Weekend open thread: Iowa Wing Ding edition

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

More than twenty Iowa Democratic county committees put on a great "Wing Ding" in Clear Lake Friday night. The Surf Ballroom was packed to capacity, thanks to appearances by four of the five Democratic presidential hopefuls. Despite a fairly long list of speakers including candidates for U.S. House and Senate and State Senator Amanda Ragan, who was receiving an award, the Wing Ding amazingly finished ahead of schedule. I enclose below my take on all the speeches.

For those following the saga of three former Ron Paul campaign operatives, recently indicted for their role in making illegal payments to then State Senator Kent Sorenson: Russ Choma covered the prosecutors' latest court filing for Mother Jones. Prosecutors allege the operatives "were prepared to leak documents to harm Sorenson in 2012 if they couldn't obtain his endorsement for Ron Paul." An attorney for Jesse Benton acknowledged that in late 2011, his client "threatened to expose Mr. Sorenson, believing that Mr. Sorenson was trying to blackmail the 2012 RP Campaign, if Mr. Sorenson did not make up his mind on whether to commit to the Ron Paul Campaign." But the lawyer said Benton did not follow through on what he described as "a knee-jerk, emotional reaction." Of course, there would have been no reason to carry out the threat after Sorenson agreed to take the money in exchange for switching his allegiance to Paul.

I've visited Clear Lake before but never been inside the Surf Ballroom until Friday. What an incredible venue. It's famous as the last place Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper performed, but so many other legends of popular music also played there. One of the Wing Ding organizers mentioned that in 1994, there was a plan to bulldoze the place to make room for a new grocery store. Dean Snyder's family purchased the building at that time "with the intention to preserve the ballroom for all of North Iowa." The North Iowa Cultural Center and Museum operates the ballroom, which the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named a historical landmark in 2009. Every Iowa music lover or preservation buff needs to visit the Surf.

For several hours before the Wing Ding was scheduled to start, supporters of Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley engaged in the obligatory "sign war" outside the venue. Greg Hauenstein captured good pictures. I've never understood the point of that ritual. Why make your staffers and key volunteers exhausted from shouting slogans and standing around in the heat? As before last month's Hall of Fame dinner in Cedar Rapids, the Bernie Sanders campaign didn't bother to gin up a sign presence outside the Surf Ballroom. More power to them.

Iowa candidate speeches

After everyone had had a chance to fill their dinner plates, the program began with the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem, and welcoming remarks. Three Congressional candidates kicked off the political speeches, and the Wing Ding organizers gave them each only two minutes to make their case. Not an easy task!

Desmund Adams, for now the only declared Democratic candidate in Iowa's third district, went first. I thought he made good use of his time. After joking about being the "warmup act," Adams packed a lot into his two minutes. He mentioned some of his priority issues: livable wages, equal pay for equal work, paid family leave, protecting our environment, and justice for all. He thanked the other candidates on the program for being "willing to stand up and fight for what's right," and asked everyone in the audience to "give what you can," volunteer for campaigns, and spread the word, because "you're the key" to Democrats winning next year. Adams turned a somewhat muted response to his call to action into much louder applause: "You guys aren't going to clap for you? You're the key."

Two of the three Democratic candidates in Iowa's first district turned up for the Wing Ding. Cedar Rapids City Council member Monica Vernon led by noting that she declared her candidacy in January, when it was cold and "we were all stinging" from the 2014 election results. It seemed early, she acknowledged, but "it's never too early" to take on someone like GOP incumbent Rod Blum. (That's an unspoken dig at 2014 nominee Pat Murphy, who got into the IA-01 race only a few weeks ago, after Ravi Patel had dropped out.) Vernon bashed Blum for co-sponsoring a bill that would legalize employer discrimination for religious reasons. She described herself as a person of action: Iowans deserve someone who will work hard, and she will work hard.

