MONTICELLO, Iowa — People ask: What is Hillary Clinton really like? No one knows all the private intricacies, and only a fool would speculate in a blog post. But I have watched her work for nearly 30 years and one thing I can say with confidence: the Hillary Clinton who began her presidential campaign in Iowa on Tuesday and listened carefully to a handful of people talk about the wonders of the local community college system is a familiar, uncynical and entirely credible character. I’ve seen her do the same on countless occasions in the past, in venues from Pakistan to Arkansas. People ask: What does Hillary believe? She believes in programs, both governmental and non-, that actually work. That is a very large part of who she really is.
“You’re singing my song!” she celebrated, toward the end of the hour-long meeting. High school students had been talking about how they were getting a leg up, taking college-level courses at the Jones County branch of Kirkwood Community College. They were getting both high school and college credits for their work. One young woman said she was going to a four-year college next year and would be able to complete it in two because of the credits she’d already accrued—thus cutting her college loans in half. A young man headed to Annapolis was getting a head start on the information tech and engineering courses he’d have to take at the U.S. Naval Academy. Others, less skilled, were starting an vocational path while still in high-school, taking courses in auto mechanics and welding that would make them skilled, and officially credentialed craftspeople, with plenty of jobs waiting for them. “This is a new vision, a new paradigm!” The candidate exclaimed, referring to the melding of high school and community college. “This is the kind of thing that can get people excited about our educational system again.”
But what about Benghazi? the folks at Fox might ask. She had nothing to say about that. (Perhaps because, as Congressional committees keep finding, there is nothing to say about that.) And what about this small-ball strategy in Iowa–why was she doing it? Why no big speeches, crowds, rallies? There will, of course, be tons of speculation. And what about those pesky emails? Well, those may be the product of another part of her personality — a less attractive, more secretive part — and the tragic desire to keep a “zone of privacy” may haunt her down the road.
But not today. Today was Hillary Clinton’s fantasy of how a presidential campaign ought to be. It was about something government did that was actually okay–community colleges–and a new wrinkle to make them even better. She paid obeisance to the traditions of the spectacle, mostly for the pressies following her. She was asked: why was she running? Her response was not scintillating. She had four goals: to create the economy of the future, to support families and communities (which was sort of what she was doing at Kirkwood C.C.), to squeeze all that money out of the political system, even if it took a constitutional amendment to do so and finally, to protect the country from foreign threats. You can’t get much more vague than that. There were those, mostly on the left, who wanted her to be more specific, especially about the economy and the financial sector’s depredations. She will have to say more in time.
Today, though, was about contrasts. There was none of the usual political rhetoric, which, when pressed, she delivers in unconvincing fashion. She did not give a full-blown speech as the Republicans Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio have done in recent days. But that was probably a good thing, because: who believes in rhetoric anymore? She made no promises. Her announcement video, notable for its inclusion of every last Democratic identity group, was refreshing for its upbeat tone–a real contrast to the bummer Republicans who’ve spent the last eight years saying that the country was in crisis, falling apart (much as the Democrats used to do, before Bill Clinton came along). And she used an interesting word: you. Her new slogan is: It’s Your Time.
It used to be said that the most powerful word in American politics was we. Franklin Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” The Constitution begins, “We The People…” But we has gotten to be treacherous in these cynical times — people don’t want to be included in the same category as the politicians. What do you mean we, red-tie man? So, in the primacy of the service economy, it’s the time of You, which is a lot better than “I” or “my,” the overuse of which has been a subtle problem for Barack Obama.
It is the simplest of messages: I’m going to focus on you, listen to you, propose things that make sense to you, eat at Chipotle’s as you do. Clinton’s words and her motivations will be torn, twisted, analyzed and ripped to shreds — sometimes with good reason — but if she can continue to focus on the you, on the programs that make sense without promising the moon, she has a chance not only to be formidable this year, but admirable as well.