CLEAR LAKE, Iowa — Fifteen minutes and one standing ovation into one of the most impassioned speeches of her campaign, Hillary Clinton was leaning into the podium and yelling, literally yelling, about the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, when her voice dropped. She was silent. Then a cough. And another cough.
Cough, cough. Clinton bent over the mic and told the crowd here at the annual Iowa Democratic Wing Ding dinner, “You guys have been revving me up too much.
Cough. “But I want to tell you. Citizens United was about me.” Cough, cough, cough. “A lot of people don’t know that. But,” she paused, “the backstory is eye-opening. Republicans….” Cough. Clinton took a sip of water. The crowd cheered.
Her voice was hoarse, quiet, and gravely. “I’ve been talking too much,” Clinton said. A man in the crowd yelled back, “Not enough!” Clinton thanked him and, sounding not unlike the narrator in a trailer for a very serious and scary film, she went on to describe a movie made eight years ago by the same conservative nonprofit organization, Citizens United, that served as the plaintiff in the case.
“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 shadow 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.”
This, coughing fit aside, was the bent of Clinton’s speech here on Friday: intense, dramatic, and focused almost entirely on Republicans and what she cast as one big witch-hunt into her candidacy — be it through the investigation into the terrorist attack in Benghazi, or the inquiries into the personal email account she kept as secretary of state. She dismissed it all as a sequel to Hillary: The Movie.
“They took aim at me, but they ended up damaging our entire Democracy,” she told the crowd of 2,100. “We can’t let them pull that same trick again.”
“They’ll try to tell you that this is about Benghazi. But it’s not. Benghazi was a tragedy.” Clinton went on. “But let’s be clear: Seven exhaustive investigations — including by the Republican-controlled Armed House Services Committee and the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee — have already debunked all the conspiracy theories. It’s not about Benghazi.”
“You know what,” she added, almost as an aside, “It’s not about emails or servers either. It’s about politics.”
Clinton cast herself as cooperative, willing to discuss the questions that have come up in recent months about the email server and account she maintained for her government work for four years in the State Department.
“I will do my part to provide transparency to Americans. That’s why I’ve insisted 55,000 pages of my emails be published as soon as possible,” Clinton said. "I’ve even offered to answer questions for months before Congress. I’ve just provided my server to the Justice Department.”
By now, her voice was back, and she was yelling again.
“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,” said Clinton. “I won’t pretend that this is anything other than what it is: the same old partisan games that we’ve seen so many times before.”
Clinton was the first to speak among four other Democratic candidates at the country fundraiser on Friday. Her 20 minutes were followed by Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and Lincoln Chafee. (Jim Webb, the fifth Democratic presidential candidate, did not attend the Wing Ding.) Clinton’s speech received the most enthusiasm from the crowd, which gave her three standing ovations and multiple rounds of “Hill-a-ree” chants.
At one point, to loud applause, Clinton urged the audience to recognize that “a certain flamboyant frontrunner,” Donald Trump may say “outrageous and hateful things about immigrants,” Clinton said. “But how many of the other candidates disagree with his platform?”
There were two categories of speeches given here in the Surf Ballroom, a historic 1930s dance hall with ocean murals on the walls and a sparkling disco ball floating from the ceiling. From Clinton, voters got direct jabs at Republicans, and from the other candidates, they got something of a more veiled variety: suggestive hits on Clinton and her positions, or refusal to take positions.
Sanders highlighted his opposition for the Keystone Pipeline project, his distance from super PACs, his vote in the Senate against the Iraq War. O’Malley played up his objection to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and called for “new leadership,” and “actions, not words.” And Chafee, who received the most muted response, told the crowd, with Clinton sitting in the fifth row, that he was most proud of the fact that he “never had any scandals” while serving as a governor and senator.
But not much of it seemed to matter.
As Chafee finished his speech, voters were already edging closer to Clinton to be in position for pictures and handshakes.
Amanda Copps, 23, from Sheboygan, Wisc., was the first voter Chafee saw as he stepped off stage. “Hello, uh…” He paused, seemed to consider stopping, then moved away. Copps mumbled something, but Chafee was already gone.
“I didn’t really know what to say." She shrugged and waited for her photo with Clinton.