Election 2016

My Day With Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton: Two Iowa Rallies Explain Why Hillary May Be About to Blow a Sure Thing

A tale of two candidates.

The Iowa Caucuses are the Coachella of politics. There’s nowhere else you can catch so many big names in one afternoon.

On Sunday morning, I sat in a coffee shop in Cedar Rapids, eating one of Iowa’s famous boxing-glove-sized cinnamon rolls, and scanning the Des Moines Register, which was cover-to-cover rally reviews. (“Glenn Beck Comes to Iowa to Endorse Cruz”; “Trump: I Could ‘Shoot Somebody’ and Keep Voters.”) Hillary Clinton was in Marion at 12:30, Marco Rubio in Cedar Rapids at 2, Bernie Sanders in Independence at 5:30. I decided to hit all three events.

I had woken up as an undecided voter, and I would go to sleep as one, too, but in between, I saw that Clinton and Sanders are appealing to two diametrically opposed impulses in Democratic voters. Clinton’s campaign is based on fear – fear that Republicans will return to power and undo all the progress Obama has made since 2009, just as they undid everything her husband achieved in the 1990s. Sanders, on the other hand, is running on hope – hope for what he calls a “political revolution” that will take power out of the hands of billionaires and restore it to the middle class.

When Hillary Clinton’s campaign bus arrived at Vernon Middle School, nearly an hour after her speech’s scheduled start time, the few hundred supporters in the school cafeteria gathered at the windows to see if their candidate would step out into the snow. They only saw a bomb-sniffing dog patrolling the playground. As a former first lady, Clinton is protected by the Secret Service, which is why we’d all had to pass through a metal detector to get into this room.

After an introduction by New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker – whose grandmother, he mentioned twice, grew up in Des Moines – Clinton got down to her business of scaring people with stories about Republican misrule. It was a message she took across the state, to Marion, West Des Moines and North Liberty.

You listen to the Republicans, they want to go right back to failed economic policies,” she said that day. “Honest to goodness, it’s as though evidence, facts, history, mean nothing to them. Back to what wrecked our economy in the George W. Bush administration, and they make no apologies. They want to cut taxes even more on wealthy people; they want to literally turn the clock back.”

The last time a Clinton was in the White House, she pointed out, incomes went up, and the budget was balanced. Then, a Republican president screwed it all up.

“One of the first things they did was to defang the regulators who were supposed to keep an eye on Wall Street and the financial markets,” Clinton said. “They took their eyes off the financial markets, they took their eyes off the mortgage markets, and we had the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. We lost 9 million jobs, 5 million homes, $13 trillion in family wealth.”

Clinton does have plans for her presidency: she wants to install 500 million new solar panels by the end of her first term, and supply half the country’s power with clean energy by the end of her second. She wants a Fair Share Surcharge of 4 percent on incomes over $5 million, to pay for parental leave and early childhood education. She wants to raise the minimum wage and guarantee equal pay for women. But those are incremental proposals of a candidate running to extend Democratic leadership for another four years. Her campaign is not about moving the country forward; it’s about preventing the country from slipping backward. That impulse inspired her attack on Sanders’s proposal for a single-payer health care system.

“I think we should build on the progress we’ve made,” Clinton said. Under the Affordable Care Act, “we now have 90 percent of Americans covered, and we have the chance to get the costs down, which will be my primary focus. I want to cut out-of-pocket costs and cap prescription drug costs. I don’t want to start over. I don’t want to plunge our country into another contentious debate. I feel if we’re at 90 percent coverage, that it’s a lot easier to get to 100 percent coverage and fix what needs to be fixed than to start all over again and try to go from zero to 100 percent; I just don’t think that’s achievable.”

Before taking questions, Clinton gave the microphone to her celebrity endorser: John “Bowzer” Bauman of the neo-doo-wop group Sha Na Na. Bowzer boomed the intro to the Marcels’ “Blue Moon,” and promised to flex his arms and open his mouth reeeealwide if Hillary wins the caucus.

(At her next stop, in North Liberty, Clinton ended her “booga-booga” show by promising to stop “the onslaught of our rights: women’s rights, gay rights, civil rights, worker’s rights. We gotta stand up against what the Republicans would do. We have to defend Social Security from their continuing efforts to privatize it, hand all that money over to Wall Street.”)

