On Saturday night, at the high-stakes Democratic Jefferson-Jackson dinner, Bernie Sanders launched a new, frontal attack on Hillary Clinton’s record, caution and character — a direct response to her recent surge in the the polls here and nationally, and fueled by her strong performance at the first Democratic debate earlier this month. The shift represents a gamble: Can a nice-guy candidate publicly dedicated to running on substance turn to attack mode with sacrificing his reputation as an authentic voice of the people?
The skirmish began even before each campaign’s supporters – hundreds of them, each with their own signs, noisemakers and pre-rehearsed chants, began filing into a drafty hall at the Hy-Vee Center in downtown Des Moines where the annual kingmaker’s ball takes place. At a pre-dinner rally, Bernie Sanders’ supporters flew a single-engine plane with the banner “FEEL THE BERN” directly over a Clinton rally headlined by the pop singer Katy Perry — who got more shout-outs from the candidate than Barack Obama, Joe Biden or Bill Clinton. During Clinton’s introduction at the dinner, Sanders supporters — many of them in their teen and twenties — tried to drown out her intro with cheers for the democratic socialist. And they filed out quietly when she took the stage to speak, a hint of how passionately they feel about Sanders and their ambivalence about Clinton.
The Vermont senator, as always, did not go after the frontrunner in a personal way or mention her by name. Instead, he delivered a fiery yet indirect indictment of her entire political career. In his 25-minute speech – backed up by the thundering chants of supporters chanting “Feel the Bern!” — he launched an attack on Clinton’s slowness to take a position on the Keystone pipeline: “this was not a complicated issue,” he said. He lambasted her for now opposing a trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that she once called the “gold standard” of trade deals.
“It is not now, nor has it ever been, the gold standard of trade agreements,” Sanders said. And he reached back to Clinton’s 2002 vote to support the war in Iraq, an issue that plagued her eight years ago when she took the stage here. “When I came to that fork in the road I took the right road, even though it was not the popular road at the time,” he said.
Clinton, fresh off her steady, disciplined performance before the House Benghazi committee, doesn’t tend to shine in big set-piece, theater-in-the-round speeches, and Saturday was no exception. Compared to the passionate populist broadsides delivered by Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Clinton was more measured — except for the moments when she spoke about the struggles of Iowans she’s met while campaigning or her role as a gender pioneer.