Bernie Sanders at the town hall forum hosted by CNN at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
After what has been literally years of mind-numbing speculation, next week the presidential primaries will begin at the Iowa caucuses. The Democratic field has already been narrowed to two, of course, and the scant number of that party's debates means that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders haven't appeared on the same stage very often—mostly, the two seem to exist in parallel universes of enthusiasm, each using their personal celebrity endorsers (Killer Mike and Lena Dunham, to name two) to hype up crowds.
But on Monday night, CNN gave the candidates one last chance to pitch themselves to the "undecided voter," a mythical breed of Iowans who still somehow haven't made up their minds after months of being pandered to. This time, however, the format was a town hall rather than a debate, where the three candidates (don't forget Martin O'Malley!) had 45 minutes each to take questions from an array of Americans who were either leaning, undecided, or just along for the ride.
The result was the purest distillation thus far of who these candidates are, and what stands between them.
First up was Sanders. If you've heard or seen the senator from Vermont bluster his way through attacks against the "rigged economy," this town hall basically doubled as his greatest hits album. Right off the bat, Sanders started rattling off stats about inequality, child poverty, and wage growth, before dissecting the stark disparities in wealth and health care profits. He was asked to define his brand of scary socialism (which is really just old-school liberalism), and his response reiterated his frequent call for "a political revolution to take on the billionaire class."
It's rhetoric pretty much every liberal Democrat can get behind—the question, now that Sanders is on the brink of winning at least one primary, is whether his policies could become reality if he became president. Moderator Chris Cuomo (whose brother, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, is backing Clinton) constantly brought up technicalities about funding and feasibility—the candidate's arguably weakest points—and Sanders was forced to defend his healthcare plan tax hikes and make a case for why Congress will somehow suddenly go from doing absolutely nothing (their current state) to passing some of the most ambitious social programs since FDR.
In his final plea, Sanders painted what was perhaps the most concise Venn diagram of himself and Clinton on the issues of climate change, Wall Street, the Iraq war, and trade policy. He also compared Clinton to Dick Cheney to illustrate that "experience" isn't always good. Sanders then ended on a somber note, saying his poor Jewish parents from Poland could never have imagined him running for president.
Then came O'Malley, who gave a fine performance but clearly represents the last dying breath of the JFK Democrats—the "ask not what your country can do for you" center-left young white progressive of the 1950s and 60s who believes in "fair market capitalism" and folksy activism. He flipped a question about LGBT discrimination laws into a starry-eyed embrace of creating a "more perfect union" with each passing generation, and then recalled his Democratic upbringing to explain his belief that America is great when its people are. Unfortunately for him, today's activist base isn't as much into genteel uplift as it is into the sort of clear-eyed, numbers-backed rage that Sanders can provide.
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Finally, Hillary Clinton took the stage. It was clear almost immediately that the former Secretary of State is well-suited for the town hall format; the extra time gave her a chance to explain her positions and record, rather than squeezing them out into 15-second soundbites. That's something Sanders is better at—packing his anger into one-liners—but with the expansive time slot now, Clinton had a chance to shine.
Foreign policy barely made an appearance during Sanders's Q&A, while Clinton's session was dominated by the topic—Sanders has emerged as the economic candidate, while Clinton is running as the pragmatist who knows policy. And on Monday night, she truly let that side show, with fleshed-out responses that finally, for once, made the candidate look enthusiastic.
At one point, she basically gave an hour-by-hour itinerary of the Gaza troubles and Iran crisis when she was Secretary of State; she told the crowd where she went, who she met, and how fast she did it all. The point being not what she did, but that she could do it, and, furthermore, that she knows it.
For the first time in a while, Clinton genuinely came off as proud of her record, which is her strongest point. It was one of the few instances on a national stage where she mentioned her undercover work in the 1970s rooting out racist schools in the South. She mostly stayed away from discussing Wall Street or income inequality, but applauded her husband's administration, at times almost using it as a model of what her presidency would look like. (A lot of Democrats still love Bill Clinton, who stole the show at the 2012 party convention.)
If you watched last night, the choice couldn't have been clearer: Clinton is selling herself as the progressive candidate who can get things done and who has the foreign policy experience that Sanders lacks (which was the subtext of her remarks). Sanders is the anti-establishment figure who wants to shake things up, to enact real reform, to be the messiah that lefists have been waiting for their whole lives. O'Malley is, well, he's up on that stage too.
So please, can the primaries start now?
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