Democratic frontrunners aim to draw contrasts in Iowa

Sunday, January 24, 2016 - 8:15pm

During the past weekend, Michigan Daily journalists spent three days in Iowa covering candidates from both parties as they compete for their party's nomination in the 2016 presidential election. Look for continuing coverage from the Daily in the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses, the first in the nation, on Feb 1.

CLINTON, Iowa — There were two town halls. The first occupied an elementary school cafeteria; the other filled the basement of a Masonic Center about a mile away. On Saturday, in a town called Clinton, the two Democrats leading the race for their party’s presidential nomination convened separately to rally supporters and, with just days before the Iowa caucuses, draw contrasts between two platforms that are in many ways similar.

“As we go through this campaign, and especially now in this last eight, nine days, we are drawing contrasts, and I think that’s appropriate,” Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state, told a crowd of 500 gathered in the Eagle Heights Elementary cafeteria.  

But for much of her 30-minute stump speech, which ticked off policy positions on topics like clean energy, health care and job creation, Clinton avoided direct mention of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who according to a recent CNN poll has gained a lead in the state. An average of polling conducted in January has Clinton with a six-point lead. Martin O’Malley, former Maryland governor and the third Democratic presidential hopeful, was also in the state Saturday and is polling at 5.8 percent in Iowa, according to Real Clear Politics.

Throughout the event, Clinton emphasized the pragmatism of her policy platform, saying her approach to everything from regulating the financial sector to creating green jobs was simply better. Better than who? For a while, Clinton didn’t say. When she did hit Sanders by name, the former secretary told the audience he would rip up the Affordable Care Act in favor of a single-payer program, whereas she would build on the existing policy.

“Getting from zero to 100 is a lot harder than getting from 90 to 100,” she said, referencing the failed fight for universal health care she spearheaded as first lady in 1993.

Clinton, who is relying on the image of a candidate cloaked in experience, particularly in foreign policy, also played up her diplomatic and national security prowess.

“Remember, when you go to caucus on February first, you are choosing a president and a commander in chief," she said. "When the new president walks into that White House on January 20, 2017, there are some things we know we’ve got to do, but there are a lot of things we can’t predict are going to be facing our country.”

Like Clinton, Bernie Sanders spent Saturday making distinctions. In the dreary basement of the Masonic Center, Sanders touted his poll numbers and made a case not only for the viability of his candidacy, but also for the viability of his policy proposals — proposals many critics have deemed overly idealistic or impractical.

“You can tell when a campaign gets nervous — like the Clinton campaign — I think they’re getting a little nervous. What do you think?” Sanders asked the 700-person crowd that filled the hall’s sweaty basement.

The crowd peppered the senator’s remarks with shouts of “That’s right, Bernie!” and lengthy outbursts of “Feel the Bern” chants.

“Obviously I need your help in the next few days, to help us win here in Iowa. I need your help to win the Democratic nomination, but here’s the truth, I’m going to need your help the day after we get into the White House,” he said. “And the reason for that, everybody in this room knows who has studied history, change never comes about from the top on down. It only comes about from the bottom on up.”

Sanders, like his campaign, drew from the energy of his supporters, engaging directly with the assembled crowd. The point he stressed: The Bernie Sanders campaign is really a movement of people calling for change. Before launching into the Sanders stump speech which has by now become notorious for his use of terms like “oligarchy” and “bottom 99 percent” spoken in a distinctly Brooklyn accent, the candidate drew on the history of social movements — like the struggle for LGBTQ and civil rights — that were once deemed impossible.

“Let me give you one more example, which you guys made happen," he said. "Eight years ago, all over this country, people said, ‘An African American, becoming president of the United States, you’re nuts, that can’t happen?’ You made it happen, you made history. So my point is — that what history is about — it’s not a few people on top, coming up with clever ideas, it is when millions of people begin to stand up and say that the status quo is not good enough.”

But during a stretch of campaign marked by the articulation of explicit contrasts, both candidates leaned on President Barack Obama — Clinton reflecting on her role in the first term of his presidency, and Sanders noting the ethos of Obama's meteoric rise in 2008. Sanders compared the recent barrage of attacks from Team Clinton to those weathered by Obama in 2008, when he ultimately bested Clinton in Iowa.

“It really reminds me of what happened here in Iowa eight years ago,” he said. “Remember that? Eight years ago Obama was being attacked … his ideas were unrealistic, his ideas were pie in the sky, he did not have the experience that was needed, but you know what, the people of Iowa saw through those attacks then and they’re going to see through those attacks again.”

In the audience at Eagle Heights Elementary, many of those in attendance noted Clinton’s experience and electability as reasons for their support, as well as their favorable view of her husband’s presidency. Others said they previously caucused or volunteered for Obama and saw Clinton as the candidate to carry on that legacy — a legacy she is wholeheartedly embracing on the campaign trail.

“We’re going to create good paying jobs, and I know a little bit about how to do that, because I watched my husband do it, and then I watched Barack Obama save us from a great depression,” she said Saturday. “And each of them, as we remember, inherited economic problems from their Republican predecessors.”

For Joyce Grelf, a cashier who has lived in Clinton her entire life, both Clinton and Sanders are candidates she could ultimately get behind in a general election. Though Grelf said she’s unsure whether she’ll caucus due to her work schedule, she is lending her support to Hillary Clinton for now.

But in the end: “I will back whoever gets in,” she said.