America's next top Democrat

With the Iowa vote nearing, Clinton, Obama and Edwards reveal sharp tonal differences, betting the farm not on policy but on political panache.

By Walter Shapiro

Published December 18, 2007 12:26PM (EST)

In the headlong rush to the Jan. 3 caucuses, the Democratic presidential race has become -- bizarrely enough -- a virtually issue-free zone. Vanished from view are the public battles over Iraq and the skirmishing over whose healthcare plans provide universal coverage. Instead, in unprecedented fashion, the three leading Democrats are roaring into the final 17 days of the campaign debating from afar what style of presidential leadership, what strategy for change, is demanded in the bitter aftermath of the George W. Bush era.

Their stump speeches -- often glossed over by reporters as the elevator music of politics -- highlight the sharp tonal differences separating Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards. Between now and the caucuses, each of these tightly bunched candidates will probably speak to more than 30,000 Iowa Democrats in high school gyms (the favored venue this year) and other public settings around the state. Over the weekend, I sampled the campaign-rally rhetoric of the front-running Democratic troika as they crisscrossed each other's paths, with Edwards and Obama even speaking at the same time in Mason City (different locales) on Saturday night.

These speeches offer Iowans their best glimpse into the minds of the candidates, since they allow for a sustained argument (unlike campaign ads) and rise above the ephemera of the daily press flaps. So in traditional "Brazil: Land of Contrasts" school-report fashion, here are impressionistic accounts of what the three leading Democrats were emphasizing over the weekend.

Hillary Clinton

At a noontime rally Sunday in Council Bluffs, kicking off a five-day helicopter tour of the state, Clinton unveiled a new section of her stump speech arguing that only she has the been-there-done-that pragmatism to prevail in Washington. The former first lady began by repeating a refrain that had been crafted for last Thursday's final Iowa debate: "Some people believe that you make change by demanding it. [John Edwards, please pick up the red courtesy telephone.] Some people believe that you make change by hoping for it. [Barack Obama, this Bud's for you.] I believe that you make change by working hard for it."

But then she went further, explaining the virtues of experience in terms eerily reminiscent of Kenny Rogers singing "You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em." In the new Clinton version, the lyrics are: "Hard work demands that you know when to stand your ground and when to find common ground. If you're too unyielding you won't get anything done ... You have to work with other people. But if you don't stand up and refuse to compromise about what's important, you could lose out the opportunity to make change. You have to know how to balance it."

The campaign slogan "Hillary: The Candidate With Balance" may not appeal to her team of image makers, but it comes close to capturing the essence of her argument. Edwards is too hot, Obama is too cool, and the New York senator is just right. Clinton -- who seemingly aced every exam at Wellesley and Yale Law School -- also increasingly stresses her sadder-but-wiser outlook after the implosion of healthcare reform in 1994. As she put it in another passage grafted onto the stump speech, "I think you can learn more about a person when you see what they do after they don't succeed."

Not until 30 minutes into her Sunday speech in Council Bluffs did even Clinton mention Iraq -- and then it was just two short sentences: "Finally, we will make a new beginning to restoring America's leadership in the world. It will start with ending the war in Iraq and bringing our troops home quickly."

In fact, Clinton dealt with most issues (including Iraq) as part of a two-minute drill at the end of her speech. During those applause-line-crammed 120 seconds (an official tape-recorder count), she veered from calling for "a universal pre-kindergarten program" to "more job training, more apprenticeship programs" to ending "the no-bid contracts for Halliburton" to "lifting the ban on stem-cell research" to "appointing qualified people to government again." She also crammed in ending "No Child Left Behind" and reversing the Bush's administration's "war on science."

Eight years ago, at this point in the campaign, Al Gore and Bill Bradley were wrangling over the nuances of their healthcare plans. Four years ago, Howard Dean was still riding high as the I-was-right-from-the-start antiwar candidate in the race. Now issues are rattled off with the speed of an antique-furniture auctioneer trying to get rid of the bric-a-brac at the end of a long sale.

Barack Obama

When Obama spoke Saturday afternoon to about 300 Democrats at the Hoover Middle School in Waterloo, there was nary a reference to Herbert Hoover, who had been demonized by Democratic orators for three-score-and-ten years for bringing on the Depression. Another small indication of change was that Saturday, for the first time in memory, I noticed a few empty seats at an Obama rally. But when it comes to his stump speech, Obama remains the candidate most comfortable with an audience listening to him intently rather than wildly cheering at each choreographed clap-now moment.

Alone among the Democrats, the freshman Illinois senator addresses a larger malaise in our political culture that goes beyond the iniquities of the Bush administration and the Republicans. Americans of all parties, Obama declared in Waterloo, "have lost their trust in their government and want to believe that we can do great things again. That is why this is a moment both of great challenge but also great opportunity. I think our politics is up for grabs right now. I think we have the chance -- for maybe the first time in a generation -- to bring the country together, to form a working majority and finally tackle problems that George Bush may have made far worse, but were festering long before George Bush ever took office."

