Five strengths of Hillary Clinton's campaign launch and Iowa swing

Hillary Clinton kicked off her presidential campaign Saturday with a big rally on New York City’s Roosevelt Island. TIME published the full transcript (as prepared) of her speech, which covered values and personal reflections about her mother as well as a long list of policies she would champion in order to win “Four Fights” for Americans. Clinton then traveled to Sioux City, where her remarks at a house party were “simulcast to 650 house parties nationwide, including 55 in Iowa” on Saturday evening. This morning, hundreds of people turned up to see Clinton in Des Moines, at her first Iowa event of this year that was open to the public. After the rally, she gave interviews to Radio Iowa’s O.Kay Henderson and the Des Moines Register before heading to Burlington for a house party in the afternoon.

From where I’m sitting, Clinton helped her cause quite a bit this weekend.  

1. Clinton connected with her audiences, delivering her speeches better than she was doing at this point in the 2008 election cycle.

Clinton will never be the world’s most gifted orator, but she wisely didn’t try to reinvent her speaking style for this campaign. Soaring rhetoric wouldn’t sound natural for her anyway. Watching the Roosevelt Island remarks on television and seeing the slightly altered version at today’s rally in Des Moines, I was struck by how well Clinton modulated her voice and held the crowd’s attention for what was a fairly long stump speech. This morning’s remarks included plenty of applause lines, some drawing standing ovations, but the candidate also brought the room to near-silence at times. One of those moments came when she deviated from her script to reflect on the “mean-spirited” nature of current political rhetoric.

I wasn’t expecting Clinton’s delivery to be that good, given that she has mostly held small campaign events this spring. Senator Bernie Sanders and Governor Martin O’Malley pack a more traditional crowd-pleasing punch into their stump speeches, but a lot of Democrats left today’s event at the Fairgrounds impressed and fired up.

2. Clinton is talking about policies of enormous relevance to ordinary people.

I saw some comments criticizing the “wonkish” nature of Clinton’s Roosevelt Island speech. Granted, it was more policy-heavy than we’re used to hearing from presidential candidates. But Clinton isn’t going into the weeds on abstractions like auditing the Federal Reserve. She’s talking about changes that would greatly improve the quality of life for millions: paid sick days, paid parental leave, access to quality child care and preschool, equal pay for equal work, a path to citizenship (“not second-class status”) for immigrants “who work hard and pay taxes,” automatic voter registration for Americans turning 18, and reversing “Republican efforts to disempower and disenfranchise young people, poor people, people with disabilities, and people of color.”

Moreover, Clinton didn’t just read a laundry list of policy proposals, she connected them with values that could resonate far beyond the Democratic base. From the recap of her “four fights”:

We can build an economy where hard work is rewarded.

We can strengthen our families.

We can defend our country and increase our opportunities all over the world.

And we can renew the promise of our democracy.

Some commentators pointed out that a President Hillary Clinton could not accomplish much of that agenda when faced with a Republican-controlled Congress (or at least the U.S. House; Democrats could conceivably win back the Senate in 2016). That’s a fair point, but voters should hear what candidates aspire to and not just what they would settle for as half a loaf. Anyway, all the presidential candidates in both parties are calling for some policies that could be construed as unrealistic. For instance, Clinton’s dream of universal access to preschool may be a tall order, but it’s more conceivable than the free college tuition Sanders advocates in his stump speech.

In 2007, I didn’t ever consider caucusing for Clinton, but I am thinking seriously about it now, and not only because I no longer see her as too polarizing to win a general election. Ideologically, I am closer to Sanders, but the “family issues” Clinton highlights speak powerfully to me.

3. She conveyed a thoughtful approach to complex issues.

The biggest news from today’s Des Moines event happened when Clinton spoke about trade policy, which she didn’t touch on during the Roosevelt Island speech. Up to now, she has not clarified where she stands on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (currently being negotiated among twelve countries) or “fast-track” trade promotion authority. President Barack Obama is pushing hard for both, while rival Democratic candidates Sanders and O’Malley strongly oppose both.

Radio Iowa, the Des Moines Register, and the New York Times all summarized her comments, which she expanded on later in interviews and at the Burlington house party. A partial video from the Des Moines speech is available here.

Clinton pointed out that as a U.S. senator, she voted for some trade agreements and against others, depending on the specifics involved. My views on trade policy align with Sanders and O’Malley, but Clinton’s stance probably would come across well to a lot of voters:

“No president would be a tougher negotiator on behalf of American workers with either our trading partners or Republicans on Capitol Hill than I would be,” Mrs. Clinton said. “There are the voices that are for the deal no matter what’s in it, and there are voices that are against the deal no matter what’s in it. I kind of fall in the group that says, ‘Let’s find out what’s in it, and let’s make it as good as it can be before we make the decision.'”

