Sanders Blasts Clinton's Record, Pledges "I Will Govern Based on Principle Not Poll Numbers”
The Democratic presidential primary truly began on Saturday night. The vanity candidates had dropped out and the three remaining candidates took the stage at the Iowa Democratic party’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner, eager to impress 6,000 voters at Hy-Vee Hall in downtown Des Moines.
The Jefferson-Jackson dinner has long been one of the most important events on the Democratic calendar. Every four or eight years, this annual fundraising gala becomes the pre-eminent Democratic presidential cattle call.
In 2007, an electrifying speech at the event from senator Barack Obama was credited as a turning point in his epic primary battle against Hillary Clinton. In 2003, John Kerry began his march to the nomination with a speech touting himself as “the real deal”. As far back as 1975, Jimmy Carter used a straw poll held at the event back to catapult himself to front of the pack.
This year, the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders energized the crowd when he gave his strongest critique yet of Clinton’s candidacy and record. Echoing Obama’s subtle criticism of Clinton in his 2007 speech, Sanders said: “I promise you tonight, as your president I will govern based on principle not poll numbers.”
Sanders received a rapturous reception from a raucous crowd, including supporters who spent his entire speech cheering and applauding.
The self-identified democratic socialist explicitly compared himself to Obama. He said: “Eight years ago, the experts talked about how another Democratic candidate for president, Barack Obama, couldn’t win. How he was unelectable.
“Well, Iowa, I think we’re going to prove the pundits wrong again. I believe we will make history.”
Implicitly, Sanders went on to call Clinton out, noting she had long lagged behind him on a number of progressive causes. In particular, he cited gay rights, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal and the Iraq war as “the difficult choices” – a subtle reference to Clinton’s recent memoir of her time as secretary of state, Hard Choices – that he had made.
The question is whether offering such a critique of his rival, combined with touting his volunteer numbers and donations, will resonate with undecided voters.
Clinton gave a workmanlike speech, in which she bashed Republicans and seemed unaware there was a primary on. She pondered if one qualification to be a Republican presidential candidate was to enter a time machine and travel 50 years into the past. She drew her most positive response from the crowd when she discussed abortion, saying: “For people who claim they hate big government, Republicans sure love using government to step in and make decisions for women.”
The former secretary of state didn’t need to hit the ball out of the park. In a room packed with supporters and coming off a strong performance in front of the House Benghazi committee, Clinton just needed a solid display. Many in the crowd held Styrofoam sticks that lit blue when she spoke and chanted along to lines in her speech.
Martin O’Malley, an underdog mired at 1% in polls, gave a strong speech too. Although the lines for the bathrooms grew markedly long as the former Maryland governor spoke, he drew strong applause at times, particularly when he went after the National Rifle Association as “craven and morally bankrupt”.
However, the ultimate testament to his speech came when a group of Sanders supporters briefly chanted “Sanders-O’Malley”. His is not a run for the vice-presidency, but it was a telling moment.
The event did not just focus on the speeches. Before the doors to the cavernous exhibition hall opened, all three candidates held rallies. Volunteers and staffers for each campaign spent hours waving signs to attract the attention of passing traffic. It was a political tailgate, before the big game.
The biggest rally saw thousands attend for Clinton, who was billed third behind both former President Bill Clinton, making his first appearance on the campaign trail, and pop star Katy Perry.
After Bill Clinton spoke for 15 minutes, Perry took the stage. She wore a tight white sequined dress, with the Hillary Clinton campaign logo over her heart, and a cape in the colors of the American flag. Perry began by singing her hit song Roar, then made a brief speech in support of Clinton before singing America the Beautiful. That segued into another hit song, Fireworks.
The candidate herself then made a brief appearance at her own rally. She spoke for about two minutes.
Sanders held a rally and march from the other side of the Des Moines River, over to the site of the dinner. The procession followed a rally the night before, 150 miles along the Mississippi River in Davenport. There, Sanders’s musical guests included members of MC5 and the punk-pop band Guster.
Saturday’s march featured hundreds of people tightly packed on a pedestrian bridge, accompanied by a marching band. Sanders stood at the front, part of a group holding a giant campaign banner, while supporters behind him displayed signs stating “the revolution is here” and “the revolution is now”.
Before the march, more than a hundred Sanders supporters stood outside the dinner venue, waving homemade signs – among the slogans was “Bernie Knows Quantum Physics” – and chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, the oligarchy has got to go”.
Many were clean-cut and earnest types in button-down shirts. But one young man with long purple hair, holding a megaphone, wore a Los Angeles Raiders hat – backwards – and a hunting vest.
O’Malley held the smallest-scale event, around a landscaped entrance to Hy-Vee Hall. His supporters waved signs like those of their rivals but as their numbers were smaller so were their signs.
As the tail end of a five-block line to attend the Clinton event stretched out, more than 100 O’Malley supporters cheered while waiting for their own special musical guest: the candidate himself. O’Malley has led a Baltimore “Celtic rock” bar band for more than a decade; on Saturday his campaign had their candidate strumming an acoustic guitar.
The main event, though, came down to a contrast between the raw and unpolished Sanders and the well-practiced Clinton. While Clinton’s celebrity guest, Katy Perry, sat in a front row table and was given a round of applause, Sanders’s own celebrity, MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, sat anonymously in the bleachers.
Kramer told the Guardian: “I am supporting Bernie because he’s the only candidate that’s actually speaking to the actual challenges that the country faces.”
In Kramer’s opinion, the contrast between his music and that of Perry served as an analogue to the candidates they support.
“If you look at Katy Perry’s music, she’s auto-tuned and about as unauthentic as its possible to be,” Kramer said. “We, on the other hand, are sometimes out of tune, sometimes we sing flat, but we’re doing this with all our real heart and our minds.”
In reference to MC5’s most famous song, he added: “Bernie does kick out the jams.”