The hope of the campaign trail and the pragmatism of governing clashed at an Iowa town hall meeting Monday night, as both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton each said that they had the better judgment and experience to be the 2016 Democratic nominee and nation’s next president.
It was an impressive display of two strong candidates, who, despite sharing many goals such as lessening the many forms of inequality afflicting the country, are offering decidedly different paths to achieve them. Sanders called for a political and economic revolution, where the money to meet many of America’s needs would come from confronting the wealthiest interests and using the full force of federal government to redistribute that money to benefit middle and working classes.
Clinton, for her part, emphasized that she wanted to continue the progress made under President Obama—from the Affordable Care Act at home to resurrecting a diplomacy-centered foreign policy abroad. She poignantly said that she has been fighting all forms of inequality for decades, starting with her work as young lawyer representing jailed youths to her efforts as Secretary of State championing women’s and LGBT rights.
She said Democrats are starting to realize that “the stakes in the election are really high” and that they cannot let the GOP “rip away the progress” of the Obama years. When asked by college students why she hasn’t earned their trust and affection like Sanders, Clinton replied that she sees plenty of young people working on her campaign and she simply keeps going and ignores the naysayers, because, she said that’s what she has learned to do in decades on the public stage.
“I have been on the front lines of change and progress since I was your age … I have taken on the status quo time and time again,” she said to a student before turning philosophical. “You have to keep going. Don’t get discouraged. It’s not easy.” Clinton said being president is the hardest job in the world and “you have to have a proven fighter, someone who has taken them [all the adversaries] on.”
But Sanders, in his 40 minute segment in the town hall, brushed away Clinton’s critique of his call for a political and economic revolution by reassuring Iowa voters that his career was filled with pivotal moments that showed he had the better judgment and experience to be president. In short, Sanders said that when he faced the same tough calls as Clinton, that he made the correct decision—as proven by the events that followed—and she did not.
Sanders said that he voted against the war in Iraq, while she voted for it. He said that he opposed deregulating Wall Street financial institutions before the activity that led to the global recession in 2008, while she did not. On climate change, he said that he did not hesitate to oppose the Keystone XL and other pipelines, while she dithered. And he opposed international trade agreements that cost American jobs, while she hasn’t.
“Yeah, I do think I have the background and the judgment to take on this very difficult job of being president of the United States of America,” Sanders said, responding to the CNN moderator who played a Clinton ad that said she was “prepared like no other.”
When CNN’s moderator played a Sanders ad for Clinton to respond to—the one with faces of Americans and a soundtrack of the Simon and Garfunkel song America, she replied, “I think that’s great. I loved it.” But Clinton continued, “You campaign in poetry and govern in prose. I love the feeling, I love the energy [of Bernie’s supporters] … But I believe that I am the better person to be the democratic nominee and president of the country.”
She then told everyone in the room that all of them would be needed to defeat the Republicans in the fall.
Making Their Closing Arguments
The town hall meeting at Drake University was the last major forum for the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination before Iowa’s 2016 caucuses on Monday. The format was a moderated discussion, where the candidates made opening and closing statements and answered audience questions pre-screened by CNN. A third segment featured former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who trails in the single digits in polls, compared to a virtual tie between Sanders and Clinton.
Sanders used the forum to sum up his campaign thus far by striking hopeful but serious notes. He said that he was surprised that his message of ending economic inequality and promoting better social safety nets has “resonated much faster (and) much farther than I thought it would.” He said that the response to his talk about confronting inequality, the rigged economy and other injustices showed that “establishment politics are just not good enough. We need bold changes. We need a political revolution.”
When asked what he meant by socialism, he said that “democratic socialism” means that people have economic rights. He gave an example from an earlier town hall meeting held Monday, where a woman stood up and cried, saying that she could not make it living on $10,000 a year. Sanders said “something was wrong” when millions of seniors faced that very situation, when the obvious solution was expanding Social Security by raising what Americans pay in payroll taxes—now only the first $118,000 in income is taxed.
