Weekend open thread: Hall of Fame and Family Leadership Summit edition

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

All five Democratic presidential candidates appeared at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Hall of Fame dinner in Cedar Rapids on Friday night. I’ve posted below my impressions from the speeches; you can watch the videos on C-SPAN. It’s a shame the venue couldn’t accommodate more people, because lots of interested Iowa Democrats were unable to get tickets for the event.

Before the Hall of Fame dinner, I spent some time with an old friend who’s a huge Hillary Clinton supporter. Huge, as in, she didn’t take down her Hillary yard sign until the grass was long enough to need mowing in the spring of 2008. She mentioned to me that she’s relieved to see Clinton working hard this year instead of “ignoring” Iowa like last time. When I told my friend that Hillary visited Iowa more than 30 times in 2007, spending all or part of 70 days in the state, she was surprised. I’m amazed by how many Iowans have bought into the media-constructed narrative that Clinton “bombed” in the caucuses because she took the state for granted.

Ten Republican presidential candidates came to Ames on Saturday for the Family Leadership Summit organized by Bob Vander Plaats’ FAMiLY Leader organization. C-SPAN posted all of those speeches here. As usual, Donald Trump sucked up most of the oxygen in the room by questioning whether Senator John McCain had been a hero during the Vietnam War. O.Kay Henderson posted the audio at Radio Iowa. Rival presidential candidates with the exception of Ted Cruz rushed to condemn Trump’s remarks. Some of the Family Leadership Summit attendees may have been more upset by Trump’s comments about his three marriages and his admission that when he’s done something wrong, “I don’t bring God into that picture.”

One big takeaway from Friday evening for me was how many speakers, including several of the presidential candidates, mentioned Governor Terry Branstad’s recent vetoes of funding for education and mental health services. Those vetoes were also a hot topic of conversation among Democratic activists before and after the Hall of Fame event. If I were a Republican statehouse leader, I would get my House and Senate members back to Des Moines to override those vetoes and take the issue of the table for the 2016 campaign. Unfortunately for Iowa students, teachers, and others who could benefit from the vetoed funds, there is no sign Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen or Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix feel any pressure to restore the funding Branstad axed.

Before the presidential candidates took the stage, Iowa Democratic Party Chair Andy McGuire started the program with the seven Hall of Fame inductees (short bios here). Different speakers introduced each of the Hall of Famers, but to save time, only one of the honorees gave her own speech: Iowa Senate President Pam Jochum. She got the crowd going by talking about Democratic policy achievements like Social Security, which will celebrate its “80th birthday” next month. I particularly appreciated her mentioning “environmental justice” among other core values. As a group, Iowa Democratic elected officials have a disappointing track record on the environment, but Jochum has always been a strong legislator in this area.

Jochum also drew applause by listen the many bad policies pushed by Governor Terry Branstad and Iowa House Republicans, which have been stopped by “one vote” (alluding to the Iowa Senate’s 26 to 24 Democratic majority). Following Iowa politics can be a discouraging pastime, especially lately, but Pam Jochum as the Iowa Senate president never gets old. If she runs for governor in 2018, I will be all in.

Several other possible future gubernatorial candidates spoke to the Hall of Fame crowd. As I mentioned, IDP Chair Andy McGuire emceed the proceedings. She has promised not to run for any office in 2016 but has not ruled out doing so the following election cycle. State Senator Liz Mathis introduced one of the honorees, former state lawmaker Bev Hannon. Many Iowa Democrats had hoped Mathis would run for Congress in 2014, but she is far more likely to seek the governor’s office in 2018.

State Representative Chris Hall of Sioux City introduced Penny Rosfjord, a fixture of Woodbury County Democratic politics who was honored as an outstanding State Central Committee member. Hall is serving his third term in the Iowa House, having won an open seat in 2010, an extremely challenging year for Iowa Democrats. He’s too young to run for governor soon, but I believe Iowans will see him on a statewide ticket someday. Meanwhile, he should seriously consider taking on GOP State Senator Rick Bertrand in Iowa Senate district 7 (covering most of Sioux City) in 2018. That seat may open up if Bertrand himself runs for governor, a rumored possibility.

