Michael Schiffer is guest-blogging for The Washington Note this week from Iowa. While he is attending many different political events in the state and offering commentary, he is transparent about the fact that he is campaigning on the side for Senator Barack Obama. He has committed to be as objective as possible in covering the competition.
Hillary Clinton‘s “Pick a President” tour — her final dash for the finish line in Iowa — rolled through Iowa City late last night.
The Senator went on stage before a responsive, respectable, respectful, though not wildly effusive, crowd of about 500 or so at about 9:30 PM last night — her fouth or fifth event of the day — and delivered a solid, if uninspiring, performance touting her 35 years of experience and her readiness to deal with “the pile of problems” — the known knowns and the unknown knowns, as it were — that will be on the Oval Office desk come 12 noon on January 20, 2009.
The crowd, which, as a friend remarked, was more women than men and more gray or bald than otherwise, was warmed up by “Betty-O” (“thank you, Betty-O, from one diva to another”, as Senator Clinton remarked when she came on) who worked her way through a repertoire of Motown, Soul and late 1970s Disco — “Lady Marmalade”, “Boogie-Oogie-Ooogie”, “Think”, and, perhaps fittingly with a less than 48 hours to go, “Chain of Fools”. I’m not sure what to make of the song selections, either in terms of content or target demographic, and will let others draw their own conclusions. After Betty-O, a young campaign worker came out to try to whip the crowd-up with Hilary Trivia — including such questions as “what state next to Iowa was Hillary born in” and “in which city did Hillary say ‘Women’s rights are Human Rights?’ — and Hillary T-shirts. People were happy to get the free T-shits — $100 million gets you something — but the crowd remained less than fervent for all the games.
When Hilary walked on stage, with Chelsea — who waves to the crowd but has no speaking role at these events — and two local elected officials, the crowd was on its feet, cheering. The Senator’s voice was tired and hoarse at the edges, but she dove into her speech:
“Are you ready for change? Are you ready for universal healthcare, finally?
For a new energy future. . .For an end to the war in Iraq and brining our troops home? If you are ready for change, I am ready to lead.”
Senator Clinton then proceeded to launch into the meat of her pitch: When the next president is sworn in, “waiting on the desk will be some serious problems. . .there are lots of problems waiting for us; these are serious times.”
To underscore that she is the serious candidate for serious times, Hillary than pivoted to “Let me tell you what I have been doing for the past 35 years”, talking about her advocacy work for children; the time “when I was privileged to go to the White House in 1993 with Bill”; her failed healthcare plan (“you can learn more about someone from their failures than their success”); the Northern Ireland Peace Process; her travels to Beijing in 1995; and her time in the Senate since 2001. All the while she stressed her hard work, using healthcare issues (for children, for retirees, for the National Guard) to illustrate her accomplishments.
The upshot: “I’m not asking you to take me on faith, but to look at the record.”
She only received a tepid response, however, to one of her signature lines of the closing days of the campaign: “everyone in this campaign is talking about change. . .some believe you get it by demanding it,
others by hoping for it. . .I think you get it by working really, really hard for it.”
Looking forward the Senator ticked off the litany of issues that will animate her administration: “We need a new beginning for healthcare. . .We need a new beginning for our economy. . .” (unlike Edwards’ view of Bush’s “war on the middle class”, however, for Clinton Bush has only “undermined” the middle class, and we just need to “get back into balance”). And “We need a new beginning to get back to fiscal sanity. . .we did it in the 1990s. . .We need a new beginning on education. . .We need a new beginning to reform our government. . .We need a new beginning to restore the US role in the world and our moral standing. . .ending the war in Iraq and bringing out troops home, but do it and do it right.”
Like the other candidates in the stretch run Hillary ended her speech with a pitch to caucus for her: “I understand the way Iowans study candidates. . .kicking the tires and looking under the hood. . .At the end of the day you have to pick a president. . .I hope you caucus for me. . .If you do I promise to wage a winning campaign. . .I’ve been on the receiving end of their fire for sixteen years, and much to their dismay I’m still here. . .I will spend every day in the White House fighting for you. . .”
The speech was not met with the sort of enthusiasm that greet speeches and rallies by Obama and Edwards — although in fairness some of that could have been due to the late hour and the older crowd. And Senator Clinton’s efforts to reach the crowd are also undermined by both her campaign’s style and the Secret Service restrictions (“she will take photographs, shake hands, sign autographs”, one agent briefs those in the first row, “but I need to be able to see your hands at all time”).
She speaks from a stage separated from the crowd by velvet ropes. It looks presidential, I suppose, but it also separates her from an audience used to access.
Hillary’s biggest applause lines of the night were on health care issues: stem Cell research bought the crowd to its feet; her explanation of where she is on Iraq less so. In fact, stem cells might have been the biggest applause line of the night, which both speaks to the interests of her audience (given the demographics and that Iowa City houses a major University hospital and biomedical research center) as well as the lack of other ringing rhetoric. Her speech returned to health care again and again, getting a positive response every time, with health care issues woven throughout the narrative of her experience and her plans for change, both.
The overall effect of the speech was not inspirational, but it was reassuring. The workmanlike prose and delivery, in fact, might be seen as deliberate anti-rhetoric to underscore that she delivers not based the thing with feathers but on elbow grease, and that shines the spotlight on what she wants caucus-goers to see as the depth and breadth of her 35 years of work connected with core Democratic issues like healthcare.
The speech might not inspire — someone sitting next to us remarked how he had watched Bill work an event in western Iowa that morning that “moved the crowd to tears” — but there is no question that it checks all the boxes. For her core of supporters, party faithful looking for a restoration or those who want change, but within limits, it’s a good message.
And unlike an Obama rally where the crowd is enthused but no one knows if they will actually show up the night of the 3rd, many, if not most of these people will likely caucus.
I am less sure about the wisdom of Senator Clinton’s decision to so deeply incorporate the rhetoric of change into her final pitch. She has no choice, I suppose, but poll after poll show that when the frame for choosing between candidates is “change”, as opposed to “experience” Obama beats her handily, and Edwards, too. So the more that she reinforces that people should be voting on “change”, the worse she might end up doing, the argument that she has the experience to effect real change notwithstanding.
In the past week Obama staffers that I have been in touch with have gyrated between optimism and pessimism about the outcome here, trying to game out all the permutations and combinations of first, second, and third place finishes.
Edwards staff — perhaps reflecting reality, perhaps as part of the “Edwards has momentum spin”, or perhaps the freedom that comes from knowing that it is now all or nothing — have been serene and confident.
On the other hand, my friends with the Clinton campaign have been anxious and nervous, but determined not to show it.
Clinton can still win here — or do well enough to spin a win — but it is much too unpredictable a situation for a campaign that, by all reports, puts a premium on control.
No matter what the polls say, with another day to go everything is still very much up in the air here.
As we exited the speech the people behind me were talking. One woman said: “This was good but I have to see Edwards one more time to see who I am going to vote for. . .I think I am going to caucus for Biden in the first round, but he is not going to be viable, so probably Edwards or maybe Clinton for my second choice. . .My husband is for Edwards, my daughter for Edwards, and my son is for Obama.”
Her friend responded “I’m in the same boat: I am going to caucus for Richardson, and need to decide who I am going to vote for second. . .probably Clinton. . .but. . .”
— Michael Schiffer
Michael Schiffer is The Washington Note’s blogger for the Iowa Caucuses and is a resident of Iowa. He is a program officer in Policy Analysis and Dialogue at the Stanley Foundation based in Muscatine, Iowa — and was previously senior national security adviser and legislative director in the Office of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)