Gary Kroeger joked that he loves hanging around Democrats, because you can talk about issues and no one calls you a Communist. He described his personal background, going to college "when it was affordable," and the progressive values that matter to him. But Kroeger warned that "being right on the issues" isn't enough for Democrats. We need to fight to win elections, going door to door. In closing, he asked everyone present to help during next year's campaigns.

The Wing Ding organizers gave each candidate for U.S. Senate three minutes to speak.

Former State Senator Tom Fiegen briefly covered his background, growing up as the oldest of eleven children on an Iowa farm. Noting that 20 percent of children live in poverty, Fiegen said the first thing he'll do is work to end child hunger. He pointed out that the next U.S. senator from Iowa will help write the next Farm Bill and promised to support local food as well as nutritional assistance programs in that bill. Then Fiegen touched on environmental issues, notably water quality. He said excessive nitrates and pollution from Roundup Ready herbicides are the major water problems facing Iowa. Fiegen then promised to work with Senator Elizabeth Warren to break up the big banks and promised to work with Bernie Sanders to pass Medicare for All (single-payer health care reform).

Soon after taking the stage, former State Representative Bob Krause joked that he's a veteran, and running against Senator Chuck Grassley provides a "target-rich environment." He criticized Grassley's votes against veterans legislation and the Violence Against Women Act, as well as his opposition to raising the minimum wage. Krause connected low wages to child poverty and poor academic achievement. I had forgotten that Krause once served on the Waterloo school board; he reminded the Wing Ding crowd of that experience and what it taught him, promising to fight to end child poverty.

I hope Fiegen and Krause will spend the next ten months talking about public policy and not taking shots at each other on social media, which has happened several times already this year.

State Senator Rob Hogg is technically only exploring the Senate race for now, but everyone expects him to run. He led by thanking "two great senators from northern Iowa," Amanda Ragan and Mary Jo Wilhelm. Many in the crowd have either voted for or volunteered for those women. Hogg touched on some key issues, including campaign finance reform, but he used a lot of his very limited time to encourage the audience that the Senate race is not hopeless. Acknowledging a "mountain to climb" against popular incumbent Grassley, Hogg listed some famous upset victories by Iowa Democrats: Representative Dave Loebsack beating a 30-year incumbent in Iowa's second district; Tom Vilsack coming from behind to win the 1998 governor's race; even Dick Clark's victory in the 1972 U.S. Senate campaign.

Kim Weaver, the newly-declared Democratic challenger to Steve King in Iowa's fourth Congressional district, was next on the program. Bleeding Heartland discussed her remarks and her candidacy here.

State Senator Amanda Ragan kept her remarks very brief as she accepted the Wing Ding committee's "Beacon of Light" award. She thanked attendees for waiting in the heat to attend the dinner, not mentioning that she had gone up and down the line looking for people who appeared to be struggling in the hot weather. Ragan brought many of them into the ballroom's side entrance, so they could be cleared by security and get into the air-conditioned building sooner. Ragan also spoke to common Democratic values, including Social Security, which is marking its 80th anniversary.

Finally, it was time for the presidential candidates.

Hillary Clinton

I've seen Clinton speak in Iowa three times during the last two months. Each appearance was better than any speech I saw her deliver during the 2007/2008 campaign. I don't know whether she simply has more confidence now or is getting better coaching, but whatever they are doing to prepare her for these events is working. Before the Wing Ding, I thought Clinton might have trouble topping her strong effort at the Hall of Fame dinner, but she crushed it again, despite a coughing fit that could easily have thrown her off her rhythm.

John Deeth, never a big Clinton fan, declared after the Wing Ding, "It was Hillary's night and Hillary's crowd." It's worth noting that the majority of the 30 counties Clinton carried in the 2008 caucuses are among the counties whose committees organized the Wing Ding. But Clinton could have fallen flat anyway with the kind of stump speech she gave in 2007. Now she has better pacing, tells better jokes, and modulates her voice far more effectively.