Superstar local party organizer Kurt Meyer didn’t address the crowd as a Hall of Fame honoree, but yet again he took on the thankless task of giving the “pass the hat” speech. I have never seen anyone do that job better at a Democratic event.

Lincoln Chafee

Finally, the presidential candidates spoke in alphabetical order. Former Senator and Governor Lincoln Chafee used up only about six minutes of his allotted fifteen minutes. As a former college wrestler (there’s some trivia I bet no one in the room knew before), he expressed admiration for Iowa’s many wrestling champions. Chafee then talked about his progressive record on economic and environmental issues, health care, a woman’s right to choose, LGBT rights, and immigration. He added that he opposes “endless war” in the Middle East, supports the recently-announced deal with Iran, and voted against authorizing the use of force in Iraq.

Chafee didn’t mention the awkward fact that he was a Republican for much of his career. I felt nostalgic listening to him, as my late father was a “Rockefeller Republican.” Although I welcome any former GOP moderates to the Democratic fold, I find it depressing that there is no niche for them anymore in the Republican Party.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton was up next. I have never seen her give a better speech. After the event, many Democrats I spoke with expressed the same opinion. One activist told me Clinton put to rest whatever concerns he had about her as a candidate; he was already convinced she could be a good president.

Clinton wove together many passages from the longer stump speech she gave in Des Moines last month, adding a few digs at Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Donald Trump. The speech had a good balance of personal reflections, appeals for policies that reflect Democratic values, and “red meat” attacks on failed Republican ideas. Clinton also used jokes effectively, which is not always easy for candidates to pull off. On Trump: “finally a candidate whose hair gets more attention than mine…but there’s nothing funny about the hate he is spewing toward immigrants and their families.” On Republican support for policies of the past: trickle down economics was one of worst ideas from the 1980s, along with New Coke, shoulder pads, and big hair. On climate change deniers: “I’m not a scientist either, I’m just a grandmother with two eyes and a brain.”

Martin O’Malley

Clinton gave Martin O’Malley a very tough act to follow, but he delivered a solid performance. Some of the audience had heard the stump speech before, either at events around Iowa or at the Polk County Democrats dinner in April. O’Malley blends aspirational talk about the American dream with accomplishments from his years as Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor, such as raising the minimum wage, passing a state-level DREAM Act, and investing in education. “I’m not the only candidate for president with progressive values, but I am the only candidate for president with fifteen years of executive experience.” He praises President Barack Obama’s record but notes that despite 64 months of net job creation, many American families are not doing better because of stagnant wages and income inequality.

O’Malley avoids speaking some inconvenient truths. He asks, how is it that not a single Wall Street executive was convicted of crime following economic meltdown? (I don’t know, why don’t you ask Obama’s Justice Department.) On trade, he says the country’s return on NAFTA was “nada”: “We got empty promises and empty pockets.” He calls for reinstating Glass-Steagall as one way to rein in the big banks. But he doesn’t mention that President Bill Clinton pushed hard for NAFTA and signed the bill to repeal Glass-Steagall.

I give O’Malley extra credit for this historical reference: If Donald Trump wants to bash immigrants, he should go back to the 1840s and run for president on the Know Nothing ticket. By the way, Mr. desmoinesdem reminded me that the early Republican Party included quite a few remnants from the Know Nothing movement, which is one reason so many 19th-century immigrants naturally aligned with the Democratic Party.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders was next in line. When you listen to him, you understand why he is drawing such big crowds around the country, most recently yesterday in Phoenix, Arizona. Clinton and O’Malley delivered well-crafted speeches. Sanders doesn’t project like a candidate reading from a prepared text. He sounds like he is just speaking his mind. He uses phrases no professional speechwriter would suggest (“oligarchic society,” “the greed of the billionaire class”). It works because it sounds natural. I was fortunate to hear Sanders speak during the 1980s. Even after more than two decades in Congress, he sounds the same.

Sanders’ online supporters often bash Clinton and other establishment Democrats as sellouts, but Sanders started his speech on Friday with praise for remarks by the other Democrats who have “dedicated their lives to public service”: “This is a great team.”

