DES MOINES, IOWA — For the first time in days the Iowan sun peeks out from behind a bank of clouds and the temperature rockets from fair to torturous. We’re all standing in line on a sidewalk, waiting and sweating for Hillary.
“When did you decide to support Hillary?” a local radio reporter asks the woman wearing the hot pink blouse next to me.
“Um,” the woman says, “when Elizabeth Warren decided not to run.”
Up and down the line her answer reverberates and carries, a dozen or so supporters murmuring among themselves that they would’ve preferred Warren too. As if on cue, the Hillary volunteers spring into action with all the zest and practiced techniques of Red Bull salesmen on a college campus.
“Hey, are you guys excited about Hillary?” one of them calls, holding up a cardboard Hillary logo, a blue H embedded with a red arrow pointing right, a dead ringer for the subliminal wonder that is the FedEx emblem. For an answer he gets a few cheers, to which he responds, “Come on! This is Hillary! Let’s get excited!”
This time the response is a bit louder and more robust. His cohorts are bringing more cardboard Hillary logos, along with a pair of cardboard Hillary cut-outs, to the people. They pose children and their mothers with them and then tweet them out before moving on, the whole operation like clockwork as the volunteers peel off immediately afterward, find the subjects of the photos, and say, “Look! Hillary retweeted you! You guys are practically best friends!”
Obviously excited, the people are then robotically encouraged to retweet the retweet to their friends and followers, to follow Hillary’s Twitter, and to maybe take a selfie or two at the rally to then tweet out to their followers and friends.
“Get involved!” the volunteer tells the friend of the hot pink tank top interviewee.
And she does.
I’m too hot to get involved. I’m too sweaty to get involved. There are rumors that the 10:30 start time, as listed on the Hillary website, was misleading, that the former secretary-of-state and first lady, the de-facto frontrunner of the Democratic Party for the 2016 Presidential Nomination and assumed Winner of It All, won’t show up until at least noon. The people around me feel duped and are stirring uncomfortably as their shirts soak through.
“You get a sticker yet?” a volunteer wearing a “Madam President” button asks.
After I tell him I’m good he peels off a sticker with that damned logo on it and slaps it on my chest, all in one motion, without asking.
Patting it roughly until it stays put, he says, “You looked like you needed one.”
A volunteer with the cutout is with a family of six a few feet down. He’s holding the likeness, saying, “You know, when the light hits her just right, you can’t tell the difference between this thing and the real deal.”
Down the row more people are finding out that Hillary has retweeted them.
“You guys are practically best friends!”
Inside the building is larger than it looks. There’s a huge stage with an even bigger Patton-like flag providing the backdrop. Dozens of tables with red-and-white checked tablecloths. A massive media encampment with maybe forty cameras, opposite it a whole field of catered foods, the options being hamburgers and hot dogs to eat and tea and lemonade for drink.
“It’s like a picnic,” I hear somebody say.
The entire event is meant to look like an afternoon in the park with the family, but it’s engineered down to the last detail. It’s a mini-caucus where tables of ten or so sit and are soon inundated with more clipboard-toting volunteers who get our information and then encourage us to “talk about what you like best about Hillary,” a dry run for when the caucuses meet in February. To their credit, most of my table isn’t in the mood to talk about what they love most about Hillary. It’s eleven and the rumor has her coming in at twelve-thirty now.
“What do you like most about Hillary?” a neighboring table can be heard asking.
“Hmmm,” somebody says. “That’s a good question.”
A volunteer nearby answers for her. “Is it her stance on the issues?”
“Sure,” the somebody says. “And I like that she’s a woman.”
There are maybe thirty handmade signs on the walls in the event center that remind us of both of those facts. One says “Hillary’s Right On The Issues That Matter!” Another reads “Elect the First Female President!” Another says, playing off a shared ‘H’: “Helper, Hero, Hillary.”
A folk duo tunes up on a secondary stage. In between songs they ask the crowd if they’re excited about Hillary, which a few volunteers, dancing in the aisles and taping everything on iPads, answer in the affirmative.
