Politics & Policy

If Forum Was a Last-Ditch Effort to Shore Up Hillary Support, It Backfired

(Justin Sullivan/Getty)

Des Moines, Iowa — The Democratic party’s sudden scramble last week for a presidential forum (not a debate!) in Des Moines was seen by some politicos as a last-ditch effort to shore up Hillary Clinton’s slipping support in Iowa and give her a parting shot at Bernie Sanders.

If that was the plan, tonight’s meeting at Drake University may have backfired. The town hall is Sanders’s element, and he used to it deliver his most complete and confident critique to date of Clinton and her lack of progressive bona fides. Throughout, he exuded the gruff, quirky humor that has made “Uncle Bernie” a rock star on college campuses. And when his eyes misted over during a question about his immigrant parents, you could’ve heard a pin drop.

Clinton actually performed well, particularly during a fiery recounting of the lumps she’s taken from the other side during her political career. But she also stumbled over issues she should’ve put to bed months ago — chief among them the e-mail scandal. And she clearly still struggles to connect with a Democratic audience on a personal level.

When Sander’s eyes misted over during a question about his immigrant parents, you could’ve heard a pin drop.

He also tugged at the crowd’s heartstrings with an emotional reflection on his parents, immigrants to America in the 1920s. “The fact that I am running for president of the United States — you know I do think about it, and, you know, I think they’re very proud,” he said, choking up. “It’s certainly something that I don’t think they ever believed would’ve happened.”Sanders was the first of the three Democratic candidates to speak at the Q-&-A style event (yes, Martin O’Malley was there as well). And straight out of the gate, the Vermont senator was cracking jokes. “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 said within moments of sitting down. He teased and prodded the moderator, CNN’s Chris Cuomo. “I’m trying to win her vote,” he joked when Cuomo tried to interrupt. “Leave me alone here.” He humble-bragged about his prowess as a teenage athlete. “I was a pretty good basketball player,” he said. “My elementary school in Brooklyn won the borough championship. Hardly worth mentioning, but we did, yes.”

There was little humor in Clinton’s delivery. “Let me stand you up here!” she laughed when one Iowan said he was “leaning” toward Sanders. The line got polite laughs. And there was even less emotion. The only time she showed real passion was while defending herself from Republican charges. Though her weeks on the campaign trail seem to have improved her delivery, many of her lines remained wooden and hackneyed.

Sanders was anything but stiff, responding forcefully to a question on whether he’s experienced enough to be president. “This calls for a standing-up response,” he said, rising from his chair to chuckles from the audience. Calmly and methodically, Sanders ticked off the major differences between himself and Clinton: the vote for the war in Iraq, her tight relationship with Wall Street, her delayed opposition to the Keystone Pipeline, and her flip-flop on the Trans-Pacific Partnership on trade. “In other words, yes, I do think I have the background and the judgment to take this very, very difficult job of being president of the United States,” he concluded.

Sanders even defended his earlier comparison of Clinton to former vice president Dick Cheney. “Experience is important, but judgement is also important,” he said. “Dick Cheney, he had a lot of experience, too. His policies with regard to foreign affairs was an absolute disaster. So, experience is important, but it is not the only thing.”

(Justin Sullivan/Getty)

Clinton was expected to use this forum to undercut Sanders by aggressively questioning his experience and ability to lead a fractious Washington. But she barely mentioned the senator when she took the stage after O’Malley’s appearance. Instead, she damned Sanders with faint praise. “I think that’s great, I love it!” she said of Sanders’s most recent (and much-praised) campaign ad, a feel-good montage set to a Simon and Garfunkel tune. “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose,” she said, implicitly referencing her many attacks on Sanders’s pie-in-the-sky ideas.

Clinton stumbled over issues she should’ve put to bed months ago — chief among them the e-mail scandal.

But when one young man asked Clinton why many young people don’t support or trust her, Clinton hit a high note. “Look, I’ve been around a long time,” she replied. “People have thrown all kinds of things at me. But if you’re new to politics, if it’s the first time you’ve really paid attention, you say, ‘Oh my gosh, look at all of this.’ And you have to think, ‘Why are they throwing all of that?’”

“Well, I’ll tell you why,” she said, her voice rising. “Because I’ve been on the front lines of change and progress since I was your age! I’ve had many, many millions of dollars spent on me.  . . . You’ve got to keep going, you can’t give up, you can never get knocked off course.”

The crowd loved that response. They weren’t as thrilled by her response to a question shortly afterward. An audience member asked her how she could work well with Republicans in Washington after she’d called them her “enemies” in last October’s Democratic debate. “It was kind of tongue in cheek,” she said lamely, adding that many Republicans “say really nice things” about her when she’s not running for office.

#related#She fumbled another question on whether her use of a private e-mail server showed poor judgment — a charge levied by the Des Moines Register even as they offered Clinton their endorsement. “No, I’m not willing to say it was an error in judgment because what — nothing that I did was wrong,” she said. “It was not — it was not in any way prohibited.” There was no applause for that answer, either.

Polls show the race in Iowa tightening, with Clinton slowly hemorrhaging support as the caucuses draw closer. To staunch the bleeding, she had to both sharpen her attacks on Sanders and improve her ability to connect with Iowans at a personal level. That didn’t happen tonight. With just one week left before caucus night, she’s running out of time.

— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter with National Review Online.