Bernie Sanders Has Finally Begun Challenging Hillary Clinton’s Record

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Democratic Presidential Candidates Attend Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Dinner
Photo: Scott Olson/2015 Getty Images

In 2007, then-senator Barack Obama famously used Iowa’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner to differentiate himself from then-front-runner Hillary Clinton, putting his campaign on a trajectory to eventually overtake Clinton and win the Iowa caucuses and ultimately, the Democratic nomination for president. Saturday night and eight years later, another underdog, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, attempted to use the same dinner to do the the same thing against the same opponent. While Sanders did not refer to his rival by name, for the first time in his campaign he worked to vigorously distinguish himself and his record from that of Clinton’s, while also closely aligning himself with Obama. “About eight years ago all of the political experts talked about how another Democratic candidate for president just couldn’t win, he was unelectable,” the self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist told the crowd, “well Iowa, I think we are going to prove the pundits wrong again.”

Within Sanders’s speech was the most pronounced challenge he has yet made against Clinton, whom he implied, as Obama had in 2007, was more driven by polls than principle. Sanders had previously vowed to not attack Clinton, but Saturday on issues like opposing the Iraq War, Keystone Pipeline, and Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, as well as supporting gay marriage, Sanders argued that he had held the right progressive positions at the right time — from the beginning — regardless of those positions’ popularity, as opposed to others like Clinton. 

Enjoying solid nationwide support among Democrats, a lead in Iowa polls, and fresh off what many have deemed winning performances at the first Democratic debate and last week’s 11-hour House Benghazi committee hearing, Clinton was also trying to use the dinner to pave a path to Iowa victory, praising Obama and, quite pointedly, Vice President Joe Biden, who has now removed himself from consideration for the Democratic nomination and whose supporters are now theoretically up for grabs. Clinton’s speech mostly resembled her current stump rhetoric — attacking Republicans like Donald Trump while promising to preserve Obama’s accomplishments and fight for Democratic ideals — but she also sought to differentiate herself from Sanders the same way she had from Obama eight years ago, insisting she was not only a progressive but one who could actually produce results, as well as implying that she, a “proud democrat” (as opposed to the independent Sanders), was the more electable candidate. Both Sanders and Martin O’Malley, who trails his two opponents by a wide margin but also spoke at the event, implicitly questioned Clinton’s progressive bonafides.

In a related attempt to capture Obama’s supporters and his 2007 momentum, on Saturday Clinton’s campaign also rolled out an endorsement from the architect of Obama’s first presidential campaign, David Plouffe, who acknowledged that while “during the most intense days of the 2008 primary, I would never have imagined” supporting Clinton, he and other Team Obama veterans had since come around on the candidate, calling Clinton not only “the right person to protect President Obama’s legacy” but someone who will make history as Obama had, and “do big and important things” in the White House.