Politics past, present and future were on stage at the 36th Annual Harkin Steak Fry Sunday afternoon.
Speakers, including headliner Vice President Joe Biden, paid homage to retiring five-term Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, defended President Obama’s threat to use military force in Syria and pulled back the curtain, if only slightly, on future presidential campaigns.
The steak fry, a fundraiser for Harkin’s political action committee and a showcase for Iowa Democratic candidates, didn’t disappoint more than 1,300 people who showed up at the fairgrounds in Indianola under less-than sunny skies.
Harkin set the mood for the day as he poked fun at Republicans. Rattling off a list of potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates who have or are planning Iowa visits, he elicited groans, then chuckles as he ended with: “The clown car is filling up pretty rapidly.”
His comments about 4th District Rep. Steve King were not so good-natured. Harkin recalled that Iowans had recently observed the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech. Unfortunately, Harkin said, Rep. King was making news, too, for his disparaging comments about the children of immigrants.
“I am the proud child of an immigrant mother and I know which King speaks for me,” Harkin shouted.
San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro spoke of his immigrant heritage, too. Harkin billed Castro as a rising star in Democratic politics and compared his 2012 Democratic National Convention speech to one delivered by a relatively unknown Obama in 2004.
Castro, who was celebrating his 39th birthday, told his Iowa audience his grandmother, who as a young woman worked in the fields picking crops, would be proud that her grandson “is here where you pick presidents.”
Biden maintained a delicate balance as he defended his boss’ unpopular threat to use military force to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons against rebels and laying the groundwork for a possible 2016 presidential bid.
Although he didn’t directly address Obama’s threat to use military force in Syria, Biden told Iowa Democratic stalwarts who traditionally have been anti-war that it was that threat that prompted the Russians to propose the international community locate and secure those chemical weapons.
“From the outset in foreign policy, (Obama) was determined, as I was, that the best way to defend our national interest was working in concert with the international community, not at odds with it,” he said. “We know, he knows, we are much stronger when we act in concert with our allies in the intern community
That’s exactly how Obama “has stepped up to deal with the atrocities that are occurring in Syria,” Biden said.
Harkin, who never endorsed military strikes against Syria, seemed to endorse the diplomacy-through-strength approach. The agreement with the international community to secure and dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons is occurring because of Obama’s strength, he said.
“And we didn’t lose one American life,” Harkin shouted. “That’s leadership.”
Geri Malloy, a Dubuque Democrat who has attended more steak fries than she could count, wasn’t as supportive of possible military action.
“We’ve paid the price of Bush’s wars until there is nothing left to give,” Malloy said. As a result, education, health care and other Democratic priorities have suffered, the retired school teacher said.
But Rod Powell of West Des Moines believed that the president’s Syria policy will not be a deal-killer for Biden if he runs in 2016.
“Ultimately, I think the president is going to come out looking pretty good on Syria,” he said.
Jack McHale of Omaha didn’t want to see military action against Syria, “but when a dictator does something like that, there has to be a reaction.” However, he prefers the reaction come from the international community, rather than from the U.S. acting alone.
In the end, it was Biden’s support of gay marriage – “I could not remain silent” — and women’s rights that won the loudest applause.
“When it comes to women, it’s not just about choice and equal pay,” Biden said bringing the crowd to its feet, “I am absolutely determined that my daughter and my four granddaughters have every single, solitary opportunity that my sons and grandsons have.”
That sort of talk seemed to suggest Biden is considering a third run for president in 2016. He didn’t address that topic, but his appearance at the steak fry seemed to be a signal that he hasn’t ruled it out, according to Powell, who worked on Harkin’s 1972 campaign and has been attending steak fries since 1988.
“The fact that he’s here makes clear that he’s giving (2016) some thought and he’s not burning any bridges,” Powell said. “He would be a formidable nominee. The question is whether he could get the nomination.”
Munson, however, wasn’t sure 2016 was the reason for the Biden appearance.
“Perhaps,” he said, “but it could just be he came to honor an old friend.”
Malloy expressed the conflicted sentiments of many Iowa Democrats.
“Hillary has my heart, but Biden’s always been up there, too,” she said.