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Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks: What the Clintons Learned From Iowa

01/09/2008 01:12 pm 13:12:17 | Updated May 25, 2011

Don't call it a comeback. Hillary was always going to win, polls
(especially polls of African American candidates) and media (always
itching for any reason to throw dirt on a Clinton coffin) be damned.

But New Hampshire marks the moment that generational change is becoming
major factor in the Democratic primary race.

The Clintons have history here. After young people--the supposedly
politically dodgy "Generation X"--turned out in huge numbers to sweep
Clinton to the presidency in 1992, the Dems consistently ignored them
and their issues for the next 3 elections, calling them "apathetic" and
"cynical".

It's true that we proved them right for the next few elections. But
there were more than a few good reasons to stay home on election day:
Bill's http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeff-chang/obama-clinton-and-the-
s_b_77282.html target=_blank> strategic demonizing of young African
Americans
, the welfare deform that tossed hundreds of thousands of
poor young people out on the street, the rapid deterioration of college
access, and the tough-on-crime "centrist" politics that put more young
people of color behind bars than any previous American generation.

(I was stunned this morning to see a new level of unseemly href=http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kathleen-reardon/nh-lesson-dont-
insult-_b_80631.html target=_blank>Boomer crowing, as if a Clinton
victory is a much-needed beatdown of post-Boomers and the MSM who
allegedly love them. It's a demonstration of how closely many Boomer
Dems identify with the Clintons. It bears noting, though, that the drop
in the youth vote after 1992 played no small role in the rise of Newt
Gingrich and the politics of the impeachment.)

So thus it has been since 1992. Every election season, there are a few
lines about increasing student loans--Just what we need! More debt!--and
some token lines about the wonder of idealism (thank you, Bill
Bradley), but other than that it's usually been, "Boy, get me some
coffee." Then came http://www.motherjones.com/news/feature/2007/11/fight-the-power.html
target=_blank>2004, the hip-hop generation's all-but-ignored
breakthrough moment
, and Iowa 2008, with Obama's armies of the
quad.

Even as the media was writing off the Clintons as tired, confused and
done, they were rapidly assimilating new knowledge. They knew that
young voters would make up a much smaller proportion of Dem voters in
New Hampshire than in Iowa. Hillary's grassroots operation was in
place, her people were motivated by a life-and-death kind of adrenalin,
and she learned some key lessons from Iowa.

1) Take back the women's vote. A lot of attention last night--in
an explicitly sexist way--focused on "The Tears Of The Ice Queen"
story. (How uncomfortable were CNN's Donna Brazile and Campbell Brown
with line of rhetoric? Very. How many male commentators would ask Rudy
Giuliani to cry? None.)

But no one picked up on href=http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/08/opinion/08steinem.html?
scp=2&sq=gloria+steinem target=_blank>Gloria Steinem's call to
action in the Times yesterday, part of an all-out effort to tell
the white women of New Hampshire: this race ain't about race, it's
about gender.

2) Split the kids. On Sunday, Bill Clinton href="http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1579086/20080106/
id_0.jhtml">told MTV News, "I think historically young people have
not voted in the Iowa caucus because they are from other states...This
time we had a lot of students who did come back and I think, frankly,
thousands and and thousands of them were from Illinois and wanted to
support Senator Obama, and they had a very aggressive outreach. And ...
we haven't made that mistake here; we've reached out to young people
here just as much as he has, and I think we just have to keep trying."
Aside from the carpet-bagger diss--get used to it, Bubba, because it is
what it is--it was a telling shift. The campaign retooled itself to
attract young white women.

The most notable image last night was Hillary's imitation of Obama's
perfect Iowa victory speech: the candidate bathed in morning light,
surrounded by bright hopeful diverse (well, as diverse as you can get
in Iowa) crowds in rapt attention, ready to explode in joy. Last night,
Hillary's handlers perfectly duplicated Obama's set--right down to
placing all the under-24 white women they could find (plus an Asian
Indian woman for a little color and a Chinese dude for a little
diversity) behind her. "Ready to Lead" became the inspirational "Ready
for Change". She even inserted a couple of applause lines about
predatory student lenders.

All this was in sharp contrast to her Iowa speech in which she gave a
boiler-plate stump that even she didn't seem invested in, looked
uncomfortable standing next to Bill, and was surrounded in poor
lighting by Madeline Albright and shady-looking union operatives with
lazy eyes.

So the old dogs can learn new tricks. Hillary moves on to South
Carolina ready to sound more liberal and more concerned with racial
justice than she ever may again this election season. And you can bet
that a lot of dedicated young activists in the Clinton and Obama
campaigns are about to be tapped by their higher-ups for the ride of
their lives.

Because of the hard work of what might now be seen as a vanguard group
of activists at the University of Iowa, Iowa State, and other college
campuses in the Hawkeye, Democrats are more interested than they've
ever been in what young people are going to be doing on the day
their little election comes to your state. So if you're a left-leaning
college student, know that for the next several weeks, you will be the
most courted youth in the history of American politics.

The ball is now in your court. What do you really want?

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Jeff Chang's blog is at www.cantstopwontstop.com/blog.

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