Any question whether Sen. Tom Harkin’s annual steak fry Sunday was really just a Hillary Clinton campaign event in disguise could be dismissed by a look at its logistical priorities: The event had a surfeit of “Ready for Hillary” buttons, T-shirts, and bumper stickers, and there were not enough toilets. (The Des Moines Register reported, in a delightfully polite deadpan, “Everybody appeared to be patient with the lines, but waits of 30 minutes or more were required.”)
But, technically, there were not enough candidates for it to be a Hillary Clinton campaign event.
It’s also not clear that she gave a campaign speech. She did her usual half-joking play at obvious disingenuousness, saying the impending birth of her grandchild was foremost in her mind and, “Then, of course, there’s that other thing. It is true I am thinking about it.” That joking tone can only be sustained for so long. (One volunteer gave an exaggerated eye roll when I asked about it.) And it’s very difficult to play the reluctant warrior when the guy standing next to you exudes gleeful eagerness.
Harkin himself did Hillary no favors when his introduction of Bill included an anecdote about an earlier steak fry, when the heavens parted the moment Clinton took the stage: “The clouds disappeared, the sun came out.” There’s being in someone’s shadow and then there’s being compared with a demigod. Perhaps Hillary deserves more credit for taking up as much room on the stage as she does. That Bill gave his decidedly more deft speech after Hillary’s can’t be anything but a tacit admission of how difficult an act he is to follow.
Bill Clinton’s gift for flattery is what helps audiences believe his promises and his description of the present. When he told them, “We are less racist, less sexist, and less homophobic than we’ve ever been,” he drew a picture of the country that isn’t menaced by the Tea Party but has rather advanced beyond it. His argument is more positive and more appealing than the Koch brothers-as-bogeymen trope that haunted the speeches that came before. It may even be true. Certainly, it’s the image that the millennials have of themselves. If today’s youth have a civil rights slogan, it could well be, “Hatred is for squares.”
And that notion—prematurely self-congratulatory though it may be—may be the reason why Hillary can’t necessarily count on the weight of history to give her momentum. The young people I talked to, today’s counterpart to the Obama army of 2008, seemed to think history had already been made.
“It’s interesting, but it’s not the main reason I support her,” one male “Students for Hillary” member told me about the idea of a first female president. His companion, a female freshman, was even more cautious: “It’d be nice to see more women in politics,” she said, “But if you push hard for it, it becomes an issue you didn’t ask for.”
Such dry reasoning was unsettlingly common with the student contingent at the steak fry. Unprompted, they offered analysis rather than real reasons for their support. “The Democrats can’t eat their own,” said one of them, serious. “We’ve got to coalesce around Hillary because there’s really no one else, and we can’t let the Republicans win.” It sends a shiver up your spine when a guy who probably isn’t even shaving regularly basically quotes Mark Penn.
The real advisers to the Ready for Hillary organization are almost comically precise in their avoidance of the term “campaign.” They prefer to call it a “movement.” There are legal reasons for the distinction, to be sure (a campaign has to deal with pesky financial disclosures and whatnot), but it’s also a strategic messaging choice, an attempt to transform the perfectly accurate public sense that she’s been running for president for over a decade into an image of unstoppable momentum. It is a linguistic wish for the same kind of campaign that catapulted Barack Obama forward from the caucuses.
But the students who lifted the Obama campaign into something more emotional than a mere campaign are gone. The ones who have taken their places were in grade school when the young junior senator from Illinois tantalized audiences with a vision that appealed to everyone’s best version of themselves.
So the good news is that Hillary doesn’t have to worry about meeting the high bar for excellence in campaigning set by Obama; few young people will be directly comparing her to him. The bad news is that these young people aren’t expecting to be wowed. They may respond to the argument that Hillary is the best qualified and that it is, looking at the math, her turn. But I can’t see them filling stadiums to proclaim that. Her problem is half the bigotry of low expectations and half the reluctance of a child faced with a plate of green vegetables: “This doesn’t taste good, but I don’t expect it to.” Woe be to her if another candidate with the appeal of an ice cream truck happens to drive by.