Hillary believes, to the core of her political being, that what changes people’s lives are government programs. Her command of detail about these is prodigious, at times jaw-slackeningly so. And this often leads journalists to underestimate the effectiveness of her laundry-listy rhetorical métier. At her final speech in New Hampshire, I watched a well-known national columnist walk up to Doug Hattaway, one of her strategists, and mock a portion of her speech in which she promised that she’d do away with the horrendous paperwork involved in applying for college student aid. Hattaway simply shrugged and said, “She probably wouldn’t keep saying it if it didn’t get huge applause everywhere she goes.”
Clinton’s focus on the quotidian telegraphs to voters her seriousness about issues and tangible deliverables. And this, in turn, may help explain why she is doing so much better among downscale voters than Obama is—along with highlighting one of the core strengths of her candidacy in an ever-worsening economy. According to copious research conducted by Penn, upscale voters tend to focus more on personality and character, while working stiffs focus more on substance and on who will effectively defend their interests. “The eggheads have become the jug-heads,” Penn says, “and the jug-heads have become the eggheads.”
Clinton put it somewhat differently, but the point was the same. “Most Americans need a president—not everybody, probably not the two of you,” she said with a smile, gesturing to me and her press secretary, Jay Carson. “So you are free to vote however you choose. You can vote on a feeling, you can vote on a speech, you can vote on a debate, you can vote any way you want. But if you’re on the brink of falling out of the middle class, if you’re worried about health care, home foreclosures, and all these other problems, you need a president that you really can believe in and count on to deliver.”
Clinton didn’t contrast herself with Obama here, but she didn’t need to. The irony is that the rhetoric-versus-reality motif that she is pressing against Obama is nearly identical to the one that Bob Dole employed against Bill Clinton back in 1996: that Clinton was “the talker” and Dole “the doer.” The message didn’t work then, but it appears to be working now—in no small part because this time it’s Clinton, and I don’t mean Hillary, who is making the argument.
The afternoon before the Nevada caucuses, I drove up from the Strip to North Las Vegas to catch Bill Clinton at a community-center YMCA. Before a tiny crowd but a bank of cameras, Clinton wore an electric-orange tie, and spoke for 30 minutes, then took Q&A, during which he contended that the Culinary Workers Union, which had endorsed Obama, was trying to prevent its members from voting for his wife. “Today, when my daughter and I were wandering through the [Bellagio],” he said, “and all these culinary workers were mobbing us telling us they didn’t care what the union told them to do, they were gonna caucus for Hillary, there was a representative of the organization following along behind us going up to everybody who said that, saying, ‘If you’re not gonna vote for our guy, we’re gonna give you a schedule tomorrow so you can’t be there.’”
The chances that a union representative intent on engaging in such strong-arming would do it within earshot of Bill Clinton (or Chelsea, as he later claimed) is close to nil. But no matter. A few hours before the caucuses, Clinton had done his job: muddying the waters with an utterly unverifiable story, suggesting that Obama’s supporters had dirty hands when, in fact, it was Hillary’s allies in the local teachers union that had launched a lawsuit to shut down the caucus sites on the Strip within two days after the culinary union announced its endorsement of Obama.
For much of last year, Clinton’s role in his wife’s campaign was anodyne, limited to putting a fine gloss on her proposals and “35 years of experience” (ahem). But in the past month the former president has taken on the role normally associated with a vice-presidential candidate: pit-bull-in-chief. People often forget what a skilled practitioner of the politics of fear Clinton always has been. His entire 1996 campaign revolved around scaring the elderly senseless with the prospect that the GOP would abolish Medicare. But Clinton’s recent wave of fearmongering and distortions concerning Obama—that to vote for him would be to “roll the dice,” that his antiwar record is a “fairy tale,” that he claimed “Republicans had better ideas than the Democrats the last ten to fifteen years”—has been a vivid reminder of his propensities in this regard, and of their dangers. In recent days, both Ted Kennedy and Rahm Emanuel have pleaded with him privately to tone it down. Many Democrats fret that Clinton’s conduct threatens to divide the party, depressing turnout in the fall, especially among black voters, if Hillary is the nominee. And also to remind the country of an aspect of Clintonism that few wish to see revived.