North of Marion, past 40 miles of snow-covered corn and soybean fields is the pop. 6,000 village of Independence, where Sanders spoke at the Heartland Acres Agribition Center. It was a smaller town, but a bigger crowd; they stood around the edge of the exhibition hall to hear Sanders, who was five minutes late – shockingly punctual for a presidential candidate.

Even though he’s been in Washington since 1991, two years longer than Clinton, and in public office for 33 years, longer than anyone ever elected to the White House, Sanders expends a lot of verbiage trying to convince people he’s not a crank economics professor running a fringe campaign only an alternative weekly would endorse. Disclaimers are necessary when you start your speeches, “By the way, are you guys interested in a political revolution?”

Right off the bat, Sanders hit the audience with statistics: the Walton family, heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune, owns more wealth than the poorest 40 percent of Americans; Americans work the longest hours of any country on Earth; 58 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent; there are more Americans in prison than Chinese, even though China is “an authoritarian state four times our size.”

Yet the dour New England socialist is the sunny one in this race. Clinton looks back, and is frightened. Sanders looks ahead, and sees the America he’s been trying to build since he moved from Brooklyn to Vermont in the 1960s: an America in which new mothers and fathers will be guaranteed three months of parental leave, the minimum wage will pay $15 an hour, free college tuition will be funded by a tax on financial speculation, and every citizen will be insured by a single-payer health care system.

“What this campaign is about is transforming America,” Sanders said. “Nothing that I said to you today is utopian; nothing is radical. Nothing that I have said does not exist in other countries, and nothing I have said to you today is not wanted and supported by the American people. The American people want to raise the minimum wage, they want pay equity, they want to create jobs by building our infrastructure, they want to make colleges and universities tuition free, they want to expand Social Security, not cut Social Security. They want us to deal effectively with climate change. They want to end a corrupt campaign finance system. None of this is radical. None of it is pie in the sky, and I told you how we could pay for each of these programs. The issue is not whether the American people want it; the issue is whether or not we have the courage to take on the greed of the billionaire class, who want it all for themselves. That is what this campaign is about.”

Sanders’s kicker reminded me of a quote from Tommy Douglas, who achieved for Canada what Sanders is trying to achieve for the U.S. – a single-payer health care system: “Courage, my friends; ’tis not too late to build a better world.”

I agreed with everything Sanders said, but still have reservations about his candidacy. Not once did he mention foreign policy, where the president has the most latitude to act. A Republican Congress would reject all his economic proposals. He’d be a symbolic president, whose achievement would be moving the Overton window to the left, introducing radical ideas to public discourse, perhaps to be fulfilled by future administrations. Also, he’s from Vermont, which vies with Utah for Least Typical State. Vermont is America’s version of The Shire, the Hobbit-populated land in “The Lord of the Rings”: a green liberal Zion with no cities, no minorities and no urban problems.

Yet Sanders is running a better campaign than Clinton, because he understands that liberals are motivated by hope; fear is a conservative thing. Barack Obama understood that, too, which is why he out-hoped Clinton in 2008. Clinton is running the same campaign against Sanders she ran against Obama, right down to the “3 a.m. phone call” trope: she talked extensively about her role in plotting to kill Osama bin Laden, to demonstrate she’s ready to be commander in chief.

The latest CNN Poll of Polls shows Sanders leading Clinton in Iowa, 46 percent to 44 percent. The caucuses favor true-believing ideologues with motivated followers. Advantage: Sanders. A win in Iowa, followed by a certain victory in New Hampshire, would give Sanders the credibility to pitch himself to Southern voters. Once again, Hillary Clinton may be on the verge of blowing a sure nomination. Even if she wins, her pessimistic message would not sound appealing against Marco Rubio, who gave his Cedar Rapids audience a sunny vision of capitalism as “the only system that can make poor people richer without making rich people poorer.”

The Clinton dynasty began in a town called Hope, Arkansas. Maybe Bill needs to take Hillary back home, to remind her of the message that brought the family to Washington in the first place.