Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders put aside much of the rancor that has defined the Democratic presidential contest in recent days and, in a televised Iowa town hall Monday night, pared their race down to its essence: Do Democrats want the revolution Sanders pledges or the experienced continuity Clinton promises?
Both candidates, as well as the third member of the field, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, seemed intent on casting themselves as the grown-ups in this presidential contest, emphasizing their general agreement and contrasting their party’s candidates against the blisteringly negative tone of the Republican campaign.
The timing of the forum — one week before Iowa’s caucuses and the first official votes of the 2016 race — lent an urgency to the proceedings that had each candidate nearly shouting at the audience even while ticking off the most basic of campaign stances. While the format of having candidates on stage separately may have negated some of the fizz of a face-to-face dispute, the results still were illuminating.
Vermont Sen. Sanders sang one note most of the night, a passionate appeal to upend the economic status quo and the nation’s campaign finance system — and he did not shy away in the least from his self-description as a socialist. He blithely noted that his plans would require increased taxes, a declaration that would have left previous Democratic candidates quaking.
His limitations were apparent — at one point he tiptoed toward naivete by suggesting that a victory would cause Congress to capitulate to the will of voters, the same suggestion that President Obama once made, but has long since learned not to expect. He was long-winded and circuitous at times, but also poignant as he reflected on his family’s move in one generation from immigrant poverty to the U.S. Senate.
Clinton, who followed Sanders and O’Malley, demonstrated as she has in every debate, the breadth of her experience and her general cool under pressure. With more emphasis than before, she detailed the unflashy but substantial ways she has fought for Democratic desires over the decades, her way of suggesting that she, too, has passion, if of a different style than Sanders. She all but dropped what has been daily criticism of Sanders’ past votes on gun measures and his healthcare plan.
Her limitations were apparent too. She grew terse when asked about criticisms that she bungled the Benghazi terror attack and wrongly used a private email server as secretary of State. But she persisted in crafting a vision of a White House tenure that would improve upon Obama’s terms with more surehandedness than upheaval.
For his part, O’Malley seemed thrilled to be invited to the party. With the night likely to be his last best chance to make a pitch, O’Malley repeated his laundry list of proposals but ultimately seemed something of a palate cleanser between the two disparate main courses.
And they are, decidedly, different. For all the years that opponents have cast Clinton as a flaming liberal, Monday’s gathering underscored how comfortable she is in the middle of the road, while Sanders coasts along in the far left lane.
If Clinton has defined her presidency as one that would polish and extend the Obama years, Sanders has promised to upend them. To her vow to improve Obamacare, he pledges to adopt a single-player healthcare plan. To her proposal for some help for college students facing big tuition bills, he promises free college for all.
He received some push-back for his views from voter questioners and the CNN moderator, Chris Cuomo. When Cuomo pointed out that critics of Sanders’ healthcare plan have said it would be costly, Sanders replied: "We will raise taxes, yes we will." (He also said the increase would be offset for some people by diminished insurance premiums.)
He defending himself again when Cuomo noted that Sanders’ proposals, taken together, meant creating "the biggest government ever."
America, Sanders said, had experienced a "massive transfer of wealth" from the middle class to the very wealthy on Wall Street, whose "recklessness, greed and illegal behavior brought this country to its knees."
"I demand that Wall Street start paying its fair share of taxes," he said, suggesting that dramatic change was required to right the ship. "People want to criticize me, fine."
The downside of hitting one note repeatedly is that Sanders can come off as hectoring. But on Monday, as if aware that many voters in Iowa and elsewhere might be taking their first extended look at him, he leavened his appeal with some humor. At one point, Cuomo interrupted as Sanders answered a young woman’s question about how he would be a better president for women than Clinton.
"One more point, Chris! I’m trying to win her vote," he responded, with a smile.
Softer, maybe, but Sanders was not backing away from what he was calling for: a more radical presidency than has been seen before.
"We have got to go beyond establishment politics and establishment economics," he said. "In my view, we need a political revolution."
Clinton is, of course, the very definition of establishment politics in this race, even if she takes pains to note the historic reach her candidacy represents. Every part of her appearance Monday underscored her position. Her answers were crisp, every T crossed and I dotted, her statements generally agreeable.
The recent turn in the Iowa race, where Sanders has pulled into a tie with her in several polls, have resurrected fears that for the second time in a row, she will lose the state to a flashier candidate fresher on the national stage.
So on Monday, she reminded Democrats that she had been a loyal foot soldier in all of the Democratic Party’s fights over the decades — for women’s rights, children’s rights, civil rights, gay rights. That was meant to accomplish multiple things: remind voters that Sanders, for all his liberal ideology, is an independent and not a Democrat; that she has expended energy and capital on fights that benefited others; and, importantly, that criticism of her is criticism of them.
Indeed, when one young questioner noted that his peers were more enthusiastic about Sanders and worried that she was "dishonest," Clinton started out by praising student involvement in the campaign then quickly pivoted to brush aside the criticism.
"I've been around a long time; people have thrown all kinds of things at me," she said. "I just keep going forward because there’s nothing to it. They throw all this stuff at me, and I’m still standing."
If the questions signaled the messiness that a Clinton campaign conjures — with mentions of Benghazi, her vote for the Iraq war and her email server — she also spoke movingly of the often unseen work of rallying allies and the calculated and complex decisions that a president must make.
As Sanders had praised Clinton as "a very good person," Clinton spoke of the "respect" she had for him.
"But I believe that I’m the better person to be the Democratic nominee and to be the president and commander-in-chief," she added.
For all the fierce fighting in Clinton’s battle with Obama eight years ago, their differences were slim; each was positing a mainstream Democratic point of view that skewed little from the past.
The differences between Clinton’s and Sanders' views are more distinct, setting up a choice not just between two candidates but two visions of government — a choice that starts in Iowa, on Monday.