Democratic Candidates Throw Shade, But Avoid Calling Each Other Out

Oct 26, 2015
Originally published on October 27, 2015 1:36 pm

At a time when Republicans have struggled to keep their party in order in Congress, while more than a dozen presidential candidates are taking primary shots at each other, Democrats like to tout their relative unity.

That was the message at the Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner on Saturday in Des Moines, where more than 6,000 party faithful were gathered.

But it is a primary season, and there can be only one nominee. The fundraising dinner is traditionally a critical chance for candidates to impress party activists, who can mobilize their social networks to turn out for the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1.

Bernie Sanders: Taking The 'Right Road'

Without mentioning Hillary Clinton by name, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders listed issue after issue where critics have accused her of flip-flopping, and painted himself as a consistently progressive voice.

Regarding his vote against going to war with Iraq in 2002, Sanders said the pressure was on to support the invasion, but he said no: "It gives me no joy to tell you that much of what I predicted about Iraq turned out to be right — it doesn't give me any joy at all. But that was a tough vote. I came to that fork in the road, and I took the right road, even though it was not popular at that time."

Hillary Clinton has called her vote to authorize the war a "mistake."

On trade, Sanders took aim at the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal Clinton helped promote as secretary of state and once said she hoped would be a "gold standard" for trade.

On Saturday, Sanders used Clinton's words to criticize the deal, which she now opposes. "That agreement is not now, nor has it ever been, the 'gold standard' of trade agreements. I do not support it today, I did not support it yesterday, and I will not support it tomorrow," Sanders said.

On the Defense of Marriage Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, Sanders said he was proud to be among the minority in Congress to oppose the now-defunct law restricting the federal definition of marriage to heterosexual couples.

"Let us all remember that gay and lesbian rights were not popular then as they are today," Sanders reminded the crowd.

But some critics have pointed out that Sanders doesn't have a perfect record of supporting LGBT rights.

Hillary Clinton: 'I Won't Be Silenced'

Clinton also avoided mentioning her rivals by name, but took aim at Sanders, an independent who is seeking the Democratic nomination, by highlighting her loyalty to the party.

"I'm not running for my husband's third term, and I'm not running for Barack Obama's third term — I'm running for my first term," Clinton said. "And I'm running as a proud Democrat."

Clinton made repeated pleas for stricter gun control — an issue where Sanders, hailing from a rural state with a strong hunting culture, has been vulnerable to criticism from the left.

As she has done before, Clinton took aim at politicians who, she said, have told her to "stop shouting" about ending gun violence. That's an apparent reference to comments by Sanders that people should "stop shouting at each other" about guns.

"I haven't been shouting," Clinton said. "Sometimes when a woman speaks out, some people think it's shouting. But I won't be silenced, and I hope you won't be, either. How many more people have to die before we take action?"

Sanders, for his part, says his comments were not about gender.

Martin O'Malley: 'Actually Getting Things Done'

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has struggled to gain traction in the race, suggested that his rivals don't have the executive experience needed to be president.

"While all of the candidates here tonight share progressive values, not all of us have a record of actually getting things done," O'Malley said.

He said that's a skill he learned as a governor, and as the mayor of Baltimore — a record he's had to defend in the past.

O'Malley took an apparent jab at Clinton, the former senator from New York, with a line attacking the financial industry.

"I have never represented Wall Street, and I sure as hell won't be taking economic orders from Wall Street when I am working for you in your White House," he said.

With less than 100 days to go before the Iowa caucuses, expect the candidates to take more shots at each other in the coming weeks. They'll have another chance to do that when they meet Nov. 14 for their second debate, this time at Drake University in Des Moines.

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Just a few days ago, Democrats had five presidential candidates with the possibility of six. This morning, they're down to three. And over the weekend, each maneuvered for a position at the annual dinner that is held in Iowa by Democrats, the Annual Jefferson Jackson Dinner. The big though subtle debate was between the top two candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. NPR's Sarah McCammon was there.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: At rallies for Hillary Clinton, Katy Perry's hit song "Roar" is in heavy rotation on the playlist. But it's not every day the pop star shows up in person to campaign for the former secretary of state.


KATY PERRY: Make some noise if you roar for Hillary.

MCCAMMON: Neither does Bill Clinton. The former president took the stage in downtown Des Moines Saturday before the big event, telling the crowd he needs their help to break his own glass ceiling.

BILL CLINTON: I am tired of the stranglehold that women have had on the job of presidential spouse.


MCCAMMON: Also in Des Moines, former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley sang for supporters at his rally. And Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders held a march through the city.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Feel the burn. Feel the burn.

MCCAMMON: It all led to the Jefferson Jackson Dinner, packed full of Democratic activists who can turn out supporters for February's Iowa caucuses. A few months before the 2008 contest, the dinner was Barack Obama's breakout moment in his quest to topple Hillary Clinton. On Saturday night, Sanders pointed back to the primary race.


BERNIE SANDERS: All of the political experts talked about how another Democratic for - candidate for president just couldn't win. He was unelectable. You remember that guy? What's his name? Oh, it's President Obama.

MCCAMMON: Without mentioning Clinton by name, Sanders took a more aggressive tone than usual, naming policies where critics accuse her of flip flopping. Clinton painted herself as the candidate best suited to beat the eventual Republican nominee and pushed back against the idea that she represents the past.


HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: I'm not running for my husband's third term. And I'm not running for Barack Obama's third term. I'm running for my first term.

MCCAMMON: Then she took what felt like a jab at Sanders, an independent running for the Democratic nomination.


HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: And I'm running as a proud Democrat.

MCCAMMON: Clinton supporters, like David Drissel (ph) of Fort Dodge, say this is her year.

DAVID DRISSEL: In 2008, I was for Obama. But I'm completely on her side now - a hundred percent - because I feel like she's done a great job as secretary of state. So I'm gung ho.

MCCAMMON: Sanders fired up his own supporters, like Maria Bribriesco (ph) of Bettendorf.

MARIA BRIBRIESCO: Bernie again, you know, hit it out of the ballpark. He really is the people's candidate. What he believes in he has been saying for the past 30 years.

MCCAMMON: Bribriesco worries that the questions swirling around Clinton's private email server could come back to haunt her in the general election. For Bonnie Brown (ph) of West Des Moines, Clinton's recent performance at a marathon congressional hearing where she was asked about her emails and her handling of the 2012 attack on a U.S. mission in Libya only made her look stronger.

BONNIE BROWN: Instead of the Republicans trying to tear her apart, she instead made herself look more presidential. And she still comes out with so much energy after that. So it's very impressive.

MCCAMMON: With that challenge behind her, now Clinton has to focus on maintaining the energy of her supporters with less than 100 days to go before the Iowa caucuses. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.