In Iowa, Hillary Clinton Defends A System Everyone Else Is Trashing

Her pitch: Bernie Sanders is a pie-in-the-sky, tax-raising radical and she is a battle-tested leader and defender of Obamacare.
The Washington Post via Getty Images

DES MOINES, Iowa -- In these days of anger and rebellion in politics, it takes a certain amount of daring -- or stubbornness -- to say the following in the closing days of the campaign for the Iowa caucuses:

“We are on the right path, my friends. We just have to stay on it.”

And yet that is the surprising essence of Hillary Clinton’s final pitch to Democratic caucus-goers as she delivered it this weekend at Grand View University in Des Moines.

At a time when every other presidential candidate, Democrat and Republican, is crying havoc about the all-but-unsalvageable corruption of government, politics and Washington, Clinton finds herself -- out of choice and necessity -- the lone defender of the value of the old rulebook.

After more than four decades in politics and facing a socialist foe with sweeping and expensive new Big Government proposals, Clinton is trying to make a virtue of necessity. As she tries to close the deal with Iowa Democrats -- which she failed to do in the face of the Barack Obama wave of 2008 -- Clinton is daring to suggest the virtues of the status quo to defeat Sanders' youth brigade.

She defends Obamacare as the hard-won most-of-a-loaf that Sanders would tear up in a vain and politically unrealistic yearning for an all-government-run single-payer system.

She defends the current tax code -- at least as it applies to middle-class taxpayers. She claims to be the only candidate in the race who will “not raise taxes on the middle class,” as Sanders himself admits his health care plan would require.

She defends the achievements of the Obama administration, arguing that the president “deserves more credit than he has gotten” for bailing out the economy, for saving the auto industry and for spurring innovative technologies through government loans and programs.

She defended the Dodd-Frank law as a good first step in tighter regulation of banks. And she defends the reigning status quo of Democratic economic thinking: the business bent of the “Clinton Democrats” and the so-called Washington Consensus on international trade.

At Grand View, she bragged about the economic track record of her husband’s presidency and accentuated the positive of Obama’s (the vast gulf between the rich and the rest notwithstanding). And she positioned herself as someone who can work the system as it is, rather than competing with Sanders' call for a “political revolution” to sweep out the stables of the Capitol.

To be sure, Clinton has a laundry list of new proposals and promises: tighter surveillance of hedge funds and tougher criminal sanctions on their CEOs, a new infrastructure fund and new taxes on the wealthiest American families.

But more than those specifics, she is selling herself as the realist, and proudly so, with decades worth of hide-toughening scars from campaigns and service in government as a senator from New York and secretary of state.

“I’m not going to tell you what you want to hear,” said Clinton. “I am going to tell you what I actually can get done.”

Of course that hard-eyed practicality is what her advisers think that voters want to hear from her as she tries to win Iowa.

“She is the grownup in the race,” said one top advisor, who insisted on anonymity to discuss campaign strategy. “She is not going to win the kids with dreams, but win at least some of them and most of the adults with facts.”

Indeed, the final Iowa poll by the Des Moines Register showed Clinton trailing badly among voters under 45 -- both men and women. She had a wide lead among older voters of both sexes.

Clinton’s gamble of incremental realism is just that -- a gamble. But it is based in part on the calculation that Sanders gives her room to run in that direction and that he is not the cost-free feel-good vote that Obama was in 2008.

Voting for Obama was a statement of social uplift and hope about the country, and it did not come with much of a specific price tag.

Sanders is different. He has a price tag. And that is what Hillary is counting on.

It’s an argument that works with Ross Johnson, a 45-year-old lawyer from Clive.

Johnson said at the Grand View rally that he had voted for Obama in 2008, but that he was resisting his 17-year-old son’s entreaties to support Sanders because of concerns about taxes.

He said that he had read an analysis by Ezra Klein of Vox -- “an analyst who shares my values” -- in which the writer had suggested that Sanders’ agenda would carry huge costs.

“My wife and son are going to vote for Bernie, but I’m going with Hillary,” Johnson said.

The mathematical impact is significant: what would have been a three-Bernie-vote household is reduced to a net of one.

But the broader argument seemed to be the bigger selling point: that Hillary is practical and tough and clear-eyed -- in other words, some would say, a woman.

“There is something about a woman’s touch,” said Mary Scott, a retired insurance executive from Des Moines. “They know how to get things done.

“Bernie has all of these ideas that are pie-in-the-sky and will never get through Congress, and he can’t do anything without Congress."

"Hillary can work it," Scott added. "She’s a gal who gets things done.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misstated when President Obama bailed out the economy. He signed his stimulus legislation in 2009.