Hillary: Zen & the art of Iowa Steak Fry

Hillary: Zen & the art of Iowa Steak Fry

Readers will be reading reams of material about the US presidential race, but a year from now, it is entirely possible that at a traditional steak fry political rally this past weekend could well have marked the starting bell for the race's presumed frontrunner. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look.

Hillary Clinton. Does that name ring a bell with readers? Of course it does. In a nutshell, she is the former US First Lady, New York senator and secretary of state. Indeed, it would be almost impossible to find someone in the US, or in any part of the world reached by a newspaper or an Internet connection, who hasn’t heard of her or formed opinions about her – given her more than two decades in the unrelenting national and international public eye.

But she last ran – unsuccessfully, remember – for public office back in 2008 when she was flatten by a track with a Yes We Can sign. And given the way things have changed in American politics, especially with the overwhelming reach of social media and new fundraising strategies, that presidential race six years earlier now seems almost a lifetime ago. As a result, as Hillary slowly circles in on her formal decision to seek the presidency one last time, she also faces the task of re-introducing herself to a public that almost certainly thinks it already has a well thought-through understanding of who she is and what she wants, believes in or stands for.

As a result, rather than coming on like an irresistible, unstoppable force, Hillary Clinton has been dancing tantalisingly around the flame. Her non-candidacy candidacy inches closer and then moves back slightly; she tests responses, her team measures positives and negatives as they come back to her from the media, via focus groups, from what she hears from potential supporters and – almost certainly – as the team draws lessons from sophisticated polling that is not, strictly speaking, campaign polling.

It has been noted previously that putative-candidate-for-the-presidency Hillary Clinton has an additional challenge on her plate. She must plausibly figure out a way to run for the office while still appearing to be a loyal member of the current president’s political party, even as she carefully differentiates herself from the Obama administration in various ways. This is a particularly delicate task for her and her campaign, given the fact that she was the Obama administration’s dutiful secretary of state for four years.

Nevertheless, putative-candidate-for-the-presidency Clinton has already gotten the fundraising committees ready to roll, as well as the groups that will round up supporters and connect them electronically, and the organisational structures that will ensure she is properly registered to run in each primary and caucus as they come along from the beginning of 2016 and that the fundraising arms are properly constituted. But 2016? Yes, there is the mid-term election in less than two months’ time, but as soon as that awkward bit of business is concluded – with its potential for spanking the Democrats and possibly costing them control of the Senate – the real business of setting a 2016 presidential campaign in motion will go ahead with a vengeance.

This, then, helps explain the launch of her artfully titled memoir, Hard Choices, a few months back, as well as the book tour across the US, including numerous radio and television interviews, to promote this particular volume detailing her views of foreign policy crises. And then there was that recent, controversial interview in The Atlantic where she staked out a tough-edged position on terrorism and in dealing with regimes like Bashar al-Assad’s Syria – even tougher than seemed to be the views in the current Obama administration. In this, Clinton may have had a kind of “lucky” break. In the months ahead she may well be able to reference those fast-moving events with ISIS in Syria and Iraq and the new US-led response to it as a kind of broad-based justification for those positions she set out in that interview.

A lighter, but still significant harbinger of her inevitable campaign is the story Clinton has lined up for an augmented exercise regimen with an experienced trainer. The point of this is, of course, that running for president requires enormous stamina, good health and real reservoirs of energy. Getting this sorted out a year or two in advance of an actual candidacy is simply good planning and excellent politics.

Of course the most visible symbol of that campaign-in-the-making so far has been Hillary Clinton and her husband’s attendance at the annual Tom Harkin steak fry in Indianola, Iowa – an event that always attracts candidates and would-be candidates to make initial forays in front of Iowa voters. As the Washington Post reported it, “Hillary Rodham Clinton, making her return to Iowa for the first time since the 2008 presidential campaign, implored Democrats on Sunday to choose shared economic opportunity over ‘the guardians of gridlock’ in an high-profile appearance that drove speculation about another White House bid into overdrive. “Hello Iowa. I’m back!” Clinton declared as she took the podium at retiring Sen. Tom Harkin’s annual steak fry fundraiser, a fixture on the political calendar in the home of the nation’s first presidential caucus. Clinton joined her husband, former President Bill Clinton, in a tribute to Harkin that brought them before about 10,000 party activists who form the backbone of Iowa’s presidential campaigns every four years.”

Publicly, Clinton was at the 37th version of this Indianola steak fry to help drum up support for Democratic candidates in this rapidly approaching mid-term election. But, looking further ahead, Iowa is a caucus state, and that means there is a major premium in figuring out how to communicate directly with the voters of that small state in population terms – precisely so that when those caucus meetings take place across the state to select delegates pledged to a particular candidate for the party’s national convention, the candidates will have actually met many of those voters and spoken directly with them on the issues and their qualifications for the presidency.

