INDIANOLA, Iowa—Hillary Clinton opened her remarks at the 37th annual Harkin Steak Fry by talking about the imminent arrival of her daughter’s first child and her possible presidential campaign. It was hard to tell which was more pregnant.
Clinton didn’t mention her candidacy directly, but in her first visit to the state since her third-place showing in the 2008 caucuses, she made a succession of coy references. “Of course there’s that other thing,” she said after talking about how she and her husband were consumed with the prospect of their first grandchild. “Well it is true, I am thinking about it, but for today that is not why I’m here. I’m here for the steak.” There were a few other nods and winks and Clinton concluded by saying, “Let’s not let another seven years go by.”
The audience of 10,000 got the joke. As they filed out, I asked James Hanifen, a World War II veteran, if he thought, based on what he’d heard, that she was running for president. “It's obvious she is. I mean, unless you're really, really dumb.”
The Clinton campaign has been conceived and everyone is just waiting around for the birth announcement. That makes it murky to assess the Clinton candidacy. You can hardly judge a couple’s parenting skills before the baby arrives. Though that doesn’t stop the criticisms. The conventional complaint among Democratic campaign veterans and strategists who are not in the Clinton camp is that she has not developed a message and a rationale for her candidacy. She’s running on the fact that it’s her turn. Inevitability is deadly for candidates.
That critique is wildly premature. Not only has the official campaign where she could articulate a vision not started, but even when it does, Clinton is a prohibitive front-runner of a kind we have not seen in this century, which means she has time to get her act together.
But, if she has time, there were plenty of signs that she was working to fix the problems of the past and address the challenges of the present. During the last campaign, one of the criticisms in Iowa was that she was too removed from voters. So as she worked the rope line on the balloon field, she shook hands, signed copies of her book, and leaned into selfies for far longer than if she’d just been there to pay tribute to retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, the ostensible reason for the visit.
There were also other signs behind the scenes. Interviews with Clinton allies have a similarity to them, as if there’s been an effort to get everyone on the same page. You get answers to questions you haven’t raised about her ability to connect with middle-class voters and why she’ll do better in Iowa this time. If you ask an open-ended question about the challenges facing the next president—whoever that might be—they describe a future with a Hillary-shaped hole in it.
When Clinton spoke, other than bouts of presidential peekaboo, the clearest indication she was running came when she tried to bolt her life story onto the life story of Sen. Harkin, the progressive hero who had brought everyone to that hillside. “When I got to know Tom and Ruth, I recognized from them the same values that I learned from my own parents,” she said, before telling the story of her mother’s difficult childhood, which taught her the lesson that people need a second chance. “That was one of the most important lessons of my life and I know that it was for Tom and Ruth as well. They have never forgotten where they came from, who they are, and what they want to do: to open doors and to put that ladder up for others. They’ve actually lived that lesson. Now Tom keeps score in politics the same way that Bill and I do: We ask ourselves, are people better for your efforts? Do children have brighter futures, do we find ways to work together instead of working apart and divided?”
Clinton was letting the crowd know that while she may have multiple homes and great wealth now, she comes from the same place they and their progressive hero come from. If she were simply in that balloon field to promote other candidates and herald Harkin, she wouldn’t have put this riff into her speech. (Also, those Hillaryland sources regularly cite her mother as the locus of her groundedness.)
Clinton echoed the origin story that Harkin had told minutes before about his father who had found dignity and hope during the Great Depression by working for the Works Progress Administration. He keeps his father’s WPA card on the wall in his office as a reminder that “with the right people in office and the willingness to work, our country can do the right thing for people.” The day was designed to pay tribute to Harkin and to promote the Democrats running for election this November, but it was also a celebration of activist government, born in the Depression, aimed at “the least, the lost, and the left behind,” as Harkin put it.
