The moderators at tonight's Univision-sponsored
Democratic Presidential Debate were well-prepared and would not be bowed by evasions, as they pestered the candidates to answer direct questions no matter how many times they had to be repeated.
But what can you do? Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been at this long enough that instinctively retreating to poll-tested stump speech talking points when challenged with any problematic question is now second nature for them.
For that reason, truly interesting and unscripted moments were hard to come by, but there were 3 surprising exchanges worth further discussion.
1. Hillary Clinton says her email scandal is a case of "overclassification."
After moderator Jorge Ramos asked Clinton whether she would drop out of the race if she were indicted on charges pertaining to her handling of classified materials on a private email server while serving as secretary of state from 2009-2013, Clinton gave a triangulating answer that would make her husband, the former president, proud:
I'm going to give the same answer I've been giving for many months. It wasn't the best choice. I made a mistake. It was not prohibited. It was not in any way disallowed…
I did not send or receive any emails marked classified at the time. What you are talking about is retroactive classification. And the reason that happens is when somebody asks or when you are asked to make information public, I asked all my emails to be made public. Then all the rest of the government gets to weigh in.
They've just said the same thing to former Secretary Colin Powell. They have said, we're going to retroactively classify emails you sent personally.
Now I think he was right when he said this is an absurdity. And I think that what we have got here is a case of overclassification.
That last sentence is the jaw-dropper, especially considering she was the secretary of state in an administration that has touted itself as the "most transparent in history," but has instead been dramatically opaque. She herself has been notably un-transparent in a number of critical dealings throughout her career.
Regarding Clinton's assertion that she asked for "all (her) emails to be made public," Politifact rates that Mostly False.
2. Both candidates committed to ending deportations of immigrants without criminal records.
Ramos asked both Clinton and Sanders if they would refuse to deport undocumented children and immigrants with no criminal records. Agreeing not to kick kids out of the country went down pretty easily for Clinton, but it took some persistence on Ramos' part for Clinton to say she'd go all the way to ending the Obama administration's current policies which have led to the most deportations by any president in history:
RAMOS: You won't deport immigrants who don't have a criminal record?
CLINTON: That's what I'm telling you…
RAMOS: So you will stop those deportations.
CLINTON: I would stop…
RAMOS: The deportations for children…
RAMOS: … and those who don't have a criminal record.
CLINTON: Of the people, the undocumented people living in our country, I do not want to see them deported. I want to see them on a path to citizenship. That is exactly what I will do.
Bernie Sanders said he agrees with President Obama on many issues but "he is wrong on this issue of deportation." When asked directly to "promise not to deport immigrants who don't have a criminal record," Sanders replied, "I can make that promise."
3. Benghazi question draws boos, Sanders questions wisdom of Libyan intervention.
The audience booed lustily (at the moderators) when Clinton was asked if she lied to the families of the victims of the Benghazi massacre when she told them that the attack on the US embassy had occurred because of a Youtube video.
After watching a clip of one of the victims' mothers essentially calling her a liar, Clinton replied, "I certainly can't even imagine the grief that she has for losing her son, but she's wrong. She's absolutely wrong."
Sanders refused to throw punches over Benghazi, keeping consistent with how he's treated the issue throughout the campaign, but instead brought up "a series of articles in the New York Times (which) talked about Secretary Clinton's role in urging the administration to go forward with regime change, getting rid of Gadhafi in Libya."
Gadhafi was a brutal dictator, there's no question. But one of the differences between the secretary and I is I'm not quite so aggressive with regard to regime change. I voted against the war in Iraq because I had a fear of what would happen the day after.
Unfortunately, Sanders then started mumble-grousing about the mutual secretary of state admiration between Clinton and Henry Kissinger, and the moderators cut him off to go to a commercial break.
Still, it was correct of him to point out that the Libyan intervention itself was misbegotten and that the mess left in the wake of Gadhafi's downfall (which includes the attack in Beghazi) is largely because of Clinton's hawkish influence on the administration while serving as secretary of state.
Ultimately, the debate could be perceived as a fairly civil draw. What made it notable was the deft questioning and indefatigable followups of the moderators, who drew out these notable nuggets in an otherwise fairly typical event.