For those who have been closely watching the Democratic presidential contest between Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders, Tuesday night’s Iowa town hall discussion on CNN did not reveal anything dramatically new about the candidates. But it perhaps brought into sharper relief the fundamental question that Democratic primary voters face: Do the fundamental problems of our economy and democracy require a technician to repair things or a remodeler who can re-imagine and rebuild?
Sanders, who continues to embrace the label “democratic socialist,” said at the town hall that the problems of “climate change … inequality, poverty in America, an obscene and unfair campaign finance system … are so serious that we have got to go beyond establishment politics and establishment economics.” He used the phrase “political revolution” six times during his time on the town hall stage, referring to a transformation “where millions of people stand up and say you know what, that great government of ours belongs to all of us, not just the few.”
Clinton clearly does not see herself as the leader of a revolution, but instead as a great fixer, who believes that the status quo can be improved upon and does not need to be overturned.
That was particularly revealing when she was asked by a young member of the audience who observed that Sanders had “very passionate” young supporters but “I just don’t see the same enthusiasm from younger people for you.”
She responded by briefly noting that she did have young supporters, but then emphasized her experience: “I’ve been on the front lines of change and progress since I was your age,” she said at one point. “… And I’ve taken on the status quo time and time again.”
Clinton said her fight for universal health care during the early years of her husband Bill Clinton’s presidency, which led to the creation of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, shows the quality of her leadership. “There are very different visions, different values, different forces at work. And you have to have somebody who is a proven, proven fighter. Somebody who has taken them on and won and kept going, and will do that as president,” she said.
Later in the town hall, Clinton was asked how she would advance her vision of reform in the face of a hostile Republican Congress. “Everything I want to do, I want to start from the belief that we can find common ground, and that is exactly what I intend to do,” she said. “So, I’m going to be just giving them all bear hugs whether they like it or not. … Maybe we can get something done together, if not, maybe I can find that slice of common ground to find somebody who will work with me on achieving a goal that we want.”
Clinton’s response has some echoes of President Obama’s no-blue-or-red-states-just-United-States promise that he could, by sheer force of personality, bridge the deep ideological divides separating the parties and, more critically, overcome the power of oligarchy that has altered the orbits of both political parties. Obama’s weak approval numbers and the overwhelming sense that the country is now on the wrong track in part because of his inability to work with Congress – or the unwillingness of Congress to work with him – would appear to be a resounding verdict against that approach.
There is nothing in Sanders’ campaign framing that smacks of giving Republicans in Congress “bear hugs,” even though he pointed out that as a member of Congress he, like Clinton when she was in the Senate representing New York, has a track record of successfully working with Republicans.
But the fundamental premise of the Sanders campaign is that you don’t go into hostile territory to give a bear hug to your enemy without an army that has your back, that will make it clear that when their president goes into the room to advocate for them, any political harm done to that president and the causes that president is fighting for is at their peril.
The other fundamental difference between the two front-runners, Sanders and Clinton, is in Sanders’ continued willingness to lean into the idea of a robust, powerful federal government and Clinton’s far less bold vision that does not stray far, if at all, from her husband’s proclamation when he was president that “the era of big government is over.”
“The era of protecting the middle class, and working families is certainly something that I will make happen,” Sanders said.
Sanders made comments that answered the Clinton campaign’s assertion that his plans for universal Medicare-for-all health care, free public college education and a $1 trillion infrastructure investment and job-creation program as impractical, stressing that his proposals are all paid for through measures that would ensure that the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share of taxes. “When we live in a nation of so much income and wealth inequality, where the top one tenth of 1 percent owns as much as the bottom 90 percent, when the 20 wealthiest people own more wealth than the bottom half of America, that is not, to me, what the American economy should be about. So, yes. People want to criticize me, OK. I will take on the greed of corporate America and the greed of Wall Street, and fight to protect the middle class.”
Martin O’Malley during the town hall seemed to be staking out ground between Clinton and Sanders. Sometimes, he seemed to be embracing the audacious policy reach of Sanders, especially on climate change and on his unique focus on “a new agenda for America’s cities” to address structural unemployment.
He called addressing climate change “the greatest business opportunity to come to the United States in 100 years,” and applauded efforts in Iowa to build up a wind energy industry that has produced 5,000 jobs for Iowans.
But O’Malley sounded more Clintonesque when he said that “we need to build upon the good things that President Obama has done with the Affordable Care Act.” He said that we should “push the insurance companies” to offer better policies to address the health care expenses of working families, and suggested that more emphasis that wellness care and preventative care would drive down costs. The idea that preventative care is a big cost-saver is disputed, and certainly Sanders does not believe that there is ultimately any point in pushing insurance companies to be less of a rent-seeker in the health care economy; he unapologetically wants the insurance companies out of the picture, period.
Despite O’Malley’s best efforts to be a player in the Democratic primary, the choice in Iowa’s caucuses next week will remain between the revolutionary and the evolutionary, between the candidate who seeks common ground and the candidate who promises to shake the ground. When the Rev. Jesse Jackson was running his presidential campaign in 1988, he often talked about “tree shakers and jelly makers.” Yes, you need the people who know how to convert fruit into jelly. But there can be no jelly without the people who can shake the fruit off the tree. The Sanders campaign has aroused the tree-shakers, and they are likely to define the outcome of the Iowa caucuses and the direction of the presidential race.