You can read the full text of Clinton's speech (as delivered) here. She led with Senator Tom Harkin's just-announced endorsement--a big deal, since he did not publicly support any candidate before the 2008 caucuses (his wife, Ruth Harkin, was an early Hillary backer). Clinton mentioned plans to spend Saturday with Harkin at the Iowa State Fair.

Soon after, she drew one of the biggest laughs of the night:

So I am delighted, delighted to be here with you and with my fellow candidates.  And I know that people across the country are following us on social media as well.  By the way, you may have seen that I recently launched a Snapchat account.  I love it.  I love it.  Those messages disappear all by themselves.

Ben Jacobs commented, "Hillary Clinton's Snapchat joke tonight feels uneasily like Gary Hart's dare to the press to follow him around." I heard it quite differently. Hart was bluffing in an attempt to show he had nothing to hide. Clinton was ridiculing her obsessed critics, and by extension, the journalists they influence.

The next part of Clinton's speech focused on the recently-signed deal to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. She mentioned her work as secretary of state "to build a global coalition against Iran and impose the most crippling sanctions in history," which "gave us the leverage necessary to get to the negotiating table." Choosing her words carefully, Clinton acknowledged "good faith" disagreement about the Iran deal but expressed strong support for President Obama, because the agreement is "the only way to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon."

In a subtle dig at those who focus on scandals rather than substantive issues, Clinton wrapped up the Iran portion of her speech by saying,

Now, I know this is a little heavy for a Wing Ding dinner, but I bring it up because when you get past all the sound bites and the slogans, politics is about the choices we make - the choices we make about our leaders and our future.  And this election has to be about who best understands the pressures facing our families and the challenges facing our nation - who has the right vision for America's future, and the skills and tenacity to lead us there.

The next part of her speech was familiar territory, talking about hard economic times and weaving in some family history to demonstrate that she can relate to the struggles of ordinary people. She touted her "major new plan to make college more affordable" and contrasted those ideas with the GOP agenda:

"Now, of course, Republicans rushed to condemn my plan.  In Wisconsin, Scott Walker has slashed funding for public universities and rolled back financial programs.  Marco Rubio would cut Pell Grants for students who need the help, while cutting taxes for multi-millionaires who don't.  And Jeb Bush?  As governor he oversaw a tuition increase of almost 60 percent.  And at the end of his term, non-partisan experts said Florida deserved an F for college affordability.  

"Now, none of this should be surprising.  The debate over college this week was a microcosm of the broader choice in this election.  Republicans want to stack the deck even more for those at the top.  Their policies would rip away the progress we've made.  You saw this in the Republican debates the other night.  

"Seventeen candidates, and not one of them said a single word about how to address the rising the cost of college.  Not one.

"They also had nothing to say about equal pay for women, or paid family leave or quality preschool for our kids so they can get the best start in life.  No solutions for skyrocketing prescription drug costs.  No commitment to end the era of mass incarceration or to say, loudly and clearly, yes, black lives matter.

That "black lives matter" reference drew one of the loudest ovations of the evening from the overwhelmingly white crowd. Clinton continued:

And you had to listen really, really hard, because they said almost nothing at all about how to promote clean energy or take on climate change.

"What do the Republican candidates stand for?  Well, I'll tell you - you know already: cutting taxes for the super-wealthy; letting big corporations write their own rules.  And that's basically it.

"And we've heard it all before, and it doesn't work.  Trickle-down economics has to be one of the worst ideas of the 1980s, right up there with New Coke, shoulder pads, and big hair.  I lived through that, there are photographs, and trust me, we don't want to go back there.