Without explicitly staking out a position on trade promotion authority, Clinton praised Congressional Democrats who voted down a critical portion of the fast-track legislation on Friday. She then depicted the situation as a great opportunity for President Obama to go back to our trading partners and negotiate a better deal for American workers. (In contrast, Obama and Congressional leaders are focused on bringing the bill up for another vote quickly and twisting enough arms to get it through.)

Speaking to the Des Moines Register after her rally, Clinton indicated that she favors further progress toward a Trans-Pacific Partnership deal.

Asked if even talking about pursuing the trade pact at this point could potentially hurt her with the left in her party, Clinton said: “You know what, I’m going to say what I believe.”

Clinton told the Register that Obama “should pick up the phone and call her (Pelosi) and say, ‘Let’s get together with a group of Democrats who are not anti-trade under any circumstances no matter what, and also Democrats who aren’t pro-trade under any circumstances no matter what, but who like Leader Pelosi said it doesn’t do enough.’ And see if there is a way to leverage that to make it do more.”

The discord could actually strengthen Obama’s hand in negotiations, she said in her speech. “You go to the trading partners, the people that have been involved in this negotiation, and you go, ‘Unless you give me more, unless you meet the needs that have been laid out … we’re not going to have a deal. But we could have a deal, if we made sure that we did everything possible to protect American workers, to raise wages for the American workers, to make sure that it is in our national interest.’ ”

She also called for more transparency in negotiations over the deal, “so the American people can see what will actually be in it.”

Again, I’m with Sanders and O’Malley on the policy. But Clinton’s approach gives voters a window onto her leadership style and makes her look reasonable. Critics on the left and right have called Clinton a “tool” or a “shill,” and I’m concerned about her close Wall Street ties too. But listening to her talk, those caricatures don’t ring true.

4. She confronted concerns about her age with humor.

For years, detractors have portrayed Clinton as “old news,” and O’Malley has drawn an unspoken contrast with the front-runner by talking about his ability to provide new leadership from a new generation. Clinton turned that frame around in one of the strongest passages of her stump speech:

All our Presidents come into office looking so vigorous. And then we watch their hair grow grayer and grayer.

Well, I may not be the youngest candidate in this race. But I will be the youngest woman President in the history of the United States!

And the first grandmother as well.

And one additional advantage: You’re won’t see my hair turn white in the White House. I’ve been coloring it for years!

Huge crowd response. I loved it. Speaking of the possible “youngest woman president,”

5. Clinton weaves the historical nature of her candidacy into her stump speech skillfully.

Asking voters to support her because she is a woman would never fly. In New York City yesterday and in Iowa today, Clinton talked at length about her experiences, her qualifications, her values, and her personal character (“I’ve been called many things by many people – ‘quitter’ is not one of them”).

On the other hand, let’s get real: electing the first woman president will never be “old news.” Clinton is not shy about reminding voters that electing her would break the biggest glass ceiling there is. As she told the Des Moines Register yesterday, “I expect to be judged on my merits, and the historic nature of my candidacy is one of the merits that I hope people take into account.”

She finished her stump speech strong, describing

An America where a father can tell his daughter: yes, you can be anything you want to be. Even President of the United States.

That is one powerful vision. And just as powerful for me, a mother of two sons, is the prospect of my boys seeing that Americans would be willing to elect a woman to lead the country. My mother did not live to see a woman president, and for most of my life, I have assumed I would not do so either. It would be nice to know my children and everyone in their generation won’t grow up with that baggage.

I wouldn’t support any candidate for any office just because she was a woman. But in a field of mostly male Democrats, would I caucus for a woman, even if one of the men were a closer ideological match? In 2007, I would have said no chance. Today, my mind is open.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

P.S.- At her house parties in Sioux City yesterday and Burlington today, Clinton spent plenty of time on classic Iowa caucus “retail politics” as opposed to speechifying.

P.P.S- Al Gore got a lot of mileage out of giving exclusive interviews to local media rather than to the national reporters who travel with the candidate. Looks like Clinton will follow that strategy.  

Maintenance Notice - As of November 14, 2023 we are still seeing issues with replying to comments...Thanks for your patience, this will be restored.

  • I've been watching Ken Burns' series,

    The Roosevelts, on PBS. Hillary’s speech on Roosevelt Island reminded me of how much some things haven’t changed in more than 80 years. Democrats still have to defend some New Deal programs like Social Security and a federal minimum wage from conservative attacks.

  • Clinton Kick Off

    I was a supporter of hers in 2007/08. I enjoyed being on her Hispanic Leadership Council. And after that disastrous campaign, I am very happy the way this campaign is beginning. I am waiting to hear more specifics about trade and NSA reform, if that happens, but I am very happy with how much she has mentioned LGBT issues and mental health/substance abuse. Overall I am thrilled about her campaign and I think she is the best shot at the general election by far. I got to see my friend state rep Phyllis Thede at the kickoff rally in Davenport as well. Good to see.  

    • I disagree with you

      that the previous Clinton campaign was disastrous, but you were in a strong Obama county, so I can see why it felt that way to you.

      How many people were at the kickoff rally in Davenport this weekend?