It is members of the Harkin wing of the party who have suspicions about Clinton. They worry she is from the Goldman Sachs wing of the party, too influenced by wealthy elites. Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, says his organization won’t back the former secretary of state until they can vet her economic team to make sure that it’s not filled with Wall Street insiders. It’s an issue she needs to address, and while Clinton talked about her mother, it would have been easy to do much more. She could have really sung the song of Tom Harkin and the power of activist government, which would have delighted the crowd without boxing her in to future commitments. (She’s not a declared candidate, after all.) Harkin certainly tried to do just that, boasting that Clinton’s “fingerprints were all over” the Affordable Care Act, because of her past work on the issue. She didn’t really say anything terribly moving on that score.
Hillary Clinton was also overshadowed by her husband who followed her on stage as protocol demands for a former president. Bill Clinton was really only in the mid-range of his talents, but his easy, sometimes rambling but accessible speech is just a far more entertaining product in the bright sunlight. “Bill's still got it,” a group of women repeated to each other after he left the stage. I asked a man passing by what he thought of the afternoon. “She’s no Bill,” he said.
That’s always going to be the case, but it’s not clear that it really matters. It’s theater review—those who fawn over Bill can list a series of Hillary Clinton’s strengths they admire. The overwhelming majority on that hillside were thrilled to see Hillary Clinton, and she received the largest applause of the day. Afterward, lots of people I talked to were thrilled by her. Of course that’s in part because the audience was boosted by Ready for Hillary, the super PAC urging her to run. The organization was everywhere: on billboards, on the back of a bus, and on the buttons and T-shirts of the college students organized for the event. The whole Ready for Hillary organization has the relentless cheer of that friend of yours who starts preparing for the New Year’s Eve party in June.
There were plenty of people in the audience who didn’t need to be wowed by Clinton. They were already on her team because they think she will deliver on the issues that matter to them most. I asked Iowan Angie Collins why she liked Hillary and she jumped right over the political this-and-that and got right to what matters to her: her daughter. “I'm very middle class. Just recently my daughter broke her arm and we didn’t have insurance. No doctor would see her. I had to fight to get a real cast on her. I spent all day going to different doctors and emergency rooms. I shouldn’t have to do that for my daughter. She should never be turned away just because I’m not making enough money.”
If there was one dark note for Hillary Clinton it was among a handful of voters I talked to who worried about the Clinton baggage. “I like Hillary, but I’m not sure I’m ready for Hillary,” said Rose Mary Prat, 66, who wore a shirt from Harkin’s 1972 campaign. “I didn't like the resurrection of the Clinton White House the last time [she ran]. It gives the opposition more reasons to be negative or divisive. It won’t lead to common ground. Do we have to go back and revisit all of it? That’s a political reality. A fresh face, that’s what I'm looking for.”
A constant theme of the day had been moving forward in the 2014 elections, which sounded a little discordant against a potential candidacy that will contain so many figures from the political past. “It’s great to look back,” said Ruth Harkin, “but don’t stare.” But then, it was a day for inconsistencies. The steaks are grilled, not fried, at the Steak Fry.
Another woman, who declined to give her name because she worried she was being too candid and interesting, said her biggest worry was that “they'll beat her up in the campaign and never elect her.” Hellen Hanifer took her thumb and pushed it downward like she was driving in a flathead thumb tack. “They'll drive her down. The old boys network does not want to let a woman in power.”
The younger generation didn’t seem so concerned about this, though at times it was hard to tell if they weren’t just happy to be out in the field on a beautiful Sunday. A few of them fashioned one of the “Ready to Vote” signs into an airplane. (Those signs were the nod the “Ready for Hillary” folks made to the fact that the day was supposed to be about 2014 candidates.) They made several hearty attempts to get the plane to fly, but no matter how hard they pushed it or creased its wings, the plane nosedived. With a day so purposefully pregnant with meaning, it was hard not to see symbols everywhere. But there was nothing in Clinton’s perfectly successful return to Iowa to suggest this was an omen. Perhaps it was a re-enactment of Clinton’s last Iowa campaign, which the once and future candidate has now begun the process of expelling.