The headline out of Hillary Clinton’s visit to Iowa was her flagrant flirtation with the prospect of another presidential campaign. The more interesting part was the shortest of sneak previews of the race she seems increasingly certain to run.
“I’m ba-ack,” Clinton said at the start of her speech at Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin’s 37th, and final, steak fry, a fundraiser that has helped launch many a Democratic presidential candidate.
And that was just the start of the pre-campaign tease. She wasn’t sure, Clinton confided, whether to accept Harkin’s invitation. “I’ve got a few things on my mind these days,” she said, to knowing laughter. The “constant grandchild watch,” for one. “And then, of course, there’s that other thing.” The crowd erupted. Clinton smiled. “Well, it is true I am thinking about it,” she allowed.
It showed. A steak fry peroration is far from a campaign platform. Yet there were echoes in Clinton’s remarks not only of campaign themes past; there were also glimmerings of the arguments to come.
Hillary 2016 would inevitably be a far different campaign than Hillary 2008. Running in the aftermath of a two-term incumbent of the opposing party is an easier task than running in the shadow of a two-term president in whose administration you served. The first situation calls for attack and differentiation; the second is a subtler enterprise, demanding both support and distancing.
Back then, Clinton could run against what she called “seven years of incompetence, cronyism and corruption.” Now, even as she presents the midterm elections as a choice between “the guardians of gridlock and the champions of shared opportunity and shared prosperity,” she faces the challenge of explaining, politely, how she would do better than President Obama at managing congressional obstructionism.
“Change is just a word if you do not have the strength and experience to make it happen,” Clinton noted pointedly at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in November 2007 — where she was outshone, nonetheless, by Obama. That’s a dicier argument to make today.
To look back at Clinton’s speeches seven long years ago is to be reminded of the ways in which the world has changed — and has not. “How do we bring the war in Iraq to the right end?” Clinton asked then. “How can we make sure every American has access to adequate health care? How will we ensure our children inherit a clean environment and energy independence? How can we reduce the deficits that threaten Social Security and Medicare?”
Good questions, even now. The first, about Iraq, has taken on poignant new relevance, and new urgency, with the emergence of the Islamic State. The second has begun to be answered by the Affordable Care Act, but key tests of its implementation and effectiveness await. The third, at least when it comes to climate change, remains dangerously unresolved. And the fourth, on deficits and entitlement spending, now goes unasked by a Democratic Party that has concluded that deficits don’t matter and entitlement reform is unnecessary.
Clinton 2014, at least the Clinton 2014 of the steak fry, sounded a decidedly populist note: “We Democrats are for raising the minimum wage, for equal pay for equal work, for making college and technical training affordable, for growing the economy to benefit everyone — and our opponents are not.”
There is an understandable tendency to interpret those remarks as a nod to Democrats’ post-financial-crisis populist leanings. Maybe — certainly Clinton wasn’t talking deficit reduction. But it is also clear, rereading her 2007 speeches, that these are matters of long-standing concern.
Listen to Clinton in Knoxville, Iowa, in November 2007, worrying that “our labor market is just not working for middle-class families,” that corporate profits are soaring while workers’ wagers remain stagnant, that “the gap between the rich and everybody else has only gotten broader.” She wasn’t worrying about Elizabeth Warren back then.
One striking difference between then and now is the degree to which Clinton at the steak fry invoked issues specific to women — equal pay, access to contraception, the implications of raising the minimum wage for female workers. No doubt, that argument reflects Democrats’ imperative to persuade women to turn out in November.
But I suspect it also represents a coming attraction. Seven years ago, Clinton was skittish about gender until the end, when she proclaimed 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling. If she takes another run at the ceiling, it is likely to be more head-on.
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