I’m busy talking to a crazy man who’s trying to convince me he worked in the White House. “But you’ll never find a record of it,” he tells me before asking for a sheet of paper. “I’m here writing a book, too. HBO’s going to pay me a million dollars for the rights.”
Next to him is a mother and daughter duo, the mom visiting from Wisconsin. The daughter, twenty years old, is dead-set focused on the issues and tells me, once the lunatic has laid off, that her friends don’t care about politics. “They just switch it off,” she says.
Why does she think that is?
“I don’t know,” she answers. “Maybe they don’t think they matter. That it’s real.”
The tenth or so volunteer to canvas our table interrupts, makes sure we’ve given our information, have signed a pledge to caucus, that we’re talking about what we like most about Hillary. Before he leaves he reminds us to tweet and Facebook photos from the event and let our friends and followers know how much fun we’re having.
“What’s exciting about Hillary for you?” I ask the mother and the daughter.
“She’s going to be the first female president,” the mom answers.
Would it make a difference if Elizabeth Warren would’ve run?
“Yes,” they both answer. “It would.”
Eight years ago in Iowa Hillary Clinton was handed the worst loss of her political life. Originally favored to run the table easily, she finished a distant third, behind that monster John Edwards, with 29.4 percent of the vote. Upstart Barack Obama won with a heady thirty-seven percent. An upset, it would turn out, of historic import.
Many post-mortems have been made of the defeat, with analysts focusing on Obama’s next-level technological operation and possible call to history, but any analysis of Hillary’s failed bid in ’08 would be remiss if it didn’t mention the utter clusterfuck that was her campaign. It was a hulking mess that failed to stay on message and presented one of the more unflattering portraits of a candidate in the history of American politics. She came across as cold and calculated, two traits everybody associates, for better or worse, with Hillary Clinton in general. She was out-of-touch, uncomfortable with the Politics of the Personal that Iowa demanded, and far too centrist in her policies.
Now, in a little bit more accelerated of a position, the Hillary ’16 Campaign has addressed every nuanced problem they can see from the previous disaster. Hillary’s talking about coloring her hair to bring a little personal touch. She’s dotting her speeches with traces of token populism on loan from Bernie Sanders and even some of the rumble of opposition to the big banks and Wall Street that Elizabeth Warren would have touted had she decided to throw in her hat.
The problem is that Hillary is still Hillary.
The type of general amnesia that surrounds her candidacy is a testament to how well-designed this current phase of the campaign is. Gone are the days when Democrats questioned why she voted for the war in Iraq or when she opposed gay marriage. There’s absolutely no talk about how close she is to the big banks or how Wall Street has been absolutely flooding her coffers with donations, or how Bill was the one who made sure the loopholes and friendly tax code, and not to mention the job-killing NAFTA, gave them that money in the first place.
Instead, we now have this Frankenstein monster-like candidate who has taken her cult of personality and draped it over the process like a blanket while appropriating the most popular and strategist-approved stances of her rivals.
Do you want Elizabeth Warren?
Hillary will give you her best impression.
Thinking about Bernie Sanders?
Hillary can do that too.
In a brilliant piece of strategy, Clinton World is giving the electorate whatever it thinks they want and is providing Hillary as a blank slate for which all voters can cast their own hopes and interests, a page taken, Clinton World thinks, out of the Obama ’08 campaign, an outfit that Hillary and Bill thought was a smoke and mirrors show that stood for nothing and everything simultaneously.
It’s worrisome though, and not from the standpoint of actual, personally-held beliefs. After all, Hillary Clinton is not about true-believers. She is not the candidate of those who want to see something get done or even something approaching progress. No, she is the candidate of personal involvement, of brand-loyal consumers who are more interested in being a “supporter of ______” on social media than a dyed-in-the-wool progressive.
Instead, the worry is the type of fear that strikes all corporations. Even the best and the brightest and largest companies in this country reach a certain saturation point where their product has been consumed by as many people as it can yet the market still forces them to grow with every quarter. This is how Taco Bell starts serving breakfast and McDonald’s looks into chicken wings. In an effort to grow an ungrowable product, corporations try and be all things to all people. And once they reach that point, they suffer.
