The Hillary She’s Been Looking For

Watching Clinton 48 hours before the Iowa vote.

Hillary Clinton. Click image to expand.
Hillary Clinton campaigns in Iowa

The Clinton campaign’s effort to soften Hillary Clinton for voters has taken many forms. There was the Sopranos video, the testimonial by her husband, the videos from Iowa where regular people testified to her warmth, this commercial with her mother, the campaigning with her daughter, and the blanketing of Iowa with lifelong friends.

And now, in the last run-up to the Iowa caucus, Hillary may finally have found a way to make the best pitch in her own voice. In Iowa City, Iowa, I saw her deliver a great speech without notes for an hour, to a packed hall in which she talked convincingly about her beliefs, told jokes, and even got a little shticky in a way that the crowd found genuinely amusing. Nor was this just a one-off. She did the same thing Sunday in Maquoketa, Iowa. This was an improvement over what I’d seen following her a month ago.

The whole need to humanize Hillary drives some of her supporters up the wall, but her campaign has been contending with the issue of her divisiveness for months, and for good reason. Voters open their ears to policy positions and believe in a candidate’s promises often only after they’ve taken some leap of faith about his or her sincerity and authenticity. In Iowa, these questions about Hillary also affect how people think about her general election chances against the Republicans. If Hillary is seen as divisive and brittle rather than warm and likeable, that means she won’t be able to win in November. (All Democrats care about winning, but Iowans appear to care about it particularly. There’s the example of 2004, when John Kerry rode to victory at the caucuses based on the idea that he had the best shot against Bush, and also studies of Iowa electorate behavior that suggest this bears heavily.)

What made the Clinton speech effective is that she essentially grafted the best part of her husband’s pitch onto the top of her own. When I watched Bill Clinton two weeks ago he didn’t just say “oh my wife’s great,” he showed why by telling stories about her initiative and perseverance over the last 35 years. Now Hillary tells those stories herself. She talks about when she first recognized that her mother’s chances were limited in life because she was a woman, and of going door to door as a young college graduate to visit disabled kids to build the case for national legislation that would help them.

All the candidates tell these kinds of stories to prove that their current message has some links in their life experience. John Edwards deploys his South Carolina upbringing and Barack Obama tells about his journey as a black man in America who, as he says, “the odds say shouldn’t be standing here today.” But Clinton has let others tell these stories for her. It turns out that she can pull it off without them.

Fake authenticity hurts to watch—particularly with Clinton—but if this is confected, then the woman with the much-discussed laugh has suddenly gotten really good at it. It seems more accurate to say that she has found her looser voice, and it’s occasionally funny. At the top of her remarks today, she gives a shout-out to a local singer, Betty O, who warmed up the crowd: “From one diva to another, Betty O, I’m glad you’re here.”  Her speeches now include jokes about her visit to a livestock sale barn in Iowa earlier in the campaign. She compared it with campaigning. “I’ve been in sale barns, I know what happens,” she said, “So if you want to look inside my mouth, that’s okay too.” At one point, she joked that the Bush administration craziness had her yelling at the television. Her example: “I mean, the vice president shot a guy.” She sounded like she was at a corner bar, and you could actually imagine her sitting there.

When Clinton got around to talking about her failed health-care effort from 1993, she repeated a line taken directly from her husband’s stump speech: “You often learn more about someone when they weren’t successful than when they were.” As her mother said this, Chelsea Clinton stood with her eyes on Hillary, her hands clasped together almost as in prayer. She watched the way a mother watches a child as though she were trying to will her to succeed. And that role reversal felt real, too.

“People said I was through after health care, that I shouldn’t try again. But they were people who don’t know me. In fact, a lot of people who don’t know me have a lot to say about me,” Clinton continued.  The crowd, already on her side, clapped for almost anything as she kept talking. Maybe they felt like they did get to know her today. The only bad news for Clinton is that she is finding her voice so late in the process. There aren’t any days left to take this speech to Iowa’s 99 counties.