It’s difficult to lose a town hall forum. The questions are relatively benign. The pushback, which comes only from the moderator, is mild. Mostly, it’s a chance to roll out your stump speech, unimpeded, and give voters something they don’t know or forgot about you.
That’s important, however, in a close race – which the Democratic nomination for president might or might not turn out to be. So last night, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley and Hillary Clinton walked out one-by-one to be questioned on an Iowa stage. It wasn’t the kind of brawling theatre that traditional debates can offer. But it provided its own strong moments.
Who got the most of them?
Winner: Bernie Sanders
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We know Bernie has passion. We know Bernie is angry. We know all about the “billionaaaaaasss.” We got a bit of all that again Monday.
But we also got Sanders unplugged. More than anyone else on the stage, he gave voters something new to ponder.
Part of it was policy; in one eloquent stretch, he talked about his admiration for Hillary Clinton before detailing his differences with her on Iraq, the Keystone pipeline and the Pacific trade deal. He also got his chance to explain how all the taxes he will have to raise to support his plans will actually result in savings – so long as you’re not one of those billionaaassss.
We also saw a warmer side of Sanders. His best moment of the night came when he sheepishly tried to humblebrag about his athletic prowess long ago, then answered a question about releasing his health records by looking at his wife in the audience.
“Where are they, Jane? They’re on our table?” he said. It didn’t seem contrived at all.
That relatability, mixed with the policy distinctions he made, showed a Sanders who was more multi-dimensional than in any other debate. He was the clear winner.
A not-too-distant second: Hillary Clinton
Clinton’s night was more about reminders. She reminded the audience, often, that Barack Obama hired her, and that he trusted her, and that they did a lot of good things together. She also reminded people that she’s someone Republicans say nice things about when she’s not running for office. That’s because she has long worked well across the aisle, especially as a U.S. Senator from New York.
Those were all strong arguments and strong moments for Clinton. If she wins the nomination and faces Donald Trump, they’ll be even more potent. She’s serious, and she has a serious résumé.
Try as she might Monday, Clinton didn’t have the warmth of Sanders or the energy of O’Malley (whose decent performance will help him make some vice presidential short lists.) The only person Clinton really connected to in the audience was former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin; they shared a touching remembrance of trying to work with Republicans on policy.
But Clinton compensated by turning the most seat-squirming question of the night – from a young voter who wondered why young people aren’t excited by Clinton – into a forceful answer about fighting for people. That’s when Clinton is often at her best, when she’s Hillary the Battler.
Clinton did stumble on a couple of questions, including one on her emails that she should’ve figured out how to answer long ago. Those emails, and the trust questions they raise, are probably still the biggest threat to her nomination. On Monday night, though, Sanders made things at least a little more interesting.
Peter St. Onge