"Now, I know most of the attention these days is on a certain flamboyant frontrunner.  But don't let the circus distract you.  If you look at their policies, most of the other candidates are just Trump without the pizazz or the hair.  Yes, Mr. Trump says outrageous and hateful things about immigrants, but how many of the other candidates disagree with his platform?  None of the leading candidates support a real path to citizenship.  When they talk about legal status that's code for second-class status.  It's the same when it comes to women's health and women's rights.  Mr. Trump's words are appalling, but so are the policies of the other candidates.  Senator Rubio brags about wanting to deny victims of rape and incest access to an abortion.  Governor Bush says $500 million is too much to spend on women's health.  And they all want to defund Planned Parenthood.

Clinton went on to talk about policies she mentions in every stump speech: equal pay, family leave, affordable childcare. While critics dismiss them as "women's issues," Clinton promised to keep talking about them, because "When you shortchange women you shortchange families, and when you shortchange families you shortchange America."

Then Clinton turned to the Citizens United ruling. She and the other Democratic candidates have talked about that disastrous U.S. Supreme Court ruling many times, but this section of Clinton's speech was new to me and very powerful.

I want to tell you, Citizens United was about me.  Think how that makes me feel.  A lot of people don't know that, but the backstory is eye-opening.  The Republicans - (coughing) --


HILLARY CLINTON:  I got some.  I've been talking too much.  You see --


HILLARY CLINTON:  Thank you.  Before the 2008 presidential election, a group of right-wing operatives made a hit-job film with the goal of stopping a Democrat from taking the White House, and then used shadowy money to promote it.  That film was called "Hillary: The Movie."  I can tell you, it was no 'Field of Dreams' or 'Bridges of Madison County.'  They took aim at me, but they ended up damaging our entire democracy.  We can't let them pull that same trick again.  

"So for the past eight years, Republicans and their allies have attacked President Obama with everything they've got.  Now I'm in their crosshairs again.  But the real target isn't me; it's everything you and I believe in.  It's a progressive agenda that will help hardworking families get ahead.  It's a fairer tax code and tougher regulations on powerful corporations.  That's the fight we're in.

"Now, they'll try to tell you this is about Benghazi, but it's not.  Benghazi was a tragedy.  Four dedicated public servants lost their lives, and we have to be focused on how to prevent future tragedies.  But let's be clear: seven exhaustive investigations, including a Republican-controlled House Armed Services Committee and the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee, have already debunked all of the conspiracy theories.  It's not about Benghazi.  

"You know what?  It's not about emails or servers either.  It's about politics.  I will do my part to provide transparency to Americans.  That's why I'm insisting 55,000 pages of my emails be published as soon as possible.  I've even offered to answer questions for months before Congress.  I've just provided my server to the Justice Department.  But here's what I won't do: I won't get down in the mud with them.  I won't play politics with national security or dishonor the memory of those who we lost.  I won't pretend that this is anything other than what it is - the same old partisan games we've seen so many times before.  

"So I don't care how many super PACs and Republicans pile on.  I've been fighting for families and underdogs my entire life and I'm not going to stop now.  

Loud applause and chants of "Hillary!" erupted in the hall. Clinton had more to say before wrapping up, but that section just quoted was the highlight in my opinion.

Some journalists sound skeptical about Clinton's tactic to dismiss scandals as partisan warfare, but I expect that framing to be highly effective for the front-runner. Every time she talks about things that affect people's lives and the other side responds with e-mails and Benghazi, Republicans will look out of touch--at least to that small percentage of voters who haven't already made up their minds about Clinton.  

The first trickle of departures from the Surf Ballroom started as Clinton left the stage. I can't understand why any politically engaged person wouldn't stay to listen to the other candidates, even if just out of curiosity.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders had a tough act to follow, but he delivered a typically forceful speech. I think the time constraints (Wing Ding organizers held presidential candidates to 20 minutes) helped Sanders focus; his normal stump speech can run over an hour. The Sanders campaign didn't release the full transcript, but covered the main points on the campaign blog.