Despite the large numbers of people in attendance, the Harkin steak fry is also a relatively low-risk, low-stress event. An announced candidate or might-be, could-be candidate gets to try out some potential applause lines and attack lines, as well as set out a personal political narrative that can connect viscerally with voters. In fact, the steak fry almost serves as the equivalent of a live audition for a movie or theatre part, except the stakes are a bit higher than for a part in the next Hollywood film. Taking their cue for this, the Clinton super PAC fundraising vehicle had signs set up at the steak fry, saying “Ready for Hillary”, an obvious reference to a presidential run for her in two years’ time. Not surprisingly, when her steak fry speech was over, many attendees could be heard chanting, “Hillary, Hillary, Hillary,” and she worked the crowd, signing copies of her recent memoir, as well as many of those “Ready for Hillary” posters that were, very conveniently, on-hand.

Speaking at his farewell steak fry before his retirement from politics, Harkin had especially praised Clinton’s longstanding commitment to health care reform. Health care is clearly not a part of the secretary of state’s job, but is a top concern for any potential presidential candidate. Discussing the Affordable Care Act that passed into law while she was part of the Obama team, Harkin told the crowd, “Her fingerprints are all over that legislation. It would not have happened but for her strenuous advocacy all those years.” Of course, Obamacare has not been without its detractors, and even though it has been gaining in popularity as more and more people come under its coverage in various guises, Republicans still hope they can tie key Democratic candidates to its passage in order to defeat them in this year’s mid-term election – or to bell the Hillary cat with it as well.

Speaking last at the steak fry was the former president Bill Clinton. As he got wound up in his speech, he drew on many of his most familiar lines such as reminding his audience that the Founding Fathers of the country were pragmatists rather than ideologues, and the Constitution could be called “Let’s Make a Deal” rather than falling back on stubborn ideological positions. He praised the Ready for Hillary crew for their energy, and did a review of the country’s midterm campaigns. About the only thing he wouldn’t speak about was the topic many attendees had been hoping to hear more about – including the more than 200 reporters who had turned up for the steak fry. (If that many reporters show up two years before the presidential campaign and before there is a single announced candidate, one can only imagine what the media horde following her will be like once Hillary Clinton actually does announce her candidacy.) Nevertheless, Clinton would not give in. “I will not be baited,” he told the crowd with a grin.

Still, for a candidate, at this point, the risk at events like this steak fry are still low – in contrast to the way things will be a year from now. Even with those 200 reporters in attendance, they have yet to morph into a ravenous pack of journalists hanging on every word, eager to document any potentially fatal misstep, an embarrassing fumble, an apparent lie – or even to detect a phrase or idea that resonates and ripples through the electorate, serving as a sudden game-changer.

But most important of all, for Hillary Clinton, at least, a successful appearance at an event like this steak fry can demonstrate that she connects solidly with Democratic voters and their concerns. This, in turn, can begin the great clearing of the decks, encouraging all other possible contenders – pre-eminently Vice President Joe Biden who might also be able to make a claim as an experienced viable candidate, or even Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley – to reconsider even entering the race, months before the race officially begins in the first place.

One person potentially interested in upsetting the entire campaign applecart may well be iconoclastic Vermont Senator, Bernie Sanders. Sanders recently said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he was thinking of running for president. The Vermont senator is a genuine independent: he strongly leans toward many distinctly and seriously left policies, but he votes with the Democrats on organisational matters. As a result, Sanders has had a crucial role in keeping the Senate in Democratic Party hands, and his entry into the presidential race, as quixotic as it may be ultimately, could well force many long-time political activists to make that tough, unappetising choice between head and heart.

Even if, realistically, he has zero chance to gain the party’s actual presidential nomination, if he does go for it, Sanders undoubtedly will make the campaign an amazing thing to witness – with candidate debates that will be great fun to watch. Soon enough, the Daily Maverick will take a look at Sanders’ record and ideas as well, in addition to continuing catch-up looks as Hillary Clinton’s stately progress towards becoming a candidate for president takes shape. DM

Photo: Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (C) is joined by her husband former U.S. President Bill Clinton (L) and Senator Tom Harkin at the 37th Harkin Steak Fry in Indianola, Iowa September 14, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Young

Read more:

  • Hillary Clinton in Iowa stirs 2016 speculation in the Washington Post;

  • Iowa Democrats react to Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Washington Post;

  • Bill and Hillary Clinton Sell Their Brand of Sizzle at a Steak Fry in Iowa at the New York Times;

  • Your Evening Briefing at the New York Times;

  • Bernie Sanders would run for president against Wall Street, not Hillary Clinton at the Washington Post.


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options