckless financial industry, a criticism he put at the center of a campaign ad released earlier this week and an interview he gave to CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday morning. O’Malley went after Clinton as well, promising that, if elected, he would “put cops back on the beat of Wall Street.”

Clinton, for her part, questioned Sanders’s support of President Barack Obama’s regulatory efforts, and Dodd-Frank in particular. 

Clinton Says She Has an “Interesting” Relationship With Vladimir Putin

Asked how she would describe her personal relationship with the Russian president, Clinton laughed. “My relationship with him,” she said. “Ah it’s … ah it’s interesting.”

“We’ve had some very tough dealings with one another,” she continued. “He’s someone you have to continually stand up to because like many bullies, he is somebody who will take as much as he possibly can unless you do.”

She added that she hoped the Europeans would continue to stand strong against the Russian president both in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. “We need to get the Europeans to be more willing to stand up,” she said. “I was pleased that they put sanctions on after Crimea and Eastern Ukraine and the downing of the airliner, but we’ve got to be more united in preventing Putin from taking a more aggressive stance in Europe and the Middle East.”