CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa—Bill Clinton may not have moved on from the subject of Hillary’s rocky debate performance last week, but she has. Or at least she’s trying to. Almost a week after Hillary’s bad night and the fallout over whether she responded to her opponents’ attacks by playing the victim, she returned to the 35,000-foot altitude of being the front-runner. Campaigning on the third of her four-day, 12-city Iowa tour, she rolled out the final portion of her energy policy with all the trappings of a presidential policy presentation. She started the day at a wind turbine plant, surrounded by the kind of stagecraft the Bush administration fancies. Behind her hung a green and yellow banner with the repeated message “Powering America’s Future: New Jobs New Energy.” She gave her speech framed by steel girders and the 40,000-pound hubs that house the turbine blades. (Iowa is the third largest state for the production of wind, behind California and Texas. The gusts on the highway made my rental car change lanes against its will.)
Throughout most of Monday, Clinton ignored her rivals. Barack Obama and John Edwards may be challenging her in every news cycle, but she didn’t mention either man or even make a veiled jab. Later, when her policy aides were given the chance to explain how her energy plan outpaced her Democratic rivals, they demurred. Only at the end of the day in a Q&A with voters did Clinton brush up against the previous week’s events. “Someone asked me, ‘Are they jumping on you because you’re a woman?’ ” she said in Waverly, Iowa, in response to a young woman’s question about whether a woman could become president. “No, they’re jumping on me because I’m winning. Harry Truman said if you can’t handle the heat get out of the kitchen. Well, I’m comfortable in the kitchen.”
To give her day scope, Clinton compared her energy proposals to JFK’s call to put a man on the moon. Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani have also said they would handle global warming by launching an Apollo-like program. This is a tired political trope, particularly when it comes to addressing climate change—a way to show commitment without offering too many specifics. Clinton, though, offered a double heaping of specifics: a plan for decoupling utilities, a cap-and-trade scheme, a push to raise fuel standards, job-creation measures, loans to upgrade houses, loans to make businesses greener, money to retrain workers for jobs created by these proposals, a new environmental council like the National Security Council, and an E8, a group of carbon producers that would meet and address global problems like the G8 does.
Clinton’s speech was dry, with no humor and only a few moments where regular Iowa voters might recognize policy-making that would affect their daily lives. It’s hard to call the nation to a grand, sweeping movement when you don’t have much rhetorical lift. To add drama, Clinton piled on the history. Addressing climate change wasn’t just like the mission to the moon, she said; it was like the mobilization during World War II. She had to stretch for additional historical analogies because her underlying one is thin: Addressing climate change isn’t like putting a man on the moon. It might be just as important, but the country doesn’t see it that way yet. America accepted Kennedy’s call because they were afraid of the Russians and because a moon shot immediately captured the imagination. Kennedy’s speech calling for the program was pretty plain because it could be.
But if Clinton’s speech didn’t send everyone rushing out to buy a Prius, it did have plenty of her strongest quality—thorough competence. She came across not only as a person in control of her facts but as the kind of president who will march methodically through the careful completion of each agenda item once she’s in office. She shares Mitt Romney’s overenthusiasm for facts she has learned in policy briefs. “This is astonishing,” she says before reciting a new figure, and you get the idea she’s genuinely astonished. She is also measured in her every movement. When she paces on stage in a town hall meeting like the three she held later on Monday, it’s like she’s following dance patterns—even when she made a quick detour to sip a glass of water to stifle her cough. While her opponents try to keep the pressure mounting, Clinton is conserving her energy.