Senators from opposite ends of the political spectrum took to lecterns on opposite ends of Manchester yesterday to test the waters for potential presidential runs. At the NH Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders engaged in spirited back-and-forth with 200 progressive activists on topics including campaign finance, excessive military spending, and the need for a “political revolution.” Meanwhile, the Americans for the Prosperous Foundation and Citizens United hosted a parade of right-wing Senators and others trying out their stuff before an audience of several hundred conservatives at the Executive Court.
Outside the conservative event, progressive activists – mistakenly identified with the Democratic Party by the Concord Monitor – held signs lambasting proposals to weaken retirement security.
It was perhaps the first in what will soon be a typical day on the trail to the 2016 New Hampshire Presidential Primary.
The conservative event was tickets-only, but I got my request in early enough to get a seat and hear speeches from leaders of Citizens United and Americans for the Prosperous, followed by NH Senator Kelly Ayotte, Senator Mike Lee, Donald Trump, and a couple of local pols. While Trump was entertaining, audience response to Senatorial speeches about low taxes and the evils of Obamacare drew tepid responses. The speakers were ushered to the stage from behind a curtain, gave their prepared speeches, and disappeared again behind the curtain without taking any audience questions or comments.
Senator Kelly Ayotte, who seems to be on lots of lists of potential VPs, quoted former Governor Meldrim Thomson, equated freedom with low taxes, and equated the Affordable Care Act with freedom’s opposite. Applause were somewhere south of excited. Senator Lee was teacherly and likewise failed to excite the crowd.
Trump was different. Speaking without notes – and criticizing politicians who depend on speech-writers and tele-prompters – Trump wandered from point topoint, some of which departed from standard AFP scripts. For example, he defended Social Security and Medicare in an apparent dig at proposals coming from Congressman Paul Ryan. He said we need “to come up with a humane solution” to the country’s immigration system, but then drew applause for ridiculing Jeb Bush’s recent “act of love” statement and said he could build a physical barrier that would keep immigrants out. Trump said we had spent $2 trillion on the Iraq war, “for what?,” but then implied maybe it would have been worth it if we had taken over the country’s oil.
With no candidate Q&A, the event was rather boring. My colleague Addy and I left during the introduction of Congressman Louie Gohmert and headed across town.
Senator Sanders had already finished his speech and was talking about Harry Truman when we arrived at the Institute of Politics. The mood felt different, and it wasn’t just that we were in politically comfortable surroundings. The seats were all filled, except for ones emptied by people standing in line to get their turns at microphones on the left and right sides of the stage. Sanders handled questions comfortably, clearly at home in a town hall meeting environment. Decrying “a Congress largely dependent on corporatemoney,” Sanders called for development of a grassroots movement to demand change and then hold politicians accountable.
Sanders, a socialist who ran as an Independent and caucuses with the Democrats, is giving active consideration to a presidential run without saying whether he would run as an Independent or take the fight inside the Democratic Party. “Somebody has got to be talking about these issues,” he told a group of labor activists who met with him in a small conference room after the main event.
We could have returned to the Freedom Summit and perhaps would have been able to hear Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, but I had had enough for one day. I would have liked to hear Senator Paul criticize corporate welfare at a Koch-fueled forum. But I’m pretty sure all these wannabe Presidents will be back, as will the progressive protests, grassroots activists, and the reporters who love to take it all in.