Obama no longer includes in every speech a mocking reference to himself as a "hope monger," but he is -- without question -- the only Democrat who continually offers the vision of "bringing the country together." This idea (which may be arrogant, naive or inspirational, depending on one's perspective) of getting beyond the polarization of a red-state, blue-state America is the central theme of his candidacy. It is also a reminder that in early 1992, as Hillary Clinton was caught up in the campaign furors over Gennifer Flowers and her husband's Vietnam draft records, Obama was a freshly minted graduate of Harvard Law School. If the former first lady's calling card is that she faced down the "vast right-wing conspiracy," Obama is the Democrat who hails from a political generation too young to be mobilized in the debilitating wars of the early 1990s.

Equally integral to Obama's stump speech is the argument that he is the candidate of conviction while Clinton offers Democrats timidity and what was once called "triangulation." Obama's vision of himself transcends policy positions, which is convenient, since it glosses over the awkward reality that both Clinton and Edwards have offered bolder and more comprehensive plans for healthcare, which remains the key domestic issue for Democrats.

As Obama said in Waterloo -- and these are words that he has long used at rallies -- "At the beginning of this campaign, when I was gathering together my staff and my supporters, I said that the conventional, textbook Washington campaign just won't do. Avoiding answering tough questions because the answers won't be popular just won't do. Telling the American people what they want to hear, rather than what they need to hear, just won't do. Poll testing every position because we're worried about what Mitt or Rudy or whoever the Republican nominee is going to [say] ... won't do. If we're serious about winning this election, then we can't be afraid of losing it. Not this time. Not now."

Even though Obama is the only leading Democrat who can claim an I-was-right-from-the-start record of rectitude on Iraq, he too now only gives a brief cameo to the issue. As he put it in Waterloo, "The only mission [George W. Bush] accomplished was to use fear and falsehood to take this country into a war that never should have been authorized and never should have been waged."

So much for the political handicappers -- once again looking in the rearview mirror for inspiration -- who confidently predicted that the 2008 race would pivot around the mess in Mesopotamia, with Clinton presumably on the rack over Iraq.

John Edwards

Based on crowd estimates from reporters who were at the rival Obama rally, Edwards won the battle of Mason City on Saturday night. More than 500 Iowans crammed themselves into the indoor atrium of Music Man Square, a museum dedicated to Broadway composer Meredith Willson, who fictionalized his hometown as River City in the 1950s musical. Although Edwards never alluded to "The Music Man" in his stump speech, the former trial lawyer is the Democrats' best huckster, and his pitch is a 2008 variant on "We've got trouble in River City."

There was nothing subtle about Edwards' passionate argument. In the first minute of his speech, he cut to the chase with this rhetorical question: "What kind of man, what kind of woman, what kind of human being, do you want as president of the United States? I have a very clear view about what's at stake -- I think we desperately need a president who's tough, who has backbone, who's willing to fight, willing to stand up for you, willing to fight those entrenched interests, corporate power and those monied interests in America that stand between you and the America that you deserve." As Edwards railed against the "monied interests," he was speaking opposite the false-front façade of the "River City Bank," a mythical financial institution unlikely to rival Citicorp.

Like Obama -- and, to a lesser extent, Clinton -- Edwards contends that the best way to pick a presidential candidate is not to weigh the nuances of their white papers on tax policy or global warming. "We have great candidates running for the Democratic nomination," the former North Carolina senator said, preparing to damn them with exuberant praise. "I like them. I respect them. They have great ideas. They're good people."

"But," Edwards went on, "we have some fundamental differences about what it's going to take to really change this [system] ... Some candidates say ... that you know the system's bad, but you have to be able to maneuver your way through it. You have to accept it. [Sounds as though Edwards got an advance peek at Clinton's revamped stump speech.] Other candidates would say, you got to sit at the table with these people -- drug companies, insurance companies, oil companies, power companies, big banks. You sit at the table with them and you negotiate, and somehow they'll voluntarily give their power away." This line was clearly aimed at Obama, though the volley seemed a bit off target. Still, Edwards got a hardy laugh from the audience with the notion that companies like Pfizer, Exxon Mobil and Halliburton would unilaterally disarm when faced with a smiling, earnest Democratic president.

For Edwards, who is the only top-tier Democrat without an Ivy League pedigree, it all comes down to a simple political equation: "You know how they'll give their power away?" he asked, speaking of the corporations. "They'll give their power away when we take their power away. We have an epic fight in front of us, and anybody who thinks that's not true is living in a fantasy world." That can be a potentially winning political argument in Iowa, although no one in the crowd appeared to notice that Edwards was decrying fantasy-world politics in the middle of a replica of a stage set from "The Music Man."

During a brief press conference after the Saturday night speech, I asked Edwards (who finished a close second to John Kerry in the 2004 caucuses) what he meant by his frequent claim that he knows how "to close" in Iowa. "It means exactly what you saw in this room tonight," he replied. "It means somebody who has energy, passion and speaks from their gut about what they believe. Because what caucus-goers are looking for now is honesty and strength and fight and sincerity."

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Three leading candidates, three stump speeches and three divergent approaches to wielding power -- that is the choice facing Iowa Democrats. Edwards and Clinton are both playing traditional roles in the never-ending political drama of the outsider versus the insider. Obama is the wild card, as the 21st-century candidate trying to rewrite the equations that govern political math. Voters may claim that they crave issues, but in the closing weeks in Iowa -- with the Oval Office quite possibly at stake -- style and substance have become entwined like no campaign in memory.

Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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