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8 Things You Missed At Democrats' Final Iowa Town Hall

Jan 26, 2016
Originally published on January 26, 2016 10:53 am

If you weren't tuned in to two hours of late-night cable, you would have missed Democrats making a final urgent pitch to voters Monday night in an Iowa town hall. We'll catch up you up.

-- Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., defended being a Democratic socialist — and admitted he'd raise taxes to pay for his health care plan.

-- Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hammered home that she would bring the most experience to the White House and fended off questions from college-age Sanders supporters, including one who said his friends think she's "dishonest."

-- Former Gov. Martin O'Malley, D-Md., delved into the issues, sleeves rolled up, and expressed optimism that there was still time to prove the polls wrong in the Hawkeye State.

1. Attacking 'The Establishment' and defending Socialism

Questioned by both CNN's Chris Cuomo and Iowa Democratic voters, the Vermont senator and the former secretary of state drew sharp contrasts with each other on the economy and foreign policy — even though the two were never on the stage together.

"I think we are touching a nerve with the American people who understand that establishment politics is just not good enough," Sanders said, a clear allusion to Clinton, in explaining his rise. "We need bold changes; we need a political revolution."

When asked by a voter to define his Democratic Socialist views, Sanders gave an impassioned response.

"What Democratic Socialism means, to me, is that economic rights — the right to economic security — should exist in the United States of America," Sanders said. "It means to me that there's something wrong when we have millions of senior citizens today trying to get by on $11--, $12,000 a year Social Security. It means there's something wrong when the rich get richer and almost everybody else gets poorer. It means there is something wrong, and government should play a role in making sure that all of our kids, regardless of their income, are able to get a higher education."

2. 'Yes, we will raise taxes'

Those beliefs influenced Sanders' "Medicare for all" plan he introduced last week. That was immediately slammed by Clinton and many top liberal thinkers and pundits as too expansive, unworkable and without enough detail on savings. In defending his plan on the stage Monday night, it led to a ready-for-TV attack ad line.

"Yes, we will raise taxes. Yes, we will," Sanders admitted of how his single-payer plan would be funded. "But also, let us be clear, Chris, because there's a little bit of disingenuity out there — we may raise taxes, but we are also going to eliminate private health insurance premiums for individuals and for businesses."

3. Judgment call: Fight over Iraq

The surging Sanders — who is neck and neck with Clinton in Iowa and leading her in New Hampshire, according to recent polls — has pledged not to go negative against his rivals. "With a few exceptions, we're doing a lot better than the Republicans in that regard," Sanders noted.

But he did go after Clinton, who is often more at ease discussing her foreign-policy and national-security philosophy — rather than the specifics of her 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq War.

"The truth is that the most significant vote and issue regarding foreign policy that we have seen in this country in modern history is the vote on the war in Iraq," Sanders said, noting he voted against it. "It gives me no pleasure to tell you that much of what I feared might happen did happen. Hillary Clinton voted for the war in Iraq."

When it was Clinton's turn, she fired back.

"I have a much longer history than one vote," Clinton said, "which I said was a mistake, because of the way that it was done and how the Bush administration handled it."

She reiterated that her former rival Barack Obama had enough faith in her to choose her as his top diplomat. She also touted her plan to take on ISIS and other terrorist organizations, which she called a "long-term challenge."

"There is no time in human history where everything is going well," Clinton said. "And we now live in a very interconnected world, where we know everything that is going on and where people look to the United States to help."

4. 'My friends think you're dishonest'

The town hall also exposed some uneasy problems that still plague Clinton's campaign. She was pressed by a young voter, who said he was leaning toward voting for Sanders. He said he's seen the enthusiasm gap between her and Sanders, and that, "my friends think you're dishonest."

That led to an energetic, finger-pointing defense that might have struck some as defensive. She argued she had withstood incoming attacks for more than two decades after fighting for women, children and health care reform.

"Look, I've been around a long time," she said. "People have thrown all kinds of things at me. And you know I can't keep up with it. I just keep going forward. They fall by the wayside. They come up with these outlandish things. They make these charges. I just keep going forward, because there's nothing to it. They throw all this stuff at me and I'm still standing."

5. 'I don't know if you were born then. I can't quite tell'

She continued, though, talking about pushing for health care and getting children's health care through, but questioned the young man's age.

"If you're new to politics," she said, "if it's the first time you really paid attention, you go, 'Oh my gosh, look at all of this.' And you have to say to yourself, why are they throwing all of that? Well, I'll tell you why. Because I've been on the front lines of change and progress since I was your age. ...

"I have had many, many millions of dollars spent against me. When I worked on health care back in 1993 and 1994, and I don't know if you were born then. I can't quite tell. But if you'd been around and had been able to pay attention, I was trying to get us to universal health care coverage, working with my husband. Boy, the insurance companies, the drug companies, they spent millions. Not just against the issue, but against me. And I kept going. And when we weren't successful, I turned around and said at least we're going to get health care for kids."

6. 'You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose'

Clinton summed up her overall message in a quote by moderator Chris Cuomo's father, the late New York Gov. Mario Cuomo — "You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose."

That line tries to address a chief Clinton weakness — that she doesn't inspire. But it also is an attempt to turn that weakness into a strength — that she is ready to do the job on Day 1. Clinton tried that tactic in 2008 against Obama with the tag line, "Speeches not solutions."

Clinton also pledged that she can get things done, noting that, even as she has called Republicans the "enemy" on the campaign trail, she would work across party lines for the good of the country if elected.

"Once the election is over, we must come together to work to solve the problems facing our country," she said. She also pointed out that Republicans seem to praise her when she's not running for office. Former GOP colleagues of hers, like John McCain and Trent Lott, have praised Clinton's work in the Senate in the past.

"It takes building relationships," Clinton said, "and that is one of the hardest things to do in politics over ideological and partisan lines. So, I'm going to be just giving them all bear hugs whether they like it or not."

7. Clinton acknowledges she should have apologized sooner for her use of a private email server

One of Clinton's weakest answers was on whether she should have apologized sooner for having a private email server when she was at the State Department — something the Des Moines Register tweaked her for, even though it endorsed her.

"You know, I had no intention of doing anything other than having a convenient way of communicating, and it turned out not to be so convenient," Clinton said. "So again, we've answered every question and we will continue to do so."

She later acknowledged that not apologizing sooner was not an "error in judgment" and that the Register's criticism was fair.

8. O'Malley settles in, hopes Iowans will 'upset the apple cart'

O'Malley — still badly trailing and being overshadowed by both Clinton and Sanders — was sandwiched between the two. He appeared the most at ease on stage, removing his suit jacket and engaging the audience during questioning. Overall, he struck a hopeful tone and embraced the dark-horse label.

"The beauty of the people of Iowa is they're not intimidated by polls," said O'Malley, who has been polling far below Clinton and Sanders. "They're not intimidated by pundits, and they have this birthright, they feel, to upset the apple cart. And with only three of us in this Democratic primary, there's only one of us who can still upset the apple cart. Come on, Iowa, right?"

But Cuomo pointed out that if he doesn't hit a threshold of 15 percent at each precinct caucus next week, his supporters will be forced to re-evaluate and pick between Sanders and Clinton. That was a possibility O'Malley was quick to dismiss, urging his supporters to "hold strong at your caucus."

"We cannot be this fed up with our gridlocked, dysfunctional national politics and think that a resort to old ideologies or old names is going to move us forward," O'Malley said. "I know this is a tough fight. But I've always been drawn to a tough fight. I believe the toughness of the fight is the way the hidden god has of telling us we're actually fighting for something worth saving."

NPR's Domenico Montanaro contributed to this report.

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