Sanders also defended his Medicare-for-all health care proposal, when asked by a nurse how he could be promoting that idea when the federal healthcare program for seniors was filled with problems—like patients of hers who could not afford medicine they need. He replied that no program was perfect, but said that under his proposal—that takes private insurers out of the health care system—people would pay far less in out-of-pocket costs. He also said drug companies, which made $45 billion in profits last year, would have to be reeled in. The CNN moderator pressed Sanders, saying that he was calling for a giant tax hike. “We will raise taxes, yes we will,” Sanders said. “But also let us be clear … we are also going to to eliminate private health insurance premiums for individuals and for businesses.”
Sanders was also asked about how he would pay for other proposals. He replied that a tax on Wall Street speculation—high-volume stock trades that profit from market volatility—would more than pay for making undergraduate education free and for lowering student loan interest rates. He said he would pay for a $100 billion national infrastructure project, creating 13 million jobs, by banning the current corporate practice of keeping profits in offshore tax havens. When the moderator accused him of punishing people who’ve been successful in business, Sanders replied, “If that's the criticism, I accept it … I demand that Wall Street pay its fair share of taxes.”
Sanders also replied to criticism by the Clinton campaign and abortion rights groups that he was not sufficiently pro-choice, because he said the leadership of Planned Parenthood was out of synch with its rank and file. He said that comment in a TV interview was not well-said, because he meant to point out that he has long had a 100 percent pro-choice voting record and women across America who care about reproductive rights know it. Sanders said that “of course” he understood that having a woman as president would be historic, but he said that his efforts to fight for economic equality would likely help women more than men, especially women of color, because of historic disparities.
During Clinton’s 40-minute segment, she emphasized that she, too, has been a lifelong fighter against various forms of inequality, saying, “I have a 40-year record of going after inequality: sexist inequality, racist inequality.” As a young lawyer, she said that she tried to help young people who were imprisoned and “went after” private schools in the south that tried to remain racially segregated. Clinton said that she did not focus “just narrowly” on economic inequality and her record was “not talk” but “action.”
But her most surprising remarks concerned the use of military force abroad. Unlike 2008, when she ran ads featuring a red phone ringing at 3 a.m. in the White House and saying that she was prepared to be the military commander in chief, she told the Iowa town hall that she saw herself as having a “non-interventionist” philosophy of using military force abroad. “You do your very best to avoid military action,” she said, saying it was “the last resort, not first choice” and she was committed to “slow, boring, hard” diplomacy.
Clinton then shared some anecdotes from inside the Obama White House. After she took office as secretary of state, she said that she and the president discovered that Iran was well on their way to making nuclear weapons—despite all the Bush administration’s bluster. She said that she ignored pressure from Israel to bomb the Iranians and instead embarked on a “new strategy” that came to fruition with Secretary of State John Kerry finalizing a nuclear disarmament deal. Clinton said that she spent 18 months putting an international coalition together to impose economic sanctions on Iran, another year to get allies to implement the sanctions and then 18 months starting the disarmament talks.
“You cannot imagine how tense it was, because a lot of our friends and partners in the region just wanted to end the [Iranian] program by bombing,” she said, offering that as an example of the “success of diplomacy.” She also said that her shuttle diplomacy between Israel and Egypt prevented an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza in 2011. “I want to stay as close as possible to non-intervention,” she said. “Special forces, yes. Air forces, yes. No ground troops.”
When pressed by CNN’s moderator to respond to Sanders’ critique that she botched key votes on going to war with Iraq, on Wall Street, on trade and climate change, she quickly dismissed the criticism. “I have a much longer history than one vote [on Iraq], which I said was a mistake,” she said. “I think the American public has seen me exercising judgment in other ways … There is no time in human history where everything is going well. We now live in an interconnected world where everyone knows what is going on … We have to be constructive.”
Clinton ended her remarks by telling the audience that her favorite president was not her husband, Bill Clinton, nor her friend, Barack Obama, but Abraham Lincoln. “When I think about his challenges, I think they pale next to anything we can imagine,” she said. “He kept his eye on the future while summoning better angles of our nature.”
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