Clinton's Base Will Keep Her Alive

This column was written by Mark Hemingway

Though the term "soccer moms" has been mercifully ablated from the political vernacular, I'm afraid that resurrecting it is no longer avoidable: Hillary Clinton is running the soccer-mom candidacy.

At a Clinton campaign rally at a Northern Virginia high school, aside from the large press presence, there appear to be only two kinds of people in attendance. Mostly there's a captive gymnasium full of students — literally captive, as Hillary is over two hours late for the 2:30 p.m. rally and the principal just had to announce that Clinton had generously offered to pay to keep the buses there until 5:30. And then there are middle-aged women.

Now, in the era of "microtargeting" most political observers aren't inclined to focus on a demographic so broad that it makes up close to half the voting-age population. Except at a Clinton rally, where you see a 50-year-old woman stand up in her seat and act out a scarily rehearsed dance, perfectly pantomiming the lyrics to Smashmouth's craptacular cover of "I'm a Believer" just for the sheer cringe-inducing joy of it.

But unlike the other smaller groups and designations one generally associates with identity politics, middle-aged women are everywhere, even though they often escape notice. When Barack Obama appeared at nearby American University last week, "ear-piercing screams" from college students and young women shouting Obama's name from dormitory windows were duly noted by reporters. It seems doubtful that the tragically unhip musical stylings of women old enough to remember the Monkees unironically are likely to capture the media's attention.

But the exuberance of these women is very real and undeniable. It appears that Hillary is actually gaining support among women. She narrowly lost the female vote in Iowa; she beat Obama among women by 12 percent in her New Hampshire victory; on Super Tuesday she won the votes of white women overall by 20 percent and in her California win she beat Obama like a drum, 59 percent to 36 percent, among women.

Obama won more states and a few more delegates on Super Tuesday. He raised $32 million last month to Hillary's $13 million. Given that the election on Super Tuesday was so close, both candidates tried to spin their way into claiming victory. And yet, what did Hillary do the next day? She announced that she was loaning her campaign $5 million. It would sure appear that her campaign is in trouble ...

But it's not, because Hillary — and anyone who's paying attention — knows that her core of support (lower-income Democrats, Latinos, and women) isn't going anywhere. In fact, her campaign put out a fundraising appeal asking for $3 million in three days. She met that in less than 24 hours. By day two, the goal had been raised to $7 million.

Even more remarkable is that between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Clinton — whose husband's tenure as president was known for his rejection of liberalism in favor of third-way triangulation — is running the more conventionally liberal campaign of the two. Both are proposing radical overhauls to the health-care system, but Hillary's is the more liberal — even going so far as to suggest garnishing the wages of people who refuse to buy health insurance.

But liberal or not, Hillary's other key advantage is that her campaign is one of substance. Obama may be a charismatic guy with a booming baritone and regal rhetoric, but when it comes to spelling out actual solutions there's not a lot there. At the rally at American University the previous week, Obama's speech was entirely devoid of policy substance in favor of inspirational (read: nebulous) themes such as "change" and "hope." A recent article in the Sacramento Bee even reported that Obama volunteers are specifically told to avoid discussions about policy. Hillary may be chock-full of bad ideas — such as garnishing the wages of the already poor to pay for mandated health insurance — but at least she has policy prescriptions and she talks about them.

And talks, and talks ... After some shameless pandering to the high-school crowd (e.g. "Some people when they enter public life they think only about the next election. Well, I like to think about the next generation."), Clinton's stump speech is all policy — making college affordable, improving public schools, Iraq, global warming, HIV, a faltering economy, subprime mortgages, balancing the budget, China, oil and alternative energy, tax rates, outsourcing, and, yes, mandated health insurance.

She throws out facts and figures such as "We talk a lot about the 47 million uninsured Americans" and "Every child born today inherits $30,000 in [national] debt." She tells perfectly punctuated stories of heartbreak like the guy whose insurance company dropped him, forcing him to spend his life savings on surgery or the young person she met recently in Minnesota who's paying 27 percent interest on her student loans. (Let's hope it's not a finance major, if he/she signed that paperwork.) After she sets up the pins, she knocks them down with a series of wishful promises — universal pre-K, health insurance for all, a temporary freeze on adjustable and subprime mortgages, and so on. On the stump, Hillary has a formula, and as transparent as it is, it works.

Still, Hillary is not a natural like Obama. By this point in the campaign cycle she's polished enough, though it's hard not to shake the feeling she's auditioning for something. Her meticulous hand motions are obviously coached, as is the way her voice drops to convey her astonishment at some fact or story she's told dozens of times.

Nothing she does or says on the stump is particularly inspirational, but her skills in retail politics exude a confidence that make it seem that if someone as divisive as Hillary Clinton can master the art of making people like her, she can tackle any problem.

We don't know yet if that will take her all the way to the White House. But for now, it's good enough to get soccer moms to jump out of their seats and dance, and that's all she needs to do to keep Obama at bay.
By Mark Hemingway
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online