So Hillary Clinton came to my town today. She packed the local high school gym and brought with her a phalanx of television cameras, hordes of reporters and a hefty dose of political celebrity. (The doors opened at 1:15, and the gym was filled to capacity by 1:30.)
What did she say? Nothing particularly revelatory, apart from the fact that she took the stage to Jesus Jones’ “Right Here, Right Now.” She was predictably eloquent on issues where the crowd was behind her (universal health care, Bush’s incompetence, abortion, stem-cell research, etc.) and predictably evasive/nuanced on issues where the room was a bit more divided (her vote on Iraq, comprehensive immigration reform, etc.) She’s clearly selling herself as a pragmatic centrist (“I was born into a middle class family, in the middle of America, in the middle of the century”), and that’s fine with me. (I still don’t believe that “triangulation” was a bad thing.) And I found Hillary surprisingly charismatic in person; the television camera gives her an awkwardness she doesn’t have in person. (Or perhaps the camera just magnifies the awkward tendencies she does have, like the way she always pedantically pounds the air with her right hand.)
But what did impress me was the Hillary political machine. Observing these candidates from afar, it’s easy to discount the advantage that money, experience and the machine provide a candidate. Other factors, like charm or their stance on the issues, seem vastly more important. But when you watch a candidate roll through a small town in New Hampshire (or Iowa, for that matter) the power of the machine becomes obvious.
Let’s start with the basics. The event was impeccably organized. Volunteers corralled the crowd into an orderly line. The line moved quickly, so nobody had to stand outside. The gym was filled with Hillary posters, and everybody was handed a placard to wave. The microphones worked. Hillary arrived on time. She was introduced by the State Senate President and by Paul Hodes, the local Congressman. She shook the hands of the important people in the room (the high school principal, head of the hospital, etc.), engaged the local media, and regaled the crowd with anecdotes of the 1992 campaign. She alluded to her husband, which always made people smile. When the event was over, her staff gathered signs for her to autograph. Everybody left with a bumper sticker. In short, she knew what she was doing, because she’s done this before.
I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve been to enough campaign events at this point to know that it’s not always this well orchestrated. And while I don’t plan on determining my vote based upon which candidate had the best crowd management skills, it’s hard not to interpret the professionalism of a Hillary event as emblematic of her professional machine. Watching this event unfold, I don’t see Hillary making too many political mistakes. I’m not sure that’s a good thing – perfectionism comes at the expense of spontaneity – but it’s what you want as a front-runner.
As for Obama. . . He makes eloquence look easy. But to be honest, I’m getting a little tired of his soaring rhetoric. (And I find the Lincoln analogy a little presumptuous.) What I want from Obama is one policy idea – just one – that encapsulates the “bigness” of his politics. I’m not asking for a detailed plan for universal health care (although that would be nice), but I do want him to put forth a single concrete and original proposal that represents the sort of “generational change” he seems to signify. I don’t doubt his leadership abilities, but I want to know where he will lead me. (If you’re going to compare yourself to Lincoln, then you better give me something more grandiose that electronic health records.) My worry is that Obama’s eloquence is a sort of political placebo. It works for a little while because it raises our expectations – we think the rhetoric is real – but eventually, unless the rhetoric becomes real, we’ll wake up and realize we’d been fed a sugar pill.