Iowa Ice Capades

Photo: Yana Paskova/Getty Images

Like their counterparts across Iowa, the Democrats of Woodbury County, which encompasses Sioux City, have come to expect a vast degree of obeisance from their party’s would-be nominees. They expect more than speeches, more than rallies, more than rote fund-raisers. They expect, in particular, that the candidates will appear before something called the Truman Club, an outfit run by local Democratic pols that hosts a series of intimate, private receptions with them as a prelude to the caucuses. And, indeed, in the past few months, every Democratic runner has turned up and kowtowed to the club. Every runner, that is, except Hillary Clinton—whose campaign twice promised that she would come, only to bail out later.

I heard this story on a frigid night recently in Sioux City from guy I knew in college named Dave Bernstein, who runs a steel company there. The Bernstein I remember wasn’t exactly the student-council type, so I was surprised to learn that he’d signed on as a precinct captain for Barack Obama. But I was more startled to hear his take on where the race stood in his hometown. “Seems like it’s between us and Edwards here,” Bernstein said. “The Clinton campaign never really connected with the local leadership; they’re just not tapped in here. And the Truman Club thing? A major, major dis.”

Woodbury, to be sure, is just one of 99 counties in Iowa. And Lord knows it’s dangerous, especially when it comes to the Hawkeye State, whose mysteries are a cause of perpetual befuddlement to even the sharpest political minds, to make too much of a single anecdote. But what’s striking about the Truman Club story is that it reinforces a broader narrative: of a Clinton operation that badly misread and misplayed Iowa for months; of a top-heavy, Beltway-centric beast that never found its footing and that now confronts the possibility of a potentially devastating loss. And although that narrative would be rendered instantly inoperative if Clinton pulled off a win in Iowa—replaced with a triumphant tale of the Comeback Queen—the memories of what she had to do to get there might not be so easily erased.

The peril in which Clinton finds herself in Iowa owes much to an approach to the state that, until recently, can only be described as bipolar. It’s generally forgotten that, back in the spring, according to a leaked strategy memo, some of Clinton’s people were considering having her skip the caucuses altogether; and although Clinton shot the notion down, the ambivalence it reflected was real. Soon enough, however, that ambivalence was eclipsed by a palpable overconfidence. In September, Mark Penn, her chief strategist, counseled me to “watch the numbers coming out of Iowa—we’re getting stronger every day.” And, indeed, from then through mid-November, Clinton led in virtually every state poll, by as many as eleven points.

The mismanagement of expectations has been a problem for the Clinton team all year, starting with the chest-thumping claims that they would “raise more money than all the other candidates put together.” (Ahem.) And it happened again, if less flagrantly, with respect to Iowa. “In the beginning, we never thought we were going to win Iowa, we thought it would be Edwards,” a longtime Clinton adviser tells me. “But the polls went to everyone’s head, and suddenly winning Iowa became part of our so-called inevitability.”

But Clinton’s Iowa organization was troubled from the get-go. As Teresa Vilmain, the esteemed Iowa field operative installed to repair the situation over the summer, told the Times, “Here’s the bottom line: They had not worked this state.” More than that, they seemed to have no feel for it. Clinton’s events were big, bombastic, and focused on Iowa’s media markets. She eschewed the rural parts of the state and chafed at the intense—and intensely obsequious—retail politicking that Iowans notoriously demand.

The conventional explanation for Clinton’s maladroitness in Iowa revolves around the fact that her husband never took part in the caucuses. (In 1992, the presence of favorite son Senator Tom Harkin rendered Iowa meaningless; in 1996, Bill Clinton ran unopposed.) But Hillary was very much a stranger to New York when she ran for the Senate in 2000—and here she navigated an equally treacherous, bizarre, mystifying, and, in its way, provincial political landscape with considerable dexterity. She was humble and solicitous, diligent and deferential. Remember the “listening tour,” for heaven’s sake?

But the Clinton campaign did not believe, at first, that such a posture would serve her well in a presidential contest. “The argument was that her greatest perceived liability would be weakness—was she tough enough to be commander-in-chief?” recalled the Clinton adjutant. “So she had to come across as more authoritative. She had to be a dominating presence, ready from day one to be president.”