Sanders talked about his key issues: income inequality and the need for a "political revolution" to fight the excessive influence of millionaires and billionaires, who are turning the U.S. into an "oligarchic form of government." He spoke about raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, public financing of elections, overturning Citizens United, criminal justice reform and an end to the "militarization" of police, breaking up the big banks, and a trillion-dollar investment in infrastructure projects. The crowd loved his call for immigration reform and a single-payer health care system that would acknowledge health care is a "right, not a privilege." Sanders didn't directly criticize Clinton, but coming out against the Keystone XL pipeline was one of his biggest applause lines. (Clinton has famously declined to take a position on the pipeline or tar sands oil, a hot-button issue for environmentalists.)

Another line that drew an unspoken contrast with Clinton and resonated with the Wing Ding crowd: "I voted against the war in Iraq." Sanders bashed Republicans who seem "hell-bent" on getting us into other wars, noting that as the former chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, he has seen the cost of war. Sanders strongly endorsed the Iran nuclear deal and drew loud applause when he said we must try to solve conflicts without war: "War is a last resort."  

After talking about enormous numbers of people coming to his rallies (15,000 in Seattle, 28,000 in Portland, Oregon, and 27,500 in Los Angeles the previous weekend), Sanders delivered one of my favorite passages of Friday night's speech:

"The media often ask me why we seem to be generating so much enthusiasm and why we have so much energy on this campaign. My answer is that the American people are sick and tired of establishment politics, establishment economics and establishment media. They understand that corporate greed is destroying our economy. They understand that American politics is now dominated by super PACs and that the mainstream media is prepared to discuss everything except those important issues facing the American people."

No kidding.

Sanders cites more statistics than the typical candidate in a stump speech. Two of the most impressive: his campaign has received 350,000 individual contributions, more than any other presidential campaign. The average size of a donation to Sanders: $31.20. Sanders said he decided to raise money "the old-fashioned way" because he didn't want a super-PAC. He didn't want to be beholden to millionaires and billionaires.

My companion on the ride to and from the Wing Ding, a Clinton supporter, didn't care for Sanders's somewhat harsh, rapid-fire speaking style. Although Sanders has lived in Vermont for decades, his voice is all New York: fast talker, fills the room. I love listening to him and suspect that his unusual (for a politician) speaking style is the main reason he comes across as authentic. In contrast, some presidential candidates touted as great communicators strike me as phony and heavily coached (looking at you, Marco Rubio).

More Democrats left the ballroom after Sanders finished his speech. Come on, people.

Martin O'Malley

The former governor of Maryland spoke next. The big news was that longtime member of Congress Berkley Bedell is supporting O'Malley's candidacy. Now 94 years old, Bedell represented much of northwest Iowa from 1975 through 1986, when he retired because of a mysterious illness that turned out to be Lyme Disease. In any case, Iowa Democrats of a certain age love Bedell. He's always been a strong progressive, and he's a great catch for O'Malley, who told the Wing Ding crowd that Bedell is passionate about fighting climate change and getting big money out of politics.

Aside from talking about Bedell, O'Malley didn't deviate much from the stump speech he's been delivering in Iowa since April. You can read the full text (as prepared) here. It's a classic speech in structure, starting with "the most important question now at the center of our table of democracy," rebuilding the American dream. O'Malley then introduced himself by weaving together his political background with issues of great importance to Democratic constituencies:

I am not the only candidate for President who holds progressive values,...

But I am the only candidate for President with fifteen years of executive experience -- as a big City Mayor and as a Governor -- turning those progressive values into actions.

Getting things done.

New leadership.

Action, not words.  

In Baltimore, we saved lives by reducing record high violence to record lows;  we fought to free thousands of our courageous neighbors from the scourge of drug addiction.

Actions, not words.

When I ran for Governor of Maryland, I set out bold goals. And I did something you're not supposed to do in politics -- I put deadlines on those goals.

And I led my state forward to make nation-leading progress even in the face of a recession.

Instead of cutting public education funding, we increased funding for public education by 37%, and -- memo to Governor Branstad -- ...

We made our public schools the best public schools in America for five years in a row!