As is typical for him, Sanders devoted the largest block of his time to income inequality: the “great moral issue of our time,” the “great economic issue of our time,” and the “great political issue of our time.” Find me one Democrat anywhere who disagrees with Sanders when he says it’s profoundly wrong for one family (the owners of WalMart) to have as much wealth as the bottom 40 percent of the American population. When Sanders moved to other public policies, he went beyond the safe, poll-tested Democratic stands for raising the minimum wage and extending family leave, to supporting “Medicare for All,” single-payer health care and free tuition and public universities. Sanders was the only speaker on Friday night’s roster to say he wants young black men to be able to walk down street without being harrassed by police officers, killed or shot.

Sanders drew possibly the loudest applause of the night at the end of his speech: “Please don’t think small. Think big. […] Let us stand together. Let us remake America together.”

The low point of the evening came next, as scores of people headed for the exits while Andy McGuire was introducing Jim Webb. Their rudeness embarrassed me. The event was running more or less on time. You couldn’t sit through one more speech, of maximum length 15 minutes?

Jim Webb

The majority of Democrats who stayed heard a much different kind of stump speech from Webb. He has a low-key style, with fewer applause lines built into the text than Sanders, Clinton, or O’Malley. He had gracious words for Sanders: “Bernie, you always fire me up.” He asked all the veterans in the audience to stand and be recognized, then talked about his record on veterans issues. Webb seems to be staking out the moderate Democratic niche in this primary, but I wouldn’t call him a “conservadem,” because he is staunchly pro-labor. As he did at the Polk County Democrats dinner in April, Webb expressed pride in being the only statewide candidate in history of Virginia who walked a picket line during the campaign, as well as the only candidate with “a union card, two purple hearts and three tattoos” to win a statewide election in Virginia.

Webb spent quite a bit of his time on criminal justice reform, an issue he campaigned on and worked on in the U.S. Senate. If he accomplishes nothing this year beyond raising the salience of this issue in our political discourse, his candidacy will have been worthwhile. Webb spoke of getting some 100 stakeholders behind his criminal justice reform bill, including the national sheriffs’ association and the Marijuana Project. Although it drew support from 57 senators, the bill fell victim to a GOP filibuster when Webb tried to add it to a budget bill in 2011. Bleeding Heartland readers won’t be surprised to learn that Senator Tom Harkin voted for Webb’s legislation, while Senator Chuck Grassley voted against it.

Webb also devoted several minutes to foreign policy, noting that the role of commander in chief is perhaps the president’s greatest responsibility. He said he would never have voted to authorize use of force in Iraq and recalled writing an op-ed column months before the war warning that it would be a disastrous strategic failure. He added that he would not have authorized the use of force in Libya during the “Arab spring,” because that conflict did not meet the test of a grave national security danger. The room was very quiet when Webb remarked that he would not sign any executive agreement establishing long-term relationship with Iran if doing so would tip balance of power in Middle East, nor would he “accept directly or indirectly Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.”

Webb then shared some personal reflections about his mother, who grew up poor in Arkansas with few opportunities. Toward the end of his speech, he drew applause by saying his mother gave him “the energy to stand before you,” but it was FDR’s programs that gave Americans the safety net.

Based on many conversations with Democrats after the Hall of Fame event, my impression is that activists are mostly pleased with our presidential field. Even among diehard supporters of this or that candidate, I heard very little hostility expressed about any of the rivals–a marked contrast to my memories of the campaign before the 2008 Iowa caucuses.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention Representative Dave Loebsack’s speech. The only Democrat left in Iowa’s Congressional delegation took the stage early in the evening, before Pam Jochum. He expressed sympathy for all the spouses and partners of politically active people, joking that the first time he ran for office (against incumbent Representative Jim Leach in 2006), his wife thought one campaign would get this “out of his system.”

Loebsack also asked all of the attendees to give a hand to the wait staff working hard in the hall, acknowledging he picked up that idea from Jesse Jackson.

Linn County was in Loebsack’s district for his first three terms in Congress, so he reflected on representing the area and paid tribute to Hall of Fame inductee Kay Halloran, who was mayor of Cedar Rapids at the time of the devastating 2008 floods.

Referring to the presidential race, Loebsack invoked the U.S. Supreme Court as a key reason we need to elect a Democratic president in 2016. Amen to that.

Toward the end of his speaking time, Loebsack sharply criticized Branstad’s education funding vetoes. Like I said, that was a common refrain throughout the evening.

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