But the secret of advertising, of brand-growth, is to take whatever is popular, whatever is new, and consume it and cannibalize it before regurgitating it to the culture at large, only now more easily accessible and less-threatening. Take Bernie Sanders as a Democratic-Socialist and turn him into a smiling, familiar face. Take Elizabeth Warren as whistleblower and turn her into a corporate pawn who says she’ll do something about the problem with an earnest grin.
What we’re seeing now is the next roll-out of an Apple product. The iPhone. The Apple Watch. The MacBook Pro Air. The next operating system. The next Thing You Need. It is a data-driven campaign to extend and grow the brand while selling to the consumers the idea that their lives will be forever changed once they have the product in their hands, whether that is even remotely true. What matters is that the product needs to grow in returns.
Think of Hillary as Hillary 4.0.
Think of her as iHillary.
Before Hillary strides on stage a few more songs paint the desired picture.
Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger.”
“Best Day of My Life.”
It’s like living in a car commercial.
A little after one now. All of the food has been consumed and there’s standing room only. A woman behind me is talking about how Obama beat Hillary in ’08 because he was a “light-skinned black” who “spoke okay.” Which is spectacularly racist and also almost verbatim what Senator Harry Reid famously said about the president.
There’s concern in the crowd because those who have been following the volunteers’ advice and posting selfies and pictures are running out of cell power.
Fear not as the candidate is taking the stage just in time for people to snap four or five or twenty pictures before the juice is gone.
The speech is almost exactly like the one she gave yesterday in Roosevelt Park to “relaunch” her campaign, only the language has changed a little here and there. Word has spread through political circles that her stump speech has been edited and focus-grouped within an inch of its life and it shows whenever she steps on her own toes over minute little changes that didn’t need to be made and don’t affect anything in the least.
Oh, and she’s responding to every single criticism in the last forty-eight hours.
Like, Bernie Sanders’ call for her to take a stance on the new trade-deal.
“I say let’s step back and see if we’re getting the best deal for workers,” she says, completely sidestepping any actual position.
“I will take on big banks!” she says, taking on Martin O’Malley’s campaign’s assertion that she didn’t take a strong enough line.
It’s the same mistake she made eight years ago in trying to rebut every single criticism lobbed her way, a relic from Bill’s campaigns that had the slogan “Speed Kills” because they wanted to get ahead of every possible attack and own every single news cycle.
But we’re living in a twenty-four cycle now, which means that each opposing campaign, and there are many considering she’s not only running against Sanders and O’Malley but a veritable gymnasium’s worth of Republicans who are all gunning for her, is going to send out an attack once a day, and if she chooses to respond to every last one, her message isn’t going to stay cohesive.
Shuffled into the stump speech, the responses are faulty, clumsy, tossed-in and conspicuous. It throws off the rhythm, making Clinton seem uncomfortable behind the podium. The ebb and flow of a speech is a finely-tuned thing that, when it gets off-course, can really hobble an event and campaign. This one is unsure and a bit startling in its rambling effect.
It would matter more, but from my vantage point, hardly anybody is actually listening. There are some Iowa folk who are picking at their Styrofoam plates with their arms crossed, their mouths set in slits, but the majority of the crowd is busy snapping selfies with their back to Clinton. Giving thumbs-up. Electric smiles. Some are trying different filters on their cameras. Some trying their damndest to keep the frame steady as they record the speech for their feeds and Facebook friends.
When she finishes with the strange line “…a country where a father can tell his daughter, yes, you too can be President of the United States,” other odd outliers start to coalesce to paint a scene.
“When will all your hard work pay off?” she asked earlier. “Now!”
In business it’s never been about the effect of the product. What the product can do for you has always been secondary to the intended end: the selling of the product in the first place.
But the nuances aren’t important. Neither is the intention. Not here anyway.
Hillary closes and has left the building within seconds, leaving her whipped-up supporters to save their pictures and videos and panoramas. To post them on Facebook and Reddit and Twitter and Instagram. To wait for their likes and favorites and retweets.
Maybe some of them from Hillary herself.
Why, they’re practically best friends already.