Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Clinton Guarantee

Nashua, NH -

It still isn't yet winter, but the dark sky and bleak landscape on the side of the highway as I drove from Concord to Nashua at 6PM told me that it sure as hell wasn't summer. In other words, going back to my own personal 2004 metaphor, we are a hell of a lot closer to my mid-December Wes Clark visit, when a couple of hundred people stuffed themselves into the Alvirne High cafeteria to hope in vain for a Democratic Bush-beater than we are to my early-August John Edwards visit when there were a couple dozen people stopping by the City Hall steps just to see who this guy was.

Yet, when I walked into the Nashua South High gym tonight, I couldn't help but get much more of an early summer feel than I could have ever expected. The crowd, filling a half gym full of folding chairs and a few on the sides, numbered around four hundred in total, and it was a subdued four hundred. The event had neither the air of a jacked up rally, nor of a tuned-in town hall meeting.

For starters, the pop-medley playlist of a normal Clinton event was replaced with a number of mellow, almost folky songs, none of which I could recognize. The audience, a mix of middle-aged yuppies with a handful of elderly and Nashua South students tossed in, sat quietly chatting as the music softly played , appropriately framed by the light purple bleachers surrounding the gym. A couple minutes after 6:50 the music abruptly stopped and, politely and immediately, so did the chatter from the audience.

Silence now filling the room, Hillary Clinton entered from stage left. At first confused, the crowd recognized what was going on within a couple of seconds and began cheering the former First Lady as she stepped up onto the stage flanked by the school's principal and an art teacher.

The principal was the first to speak, and she did so with such a falsely elevated diction that I felt sorry for her. She was trying so hard to sound impressive to the crowd and the Senator, but was misusing words, like calling her school a “fine establishment” and otherwise sounding fake and nervous. Hey, introducing the Next President is no slouchy gig. So she handed off to the teacher who read from a prepared script previewing the tone of Hillary’s speech.

Clinton, who had lost her voice earlier in the day at a campaign stop with Bob Vila in Peterborough, stood by silently smiling with her hands neatly clasped at her waist. In front of her was a stool with a bottle of water and a mug of tea for her throat, and otherwise the small stage was bare. This time there were no prudently pre-selected supporters of mixed age, race and appearance; no podium adorned with message; just Hillary and whatever she had to say.

The first item was about the near future. "This election has to bring our country together," she said, and it was a curious sentiment coming from arguably the most divisive candidate in the race. But it came into focus a little better moments later, as it revealed itself to be a prebuttal to a veiled attack on Obama.

"Change for the sake of change isn't what we're looking for"

Instead, Clinton aims to project more meaningful change with her four stump speech R’s: Restore our reputation, Rebuild our middle class, Reform our government, Reclaim our sense of self.

After a few more minutes discussing her latest policy proposals, Clinton changed the course of her conversation back to that elusive political goldmine, change. She started in by declaring that she wouldn't just make government change, and all the sudden my ears perked up with near shock. Was Hillary Clinton, mantle-holder of the Clinton Democratic establishment, actually going to ask people to change for the good of the country?

The next line was about the oil industry, how she would give them the opportunity to change and be a part of the Clinton reform juggernaut. Same for the utilities. But no people. We weren't asked to call on ourselves and our families and friends to make better decisions. Instead the implication was to just sit back and let Hillary make everything better.

That is really the gist of the Clinton campaign. A competent doer with all the glamour, success and familiarity attached to the Clinton brand name. She takes a different approach to reform than the other candidates, framing problems positively instead of negatively, and evoking feelings of comfort and assuredness.

It reminds me of the scene in Tommy Boy where the parts buyer tells Tommy Callahan about his ingrained need for a guarantee on the box.

“I like your line. And I like your prices. But there's a problem. There's no guarantee on the box. It should always be on the box. Comforting you, calling out, ‘I'm good. I'll never let you down. But if I do, I'm gonna make all things better.”

That is the Clinton campaign in a nutshell. She has positioned herself as the guarantee on the box. She is the Ray Zalinsky of 2008.

In a way, her voice problems actually helped to solidify this image. All throughout the half hour speech, Clinton spoke at a low volume into the microphone, refraining from motivational rhetoric and loud pleas to fire up the crowd. Instead, in a hushed tone she kept the audience in a rapt state of calm just the way that a comfortable brand of cereal makes someone feel good on a sleepy morning before work. Just the way that someone can walk into a McDonalds and a Starbucks in Sandusky, OH or Nashua, NH and drink the same tasty pumpkin spice latte and eat the same glistening French fry. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

As the polls continue to show, a comforting juggernaut like that is hard to uproot. It doesn’t matter how high the negatives are for a Home Depot or a Wal-Mart, they keep churning out a massive profit by providing Americans with a recognizable, widely available, and vaguely affordable service that, on the surface, makes their lives easier.

True to form, when Clinton finished her remarks nearly half the crowd immediately stood up and headed for the exits. After all, it is what they had come to expect from Hillary Clinton. You get a speech and a few handshakes. No questions, folks.

Then, over the din, she spoke into the microphone and with a fragile voice announced that she would take a few questions from the audience. Surprised, and maybe even a little relieved, everyone made their way back into the gym, this time mostly milling around near the back instead of trying to find their old seats.

Still a little confused, no hands raised for the first few seconds, then one, then two, then a few more. Clinton called on a young girl who asked if she would help global warming. Then an older man asked her something bland about foreign policy. Already nearly 8PM, and with a full night of writing, an hour drive, and an early morning wake up call ahead of me, I skipped out after the second softball question.

A few days later, in light of the Iowa plant scandal, I couldn’t help but wonder about the timing and the timidity of the Q&A session in Nashua.

But when you are dealing with the high stakes world of the Presidency led by the juggernaut branding machine of Mark Penn, efficient and effective strategies like audience plants are to be expected. They are also the sort of rot that can take down a massive tree from the inside. Tommy Callahan puts it better than I can.

“Here’s how I see it. A guy puts a guarantee on the box ’cause he wants you to feel all warm and toasty inside. [But] all they sold you was a guaranteed piece of shit. That’s all it is. Hey, if you want me to take a dump in a box and mark it guaranteed, I will. I got spare time. But for right now, for your sake, for your daughter’s sake, ya might wanna think about buying a quality item from me.”

Everyone in the Democratic primary knows and loves the Clinton name. It really does make a lot of the voters fell warm inside and in politics, that warmth is like gold. But like the old Latin phrase goes, caveat emptor. That slick and familiar Clinton label looks pretty good in the store window, but the voters will do themselves a favor to really take a look and make sure they’re not just buying a guaranteed piece of shit.

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