This argument was powerful, logical, but it also entailed clear risks. That the persona projected by Clinton would be seen not as authoritative but as imperious, bloodless, entitled. That a campaign waged with an eye forever cast toward the general election would lead her to embrace positions (supporting the Bush administration in declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, for instance) that would not endear her to Democratic-primary voters. That a relentless focus on her experience would keep her from connecting with the craving for change so evident in the electorate. That if Obama finally caught fire, she would have precious few reserves of genuine affection among voters to fall back on—and this is precisely what seemed to happen about a month ago in Iowa.

The reaction of the Clinton campaign to the Obama surge was, to put it mildly, aggressive—and, I think, deeply telling. The candidate herself went negative, with apparent gusto (“Now the fun part starts”). So did her husband, on Charlie Rose. The candidate’s opposition-research team went negative, to the point of absurdity (kindergartengate). The candidate’s surrogates went beyond negative into the realm of the genuinely vile (Billy Shaheen raising the possibility that Obama had dealt drugs, Bob Kerrey jibbering about his having attended a “secular madrassa”). Going negative is part of the game, it’s true, and far be it from me to tsk-tsk. But it’s considered dumb politics in Iowa, where the aversion to campaign bile is acute—which raised the possibility, firmly held by some in Obama’s upper echelon, that Clinton’s aim was to help Edwards win and deny Obama victory at all costs, including a third-place finish for herself.

The onslaught against Obama was followed by Clinton’s “likability tour” (a phrase that, to be fair, the campaign never itself employed—blame the Times for that one) of Iowa, a week in which she helicoptered around the state displaying her squishier side. I happened to catch several of these events, and although Clinton often sounded as if she were on Quaaludes, her voice bedtime-story soft, her cadences syrupy slow, the effect wasn’t nearly as dismaying as you might imagine. Actually, it was kinda soothing.

And yet all over conservative talk radio, the ridicule was withering and ceaseless, and not without reason. Here was Clinton trying, in the eleventh hour, to prove to Iowans that she was, well, human after all. The parodic aspects of such a tour were impossible to deny, even by some of Hillary’s most ardent and loyal adherents. On returning to New York, in fact, I had lunch with one of them, whose reaction to the coverage out of Iowa was this: “She seems totally, completely lost.”

Whether or not Clinton herself is at sea, the closing weeks in Iowa have exposed one of the great misconceptions of this campaign year: that her campaign operation is indomitable, even infallible. There can be no question that many of Clinton’s adjutants are among the best in the business. But surprisingly few of them have ever been tested in a primary campaign. The tensions between them that have flared openly of late—between Penn and her communications czar, Howard Wolfson, in particular—have been simmering all year, and even longer. And while Bill Clinton may, as it’s often said, have the keenest radar in American politics, his interventions in the past few weeks have only intensified the sense of turmoil in Hillaryland. By all accounts, he is more or less running the show now.

And perhaps, in the end, when the history is written, WJC will be seen to have saved HRC’s bacon in Iowa. In the past week or so, there have been signs that Clinton’s position in Iowa has stabilized and may even be improving—and that Obama’s surge may be ebbing. (Though the retooled stump speech he rolled out last Thursday is a hell of a closing argument.) In the final days, Clinton seems to be reverting to a form more closely resembling the one she showcased for most of this year. Her homestretch pitch—“Time to pick a president” is its theme—has at least the virtue of consistency. And it may be that the awful assassination of Benazir Bhutto, with its intimations of a world still wildly perilous and unpredictable, may make the experience argument resonate more powerfully than it otherwise would have done.

Still, even if Iowa turns into Clinton’s springboard to the nomination, what has happened there the past few weeks may come back to haunt her. For countless independents and even many Democrats, the suspicion, the fear, is that Hillary is a candidate without a core or convictions other than that she should be, must be, president. That her shifting personas, and the machine she has assembled to create and perpetrate them, are designed to conceal the fact that she is nothing but ambition incarnate. And that she and her husband are entangled in a bizarro codependency that coughs up chaos and queasy-making psychodrama in roughly equal measure. One need not accept the most extreme version of these views to acknowledge that they are a very real, perhaps the central, political obstacle she would face in a general election. In most presidential races, it’s a rule of thumb that what happens in Iowa stays in Iowa. But Hillary may not be so lucky.


Iowa Ice Capades