The seventh Democratic primary debate was held on March 6, 2016 at the University of Michigan in Flint, Michigan. Tonight's contest was one of several late additions to the Democratic National Committee's schedule, the site for which was chosen out of respect for the political and humanitarian severity of the Flint water scandal. Signaling their acknowledgement of the disaster, CNN, who hosted the debate, arranged to distribute some 500,000 bottles of clean drinking water around town prior to the debate's start. Journalist Anderson Cooper moderated, with contributions from Don Lemon, Dana Bash, and various audience members who were invited to ask questions of the candidates.
This was the first Democratic debate since the important “Super Tuesday” primaries were held, during which former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had performed well against her rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, by winning the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. With such large gains (and despite wins by Sanders in Kansas and Nebraska on March 5, the day before the debate), Clinton's campaign was all but calling the nomination a sure thing, as her opponent's path to victory had become much narrower. Nevertheless, Sanders had pledged to see his campaign through to the Democratic National Convention, no matter how unlikely his chances may have become.
Unsurprisingly, the event began with a discussion of Flint's water situation. Sanders opened the conversation by relating his experience in meeting with the people of the town, whose anguish he said had left him “crushed beyond belief”. He emphasized the colossal failure of government in allowing the crisis to continue, and called unequivocally for Michigan Governor Rick Snyder's resignation. Clinton agreed with him on demanding this last point, the first time she had publicly done so (while Sanders had asked Snyder to resign previously). Asked what they would do to rebuild the public's trust in Flint's water infrastructure, Sanders called it outrageous that local water bills had actually gone up since the scandal, and declared that as president, he would not allow a water bill to be charged so long as the water supply was poisoned. He also promised to deploy the CDC to test the blood lead content of local children. On the same question, Clinton spoke of demanding accountability from elected officials on the matter, and of working with people she herself trusts to repair the infrastructure.
Beyond the water scandal, the candidates discussed another matter near and dear to the hearts of Michigan voters: The highly controversial bailout of the auto industry. Clinton, who had supported it when it was at issue, said that it had been necessary to save businesses whose loss would have destroyed some four million jobs. Sanders had opposed the bailout, and reiterated his outrage that the American middle class had been made to pay for the mistakes of billionaires – who, he pointed out, should have been the ones to bail out the auto industry.
Gun control was raised, with Clinton again (as she had done previously) targeting her opponent with allegations that he was weak on the issue. She spoke of past legislation she had supported which would have made gun manufacturers liable for crimes committed using the weapons they produced, and pointed out that Sanders had opposed this bill. Sanders responded that of course gunmakers should be held accountable for knowingly selling guns to criminals, but that any wider liability rules would effectively choke off all gun manufacturing in the US, which he does not support.
Other issues frequently brought up in Democratic debates also saw air time tonight, including health care and Obamacare, environmental concerns, and the pros and cons of teachers' unions. Clinton and Sanders squared off on several of these discussions, but ultimately, most of their differences in opinion were minor.
Each candidate was invited to deliver a closing statement at the debate's end. Sanders returned to the opening issue of Flint's water woes, questioning how “the richest country in the history of the world” could suffer from problems such as this, as well as other challenges like widespread poverty. Clinton repeated her population promise from a previous debate to “break down barriers”, and specifically named the barriers of racism, mounting student debt, and others.
Given the severe, dire issues raised of water safety and the public's ability to reasonably trust their government, the event ended on a surprisingly bright note. Just as the debate was about to end, moderator Anderson Cooper announced that he had just received word of a labor union's $25 million donation to Flint, the money earmarked for improving the town's still-questionable water quality.