Actions, not words.

In Maryland, we defended the highest median income in the nation all through the recession and created jobs at a faster rate than our neighbors north and south.

Actions, not words.

We froze College tuition four years in a row to make college more affordable.

Actions, not words.

We passed a living wage, and we raised the minimum wage.

Actions, not words.

We expanded family leave and voting rights, we passed Driver's licenses for New American immigrants, and we banned the sale of assault weapons.

Actions, not words.

We fought for the DREAM Act, we fought for Marriage Equality - and we won.  

Actions, not words.

O'Malley then shifted to economic issues, talking about stagnating real wages and the lack of accountability for those who caused the 2008 financial meltdown: "What have we come to as a nation when you can get pulled over for a broken tail light in our country, but if you wreck the nation's economy you are untouchable." (As during the Hall of Fame dinner, I felt that O'Malley needs to direct that question to President Barack Obama's Justice Department.) He calls for reinstating Glass-Steagall as one way to rein in the financial giants: "if a bank is too big to fail, too big to jail, and too big to manage, then it's too damn big, and it needs to be broken up before it breaks us up."

The next section of O'Malley's speech focused on his fifteen goals for rebuilding the American dream. I challenge any Democrat to find one thing to disagree with in O'Malley's proposals: increase wages, expand Social Security, pass comprehensive immigration reform, move aggressively toward clean energy as a way to create jobs and combat climate change, reduce student debt, and so on.

O'Malley then delivered some some prime-grade red meat, contrasting his agenda with the Republican agenda. The funniest part of that riff alluded to the GOP ignoring widely-accepted science: "Give them a few more weeks and they'll be shunning Copernicus." O'Malley closed out his speech with more upbeat, can-do language. Every time I've seen him, he has gotten the crowd going, though his call-and-response "I voted for you" doesn't really work for me.

Lincoln Chafee

Just like at the Hall of Fame dinner, I was embarrassed by the number of Democrats who lacked the courtesy to listen to the final speaker on the program. The Wing Ding was running ahead of schedule at that point. Even if you've already committed to another candidate, would it kill you to hear Chafee out?

Anyway, Chafee would win the "most-improved" title by a mile. He didn't even use up half of his allotted time in Cedar Rapids last month and failed to give the audience many reasons he deserved their serious consideration. Chafee's longer and more substantive speech at the Wing Ding held my attention. I haven't seen a transcript, but if I find one, I will post the most compelling parts.

Chafee acknowledged the strength of his rivals, pointing out that the Democratic field of presidential candidates has a combined 92 years of elected experience, while the current Republican front-runner has zero. He noted that he's the only presidential candidate in either party who has been a mayor, a governor, and a U.S. senator. (He didn't mention that he wasn't a Democrat while holding any of those offices.) In a dig at Clinton, Chafee observed that he "never had any scandals" and "had high ethical standards" throughout his career in public service, which is "hard in Rhode Island." True, true, and true: corruption in Rhode Island politics is legendary.

Chafee highlighted "tough votes" he took in the Senate, which would appeal to a Democratic crowd: opposing the authorization to use force in Iraq, against confirming Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Chafee mentioned his vote against the war in Iraq at the Hall of Fame dinner, but on Friday he went into more detail about the "tragedy" of that war and why he opposed it from the beginning. He went down to Langley to see what evidence the CIA had uncovered regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and saw "They had nothing." Chafee asserted that there was never any "faulty intelligence" leading us to war. Rather, it was the Bush administration's plan to go into Iraq, and Republicans still aren't telling the truth about that.

Chafee spent part of his time explaining his support for the Iran deal, not only as the best way to stop that country from getting nuclear capability, but also as positive for the whole Middle East region. For instance, he said, Russia is not assisting U.S. diplomatic efforts in Syria, a "spin-off" from the multi-lateral Iran negotiations.

Although I don't see much of an opening for Chafee in the Democratic primaries, he brings some important points to the table.

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