A good night for Clinton — and her rivals
CEDARRAPIDS, IOWA— The first gathering of the Democratic presidential candidates played almost according to script here Friday night. Hillary Rodham Clinton stood above the field but did not dominate. Bernie Sanders displayed the passion that has made him such a favorite of the left. And Martin O’Malley’s speech got a reception that belied his anemic poll numbers.
The serial speeches by Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley— who were joined in the program by fellow contenders Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb— also highlighted the leftward shift of the Democratic Party under President Obama and the degree to which that movement is continuing during the contest for the party’s presidential nomination.
Clinton, who spoke with the aid of a teleprompter, was fiery, funny and sharply partisan. It was a red-meat speech delivered to an audience eager for her to deliver it. She took little notice of her Democratic opponents and concentrated her attacks on the opposition party.
She noted that Republicans have fresh faces running for president but denounced the GOP as a party mired in the past and wedded to policies that have not worked except for the wealthiest in society.
On economics, she warned that the GOP candidates want to return to the tax-cutting policies of previous Republican administrations. “Trickle-down economics has to be one of the worst ideas of the 1980s,” she said. “It is right up there with New Coke, shoulder pads and big hair. I lived through it— and there are photographs. And we’re not going back to that.”
That wasn’t her only hair reference. When she turned to Donald Trump, it went like this: “Finally, a candidate whose hair gets more attention than mine.” Then the humor stopped, as she added that there is “nothing funny about the hate he’s spewing” toward immigrants. She called it shameful and ridiculed the other GOP candidates for being slow to denounce Trump’s words.
The former secretary of state and senator from New York attacked former Florida governor Jeb Bush for his comments on part-time work. She hit at Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for restricting reproductive rights in his state, saying the voters should say no to politicians “who shame and blame” women. She even went after Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad for vetoing spending on mental health and got one of the biggest ovations of the night.
If once she seemed tentative about talking about herself and her family, she no longer is. She talked as she has done in this campaign about the abandonment her mother endured as a child. She said becoming a grandmother was “transformational,” forcing one to consider the kind of future this generation will leave for others. “And that’s why I’m never going to let the Republicans rip away the progress we have made,” she said.
She said she would fight against efforts to go back to trickle-down economics and to a “Wild West on Wall Street,” to retrenchment on marriage rights or to efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
She mocked Republicans who say they aren’t scientists and therefore can’t judge whether climate change is man-made. “Look, I’mnot a scientist either,” she said. “I’m just a grandmother with two eyes and a brain, and I’mnot going to let them take us back.”
She showed her willingness as well to embrace gender issues and the prospect of becoming the first female president. Ticking through a series of policies that would help women, she noted that some would say, “There she goes again” on women’s issues. “Well, I’mnot going to stop,” she said, “so get ready for a long campaign.”
Sanders again showed he is prepared to go where Clinton won’t on economic issues. He called for a nationwide mass movement against the “billionaire class” that he has made the heart of his populist insurgency. No president, he said, can bring about the changes he says are needed “unless there is a political revolution.”
Clinton attacks Wall Street but hardly with the vigor of Sanders. Calling wealth and income inequality the moral and political issues of the day, the senator from Vermont identified his enemy and called on Democrats to take up the fight. “The greed for the billionaire class has got to end, and we are going to end it for them,” he said.
There is an old-fashioned passion that Sanders brings to the campaign, and it has clearly found an audience on the left. Clinton’s policies are progressive but safely so; Sanders’s go beyond. Without naming her, he drew contrasts with Clinton that many in the audience clearly understood.
Sanders would raise the minimum wage more than she. He opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. He favors both a big infrastructure program to rebuild roads and bridges as well as a big public jobs program to reduce unemployment among young African Americans and Hispanics.
On health care, he would move beyond the Affordable Care Act and seek to enact a Medicarestyle government-run singlepayer system. On Social Security, he would expand benefits, not cut them.
The Sanders cheering section on Friday filled one end of the room, and the response he received was one more sign that he has found an audience within the party and, if he can keep building on it, could threaten Clinton here and in New Hampshire.
The surprise of the night might have been O’Malley, the former Maryland governor and ex-mayor of Baltimore, if only because he has largely been dealt out of the narrative of the current Democratic contest. He had hoped to become the alternative to Clinton— only to see Sanders take up that space. Nowhe languishes far behind. But he showed he has a message, too.
His speech was a version of Sanders’s message but with a different style and eloquence. Sanders’s style is direct and blunt. O’Malley’s rhetoric and cadence lift in other ways, and many times he brought the whole audience out of their seats, cheering.
“I’mnot the only Democratic candidate for president who holds progressive values,” he said. “But I amthe only candidate for president with 15 years of executive experience.” He said he offered the party “action not words.”
He agrees with Sanders on minimum wage, trade and Social Security. He wants a major initiative to rebuild urban America. He attacks the “bullies of Wall Street” with just as much enthusiasm and edge.
“We must prosecute financial crimes, and if a bank is too big to fail, too big to jail and too big to manage, then it’s too damn big and it needs to be broken up before it breaks us up,” he said to cheers and applause.
Chafee and Webb
Chafee and Webb provided the evening’s bookends, curiosities to many in the audience and so far barely registering in the consciousness of party activists.
Chafee, the former senator and Rhode Island governor, spoke for less than seven minutes, denouncing Republican foreign policy as “failed, arrogant, unilateral, bellicose.” He added: “We need to reject once and for all the belligerent advocates of conflict.”
Webb was notable for declaring his differences with Obama on the newly negotiated nuclear agreement with Iran. Seeking to set himself apart from others, the former senator noted that he is the only candidate elected statewide in Virginia “with a union card, two Purple Hearts and three tattoos.”
Republicans have had many such forums this year. For the Democrats, Friday was the first opportunity to see their candidates in the same room. Clinton delivered a rousing and polished speech, but Sanders and O’Malley showed there is appetite for an even harder-edge populist message among party activists. That will provide the tension as the Democratic contest evolves in the coming months.