Democrats model political civility in Iowa town hall

Civility made a rare appearance Monday night at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, as the three Democratic presidential candidates submitted to a final public interrogation before next Monday's Iowa precinct caucuses.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley left the insults and personal attacks to the Republican debaters on their tumultuous stage. The result was a welcome exposition of why each of the Democrats wants to be nominated.


For two hours, CNN moderator Chris Cuomo invited serious questions from mostly undecided Iowa voters in the audience, and the answers were uniformly without bombast. For once in this overheated political season, voters heard responses enabling them to make intelligent judgments on the candidates.

Some criticism came afterward from the punditry and social media that the town hall format, in which each candidate was questioned separately without cross-examination, produced no conflict and hence gave each a free ride.


But on the positive side, much light was shed. Mr. Sanders was asked to defend himself as a self-described "democratic socialist." He did a very credible job describing his core belief in social justice in the workplace, and his fight against economic inequality at the hands of Wall Street banks and other interests.

His answer dismissed the conservative bugaboo equating socialism with communism, enabling him to make a reasoned pitch for "Medicare for all," his health care approach run by the federal government, just as Social Security now exists.

He made the case that it would cover all Americans, whereas 29 million are uncovered under President Obama's Affordable Care Act, arguing it would be half as expensive to recipients. He acknowledged they would be taxed for it but said their payments would be half the premiums they would no longer pay to private insurance companies.

Ms. Clinton in a sober and temperate response argued that the country had already gone through a difficult fight in launching and now implementing what is called Obamacare. She contended voters would have no stomach for repeating that battle, especially if the Republicans remained in control of Congress and in power in most state houses.

The exchange was entirely without rancor on either side, thanks in part to CNN's neutral format, and involving actual Iowa voters was an admirable model for future candidate appearances, at least in terms of generating light more than heat.

In the same vein, CNN aired television commercials produced by the Sanders and Clinton campaigns and solicited comment from each rival candidate. Both strongly approved and praised the other as fair and examples of legitimate contributions to the discussion. In all, if there was any winner in this last Iowa town hall session before the caucuses, it was the Democratic Party for its participants' adult behavior throughout.

Ms. Clinton received a bonus earlier in the day from Mr. Obama with fulsome praise that was all but an endorsement of her candidacy. Mr. Sanders for his part may have boosted his foreign policy credentials by again pointing out that in 2002 he had opposed the invasion of Iraq, which Ms. Clinton had voted for. She rather lamely observed that "I have a much longer history than one vote, which I said (later) was a mistake." In all this, Mr. O'Malley again came off as a game but irrelevant also-ran.

The matter of Ms. Clinton's emails, kept on a separate server, drew a question. She repeated she had made all of them public and had done nothing illegal. Her performance throughout was confident and illustrative of her broad grasp of foreign policy, generally embracing the Obama administration in which she served.


The approaching Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary eight days later may well prolong the Clinton-Sanders competition well into the state contests in the South that her campaign has touted as a firewall for her formerly presumed coronation as the Democratic nominee.

If so, it's to be hoped that the civility of the Drake University town hall, and its substantive content, will continue to be the pattern. It may be too much, though, to expect see Messrs. Trump and Cruz and the Republican gang clean up their so-far deplorable act.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is