Correction Appended: Oct. 11, 2007
Aaron Hornsby and his wife Christine took advantage of the Columbus Day holiday this week to bring their four tow-headed young boys to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to see Hillary Clinton give a mid-morning speech about her economic policy. Hornsby was only a little worried that the content of the speech might induce fidgeting. On the way to the auditorium he told his kids, "It's kind of like school. We're gonna be quiet and listen to Miss Hillary."
The speech was a lot like school. Within the first five minutes of the almost hour-long presentation, she had given the percentage for the disparity in pay between new jobs created now and those created ten years ago (21), the dollar amount that the average family's income has fallen over the same period (1000), the percentage by which corporate profits have increased because of slow growth in wages (64), how much of the income gains over last six years have gone to the wealthiest 10% (all), the last year at which income inequality was as great as it is now (1929), the cost of the Iraq war per day ($300,000,000) and the number of home foreclosures in the past year (1.3 million).
And you thought her husband was wonky.
Hillary Clinton may not get angry on your behalf like John Edwards or inspire you like Barack Obama. But Iowans do not take their role in the electoral process lightly, and Clinton is counting on their level of seriousness to help her turn around the one state where she struggles to maintain the lead that has come so easily in the rest of the country. The key thing that Iowa polls do have in common with others is a belief that Clinton shows the most leadership and is the best Democratic candidate to handle Iraq and protect America against terrorism, and the Clinton campaign believes those qualities will eventually win out.
Her "Middle Class Express" tour was supposed to jump-start that process. And indeed, Clinton's unapologetic emphasis on substance and her decision to talk about emotional issues health care, education in dry policy terms allowed her potential supporters to embrace her intellect while they themselves supplied the pathos and the spirit that, in most campaigns, comes from the podium.
Her appearances were not without laugh lines and inspirational flourishes. But they mostly came from the audience.
They cheered her proposals to help middle-class families pay for college, to assist homeowners "trapped in unworkable mortgages," and to put an end to international debt. In a scene repeated at every event, a good chunk of the crowd lingered and pressed in upon Clinton, giving her books to sign and posing for pictures. Even teenage girls squealed, "We love you, Hillary!"
Cedar Rapids resident Robin Clark-Bridges said she was planning to support Clinton in the caucuses because of her experience both in the sense of policy and politics: "She's been raked over the coals. I'm amazed she's willing to go through it again." Robin's husband Dan agreed. "I don't know exactly what it is, but the Republicans hate her," he said.
As for the speech, "The content was good. The presentations ... " he trailed off. Robin interjected: "But she sure knows her stuff!"
In Webster City the next day, the audience hijacked the post-speech Q&A into a forum that had almost nothing to do with her proposals. Instead, people told their own stories and if they expected sympathy from her, they also offered it. A woman whose husband has cancer became tearful as she described their struggle to pay for medication. There was a mother with five children and no health insurance who said that even $100 a month would help. And then there was the crowd member who asked Clinton a question about regulating political campaigns but then, gesturing at Clinton's undone moccasins, added in a motherly tone, "Will you tie your shoes so you don't trip and fall?"
Iowa caucus-goers mull their decisions to the fullest extent time allows. Most people will tell you they "lean" a certain direction but hesitate to say for sure. One woman expressed mild shock when I told her that I had run into several people at the rally who had "definitely" decided to support someone Clinton or Obama. "That's irresponsible!" she scolded.
This pride in refusing to commit to one candidate explains why Clinton, unabashed about presenting Iowans with a commanding style, is careful not to boast about the commanding lead she has elsewhere. Last week, her campaign chair, Terry McAuliffe, went so far as to dismiss polls that have recently put her at a slight lead in the state over Edwards and Obama: "I don't believe it. I think we're bunched up there. I think we're in second." Clinton herself, at stops early this week around the state, was careful not to lapse into the candidate's trick of declaring, "when I am President" or "in my Administration." Instead, she used phrases like "if given the chance," and beseeched the audience to "let me show you."
Due to a transcription error, the original version of this article gave the incorrect figure for the the daily cost of the Iraq war as stated by Hillary Clinton. It is $300,000,000, not $300,000.