In the historic Surf Ballroom on the shores of Clear Lake in northern Iowa, Democratic activists filled the room to its capacity of 2,100 to see four of the party’s five candidates for president each take turns touting their liberal bona fides.
The first candidate to speak, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, harkened back to the 1990s and the “vast right wing conspiracy” she once railed against in describing the investigation of her emails and use of a “private homebrew server” while leading the State Department.
Clinton opened her speech by mocking the scandal surrounding her email system by joking “You may have seen that I recently launched a Snapchat account. I love it. I love it. Those messages disappear all by themselves.” The jest was a veiled reference to the fact Clinton aides deleted more than 30,000 emails from her server.
In March, when the existence of these emails was first revealed, Clinton told reporters the messages “were about planning Chelsea’s wedding … as well as yoga routines, family vacations, the other things you typically find in inboxes.” However, congressional investigators have since raised questions whether some deleted emails related to official business.
The former secretary of state went on to insist the ongoing investigation into her email server and whether classified information was sent to her personal email account was “not about emails or servers either – it’s about politics.” Clinton went after those raising questions, saying: “I won’t get down in the mud with them. I won’t play politics with national security or dishonor the memory of those who we lost.”
The former secretary of state referenced the repeated investigations of her husband’s White House in the 1990s by noting “I won’t pretend that this is anything other than what it is: the same old partisan games we’ve seen so many times before.”
Yet the night wasn’t just about Clinton’s email scandals. The former secretary of state lauded the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran while noting there were “people of good faith” on both sides of the debate. But Clinton devoted most of her speaking time to a rousing partisan barnburner where she railed against the 17 Republican candidates running and described the GOP field as “just like [Donald] Trump only without the pizzazz and the hair”.
Clinton was followed in the speaking order by Vermont senator Bernie Sanders who received almost as raucous a response as the former secretary of state from the packed house. Sanders, who has been surging in polls in recent weeks, delivered his standard stump speech, where he called for “a political revolution in the United States.” The Vermont senator cast his presidential bid not as a campaign but as a crusade.
Sanders railed against the role of money in American politics. He proudly proclaimed to rousing applause: “I was determined not to have a superPAC, I did not want money coming into my campaign in a superPAC for millionaires and billionaires, I don’t support their agenda. I don’t want their money.”
Sanders also pointedly went after “the media establishment”. The Vermont senator said
“the mainstream media is prepared to discuss everything except the most important issues facing the American people.” Sanders ended his speech to loud cheers by asking for Americans to “come together to have the courage to take on the big money interest in this country.”
The crowd noticeably thinned after the two top candidates left as former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley took the stage. O’Malley’s campaign had perhaps the most organized presence at the event with young staffers and supporters waving signs outside the event and participating in organized cheering inside. The underdog candidate, who has never gone above single digits in any poll, started his speech by announcing the endorsement of former Iowa politician Berkley Bedell, before outlining his various liberal policy goals and tried to contrast his executive experience to that of Sanders and Clinton by stating he was about “actions, not words.”
Former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee also spoke and seemed to spend much of his speech trolling Clinton. Chafee, who is running a long-shot campaign and does not register in polls, bragged he “never had any scandals” and talked at length about his decision to vote against the Iraq War in 2002. Clinton voted for the war. However, he praised the former secretary of state’s support for the Iran deal and took a jab at Republican candidate and high school classmate Jeb Bush for drinking “neo-con kool aid” in saying on Thursday that removing Saddam Hussein from power was “a good deal”.
The evening didn’t seem to do much to change attendees’ impressions of the candidates. Many of the crowd were already committed and wearing stickers of their preferred Democratic hopeful. But, for those who weren’t, it was one more opportunity for candidates to make their pitch to devoted party faithful and differentiate themselves from their rivals.