5 takeaways from the Democratic town hall

Posted at 6:38 AM, Jan 26, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-26 06:38:00-05

DES MOINES, Iowa — Hillary Clinton says she’s a “proven fighter.” But Bernie Sanders says that while experience is important, “it is not the only thing” that Democratic voters should weigh. And Martin O’Malley took off his jacket.

Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley made their closing arguments to Iowa voters Monday night during a CNN televised town hall hosted by Drake University and the Iowa Democratic Party, just one week before the state’s voters head to the caucuses and have the first say in deciding the parties’ nominees.

Here are five takeaways from the event:

Sanders on the attack

Sanders offered plenty of kind words for Clinton, telling the audience he likes and respects her. Then, barely a minute later, he unloaded a withering attack on the former secretary of state.

He rebutted Clinton’s argument that her broad experience makes her qualified for the presidency in a way a one-note candidate like Sanders never could be, leaning again and again on one word: Iraq.

As in: She was for the war in 2002; he was against it.

“Experience is important, but it is not the only thing,” Sanders said, invoking the exceptionally experienced former Vice President Dick Cheney as he attacked Clinton for the same vote that President Barack Obama hammered her over in the 2008 Democratic primary.

Sanders turned months’ worth of his best Clinton punches into a rapid-fire combination, hitting her on Wall Street, free trade, the Keystone pipeline, Social Security and gun control.

The theme each time: Clinton only has your back when it’s convenient.

On the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Keystone pipeline, he cast Clinton as a late-comer to the opposition who waited to read the political tea leaves before announcing her stance.

“On day one, I said the Keystone Pipeline is a dumb idea,” Sanders said, later adding, “Why did it take Hillary Clinton such a long time before she came into opposition to the Keystone Pipeline?”

On Wall Street: “I led the effort against Wall Street deregulation. See where Hillary Clinton was on this issue.”

On Social Security: “Ask Hillary Clinton if she’s prepared to lift the cap on taxable income.”

On gun control — the issue over which Clinton has hit Sanders the hardest — he told voters to rewind the tape to 2007, when “she also focused on that issue, but she thought that Obama was too strong on gun issues, and you may remember him referring to her as Annie Oakley.”

Clinton the fighter

The phrase Clinton wants stuck in Democratic caucus-goers’ heads is “proven fighter.”

She delivered it while answering a Sanders supporter’s hostile question about younger voters’ sense that she’s dishonest — turning it into one of her best moments, as she detailed a history of Republican attacks dating back to her early-1990s push for universal health care.

“They throw all this stuff at me, and I’m still standing,” Clinton said, adding that the attacks come “because I’ve been on the front lines of change and progress since I was your age.”

She turned optimistic, saying: “Don’t get discouraged. It’s hard. If it were easy, hey, there wouldn’t be any contest. But it’s not easy. There are very different visions, different values, different forces at work, and you have to have somebody who is a proven fighter — somebody who has taken them on and won, and kept going, and will do that as president.”

Clinton’s implication is that Sanders’ ideas sound nice — but have nowhere to go in Congress. That was clear when his ad featuring the Simon & Garfunkel song “America” was played, and she smiled and complimented it as “fantastic” — and paused — and then said that she’d be the better president and commander-in-chief.

In an eat-your-peas moment, she gave a nod to CNN moderator Chris Cuomo’s father, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who famously remarked that “you campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.”

Clinton and Obama lovefest continues

President Barack Obama hasn’t officially endorsed Clinton — but he came close in an interview with Politico’s Glenn Thrush, and Clinton said she was “really touched and gratified” when she read it.

She said the relationship between the one-time rivals had “turned into a real friendship.”

Clinton underscored Obama’s point that presidents can’t predict the challenges they’ll face at any moment — saying that’s exactly why she, not Sanders, is best prepared to handle the unexpected.

“He said, you know, you don’t get to pick the issues you work on as president,” Clinton said of Obama.

Really, though, it was just the latest episode of a show that’s playing every day on the campaign trail, as Clinton bear-hugs Obama in event after event as she stakes her claim on his legacy.

By standing with Obama, Clinton plays up her own experience. And by picking up the mantle of Obama’s legacy, she also appeals to a broad segment of voters — particularly minorities — that he brought into the fold. Those voters are key to stopping any momentum Sanders develops out of the largely? white early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Sanders: I agree with Planned Parenthood, it’s only their endorsement I don’t like

Sanders may never be able to beat Clinton with older women — but to win the Democratic nomination, he’ll need to win over younger women.

That became a little harder last week when he referred to Planned Parenthood as “part of the establishment” as he dismissed the group’s support for Clinton.

Sanders tried to explain himself Monday night, saying he was only questioning whether the endorsement from the group’s leaders matched the views of its supporters.

“What I said on a television program, and I did not say it well, is that sometimes the base of an organization looks at the world a little bit differently than the leadership,” Sanders said.

He pointed to his 100% pro-choice voting record and said the United States should expand funding for Planned Parenthood.

He added: “They are a fantastic organization. Count me in as somebody who strongly supports them.”

It had become one of his biggest weaknesses, and a consistent Clinton campaign attack line. The format could have helped Sanders: He had time to confront a young woman’s challenging question and explain himself without a debate’s 60-second clock cutting him off — and without Clinton there to knock him off his feet.

The candidates show some personality

Sanders, the curmudgeonly 74-year-old who acts like he abhors the pageantry of campaigning, was ready to show a little personality Monday night.

His first line upon arriving on stage: “My wife told me to button my coat, but I think I’m too fat, so I’m going to keep it like this.”

He discussed his parents — particularly his father, who “came from Poland at the age of 17 without a nickel in his pocket, couldn’t speak English, and he never made a lot of money” — saying they’d never believe he was running for president.

He even bragged about Young Bernie, saying: “I was a very good athlete. I wouldn’t say I was a great athlete. I was a pretty good basketball player. My elementary school in Brooklyn won the borough championship.”

O’Malley, meanwhile, won some “whooos” from the crowd when he pulled off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves — reminiscent of a famed “West Wing” episode — even if it seemed awfully theatrical as he huffed at the idea he’d sit down through a town hall in Iowa, of all places.

And Clinton — with apologies to Obama and her husband, Bill Clinton — talked about her real favorite president: Abraham Lincoln.

She said his work in healing the country after the Civil War set the model, and had he not been killed, she suspects the United States “would’ve been a little less rancorous; a little more forgiving and tolerant.”

Following Lincoln’s lead, explaining what she’d do to work with Republicans, Clinton offered something of a heads up to the congressional majority: “I’m gonna be just givin’ ’em all bear hugs.”