Hillary Clinton is in the political fight of her life
This is a tale of two Clintons.
Not the politicians, but the eastern Iowa town where both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders rallied their caucus-goers on Saturday, just nine days before the first votes are cast in the 2016 election.
One candidate campaigned in a brightly lit elementary school where a warm and fawning audience was penned in by large screens telling us Hillary was Fighting For Us.
The other campaigned in the dark basement of a Masonic center where a hot and raucous audience (twice the size of Clinton’s) was fist-pumping its way to a revolutionary Future To Believe In.
One crowd was full of precinct captains organizing methodically for Clinton’s coronation; the other included at least two dozen canvassers who had driven several hours from Chicago to cheer their socialist hero.
One crowd offered more compliments than questions to the candidate herself, staging several attempts at a standing ovation. The other crowd was so fired up they only sat down after the candidate had been talking for some minutes.
One candidate stressed her experience in the Situation Room, assessing terrorist threats against Barack Obama’s inauguration and making fateful decisions about the assassination of Osama bin Laden.
The other barely mentioned national security.
One campaign played Katy Perry and Jill Scott; the other played Willie Nelson and David Bowie.
As they enter their final week of campaigning in Iowa, the two Democratic frontrunners are turning out very different versions of the same party in the same state. Both can make a credible claim to feeling that victory is within reach, depending on which polls you choose to believe.
For Clinton, victory in Iowa would go a long way to silence her Democratic doubters and deliver a reality check to the unexpectedly strong challenge from the proudly socialist senator from Vermont. Her campaign was particularly excited by its Des Moines Register endorsement on Saturday, as the leading Iowa newspaper praised the depth and breadth of “her knowledge and experience”.
For Sanders, victory in Iowa would send shockwaves through the party establishment and suggest that the party’s base was more interested in progressive idealism than presidential power. Sanders is heading to a resounding victory in New Hampshire, next door to his home state of Vermont, setting up epic battles to secure pole position in Nevada and South Carolina in the second half of February.
In these final days of the Iowa campaign, the two candidates have chosen to model themselves on two different Democratic presidents. But in both cases, the comparisons are not entirely convincing or flattering.
Clinton’s economic plan now amounts to promising a return to her husband’s boom years of the 1990s, including the former president as some kind of chief economic adviser, a return to the wage and job growth of that decade, and a balanced budget. Compared to her stump performance of eight years ago, Hillary Clinton is a vastly better candidate who can retell some of her husband’s best stories with a Clintonian sense of timing.
But more often than not, she ends up sounding like her husband’s vice-president. Al Gore built much of his 2000 campaign on the theme of fighting: he would fight on so many issues that it was hard to keep track of his enemies. He would fight against the Republicans, for working families, and for America’s future.
Hillary Clinton would likewise fight the healthcare industry and its drug price-gouging, fight Wall Street and the tax-dodging evils of carried interest, and fight for the middle class against tax increases (which she says are the likely result of the Sanders revolution). In a dangerous world of Trump and Sanders, Clinton is the only thing that stands between us and the fall of the Roman empire.
In contrast, her opponent shamelessly compares himself to Obama at every turn. He compared recent Clinton attacks on his campaign to the Clinton attacks directed at Obama in early 2008. He trusted “the people of Iowa” to ignore them, as they had eight years ago. He shunned outside money and, like Obama, celebrated small donors.
Even his slogan – and its white-on-blue font – is designed to mimic Obama’s campaigns: from Obama’s Change We Can Believe In to Sanders’ A Future to Believe In.
The only problem for Sanders is that his central policies are nothing Obama could believe in. Sanders proposes “a massive federal jobs program” of infrastructure investment, a British-style single-payer health system, and free tuition at public colleges and universities.
Beyond the enormous cost and ambition of his proposals, there is little Obama-like about Sanders’ political tone and style.
Where Obama presented himself as a uniter of red and blue America in 2008, Sanders seems to relish a them-and-us struggle; where Obama was reluctant to name his opponents, Sanders returns repeatedly to name and shame his ideological opposites.
“Former president Bill Clinton has been running around the country and the other day he said you know, Bernie Sanders is angry,” Sanders said in Clinton, Iowa. “Well, you know what, it’s true. I am angry. And the American people are angry.
“What Trump is doing with the anger that he sees is that he is using it to scapegoat minorities. What he is doing is trying to divide us up … What we are saying, which is profoundly different, is that when we stand together as a people, black and white, Latino and Asian American; when we stand together, gay and straight, male and female, people born in this country and people who have come from another country; when we stand together there is nothing that we cannot accomplish.”
In almost the next sentence, Sanders went on to vilify Wall Street, corporate America, corporate media and a handful of wealthy families – notably the Walton family of Walmart fame in Arkansas. (Left unstated was Clinton’s membership of the Walmart board of directors for several years.)
“Where’s Robin Hood?” shouted one Sanders supporter at the back of the crowd.
“Let’s get torches,” shouted another.
It is hard to recall a time in 2008 when candidate Obama – or his supporters – adopted the same tone and tactics of vilification as he was trying to win his party’s nomination.
In fact, his resistance to delivering this kind of personal attack was a recurring source of friction with his senior advisers, and a repeated point of criticism from none other than the Clinton campaign. If he wasn’t prepared to be mean to Republicans, how on earth could he expect to negotiate with them in Washington?
Obama was so far away from Sanders-style socialism that he refused to embrace the “universal” part of healthcare reform, and attacked the idea of mandating people to buy insurance.
Iowa nice, this isn’t. But then, if the out-of-state volunteers are anything to go by, the Sanders crowd may be animated by people who cannot vote in the caucus. That would set up the kind of challenge Howard Dean faced in 2004, when his huge get-out-the-vote effort – known as “The Perfect Storm” – sank into a disastrous third place.
On many issues, Clinton and Sanders are competing with one other to sound the toughest against the kind of opponents that animate Democratic primary and caucus voters. Both have portrayed Republicans as an almost mortal threat to the middle class and to the environment. Both have been outraged by Wall Street and have promised to jail – if not waterboard – financial executives.
Both have also strained to answer the other’s criticism, as the campaigns have traded more aggressive blows in recent days.
Clinton started her pitch with a potted history lesson about why the town was named Clinton: as homage to the New York governor who built the Erie Canal connecting the Hudson to the Midwest. In case the caucus voters of Iowa missed the point, she helpfully explained that big ideas – and big infrastructure – were what we should aspire to in our politicians.
Sanders started his pitch with an exhaustive overview of the latest polls: especially those head-to-heads that gave him a greater margin than Clinton in hypothetical match-ups against Republican candidates. Electability is an unusual argument for an ideological and inspirational candidate, but it is a weakness the Clinton campaign has been happy to exploit.
Still, in the tale of two Clinton events, there can be only one winner.
Hillary Clinton displayed a detailed command of the policy environment and a personal approach to storytelling that largely escaped her candidacy eight years ago. She is a far more skilled candidate than the one who lost to Barack Obama.
Whether her campaign can deliver is another question. As she walked out to talk to the crowd, the candidate could only apologize as the audio failed entirely on a slick biographical video that was meant to serve as her introduction.
Bernie Sanders has no such problems. There are no videos, slick or otherwise. In fact, there were no questions and answers either, at least in Clinton. He seems unconcerned about his promise of several large publicly funded programs, all based on taxation of corporate profits and the income of the super wealthy.
Of course, it’s not the candidate or the campaign that really matters. It’s the voters. And judging by the size and reaction of the two crowds in Clinton, the candidate who has the momentum is not the one called Clinton.
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