WASHINGTON — A day after deadly terrorist attacks in Paris, Hillary Rodham Clinton cast herself as the strongest U.S. commander in chief in an uncertain world, even as she found herself forced to defend the Obama administration’s response to the rise of the Islamic State militants.
“This election is not only about electing a president, it’s also about choosing our next commander in chief,” said Clinton in the Democrats’ second debate of the presidential campaign. “All of the other issues we want to deal with depend upon us being secure and strong.”
But she nearly immediately faced criticism of her own record, when Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders traced the current instability in the Middle East to the Senate vote — including Clinton’s — to authorize military action in Iraq in 2002. He said that U.S. invasion “unraveled the region.”
Clinton fought back, saying terrorism has been erupting for decades, specifically mentioning the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. She said the recent unrest in Libya and other parts of the Middle East was symptomatic of an “arc of instability from North Africa to Afghanistan.”
She rejected the idea that she and the rest of the administration underestimated the growing threat of the Islamic State.
Clinton and Sanders were joined by former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley for the debate, which also featured lively discussion of domestic issues including the economy, “Obamacare” and immigration reform. O’Malley got cheers from the Democrats’ audience when he spoke out against Republican front-runner Donald Trump, whom he called an “immigrant-bashing carnival barker.”
On international terrorism, much in the world’s mind after the Paris attacks, the early back-and-forth revealed a foreign policy split within the Democratic Party, with Sanders playing to the anti-war activists who boosted then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama to victory in 2008.
Sanders argued for a far more hands-off approach, advocating for Muslim countries to lead the fight and arguing that the war against Islamic State militants is about the “soul of Islam.”
Clinton has a history of advocating for more robust involvement across the globe — both as a presidential candidate eight years ago and as Barack Obama’s secretary of state. In recent weeks, she has advocated for a more aggressive U.S. role in the Syrian conflict, calling for a no-fly zone over the area, a move the Obama administration opposes. But she stood by her opposition to seeking a formal declaration of war against the Islamic State.
Foreign relations is an area where Clinton, as a former secretary of state, is in the strongest position to talk about the attacks and the U.S. effort to dismantle the Islamic State group. But she is vulnerable, too, her tenure tied to that of Obama, who’s struggled to contain the threat from Islamic militants in Syria and associated terror attacks across the globe.
The candidates were meeting in the shadow of the Paris attacks that killed at least 129 and wounded at least 352 people. The debate began with a solemn tone, with a moment of silence followed by previously unplanned foreign policy questions.
All the candidates denounced the attacks, the first time the Democratic field spoke about the incidents.
They gave some fodder to their Republican critics, who coupled condemnation of the Paris attacks earlier in the day with sharp criticism for Obama and his former secretary of state, Clinton.
“We are at war with violent extremism, we are at war with people who use their religion for purposes of power and oppression,” said Clinton, arguing the U.S. is not at war with Islam or all Muslims. “I don’t want us to be painting with too broad a brush.”
Sanders and O’Malley agreed with her sentiments, saying the term “radical Islam” used by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and other Republican presidential candidates, is unnecessarily offensive to American Muslims.
Republicans immediately seized on the remarks. “Yes, we are at war with radical Islamic terrorism,” tweeted former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
The conversation later pivoted to economic issues, with the candidates tangling over how to pay for their plans to expand college affordability, family leave and prescription drug coverage. All three agreed that wealthy citizens and corporations should pay more in taxes to benefit the middle class.
“I’m not that much of a socialist compared to Eisenhower,” joked Sanders, saying the former president backed a 90 percent marginal tax rate.
Since the party’s first debate a month ago, Clinton has helped build a lead in the early voting states, an uptick that has come amid other signs the party is coalescing behind her. An Associated Press survey of superdelegates published Friday found that half of the Democratic insiders are publicly backing Clinton.