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California: Chelsea Clinton Mines For Votes

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Chelsea Clinton is unhappy with her health insurance. Talking about her mother's health care plan, Chelsea says to the hundred or so women and the dozen men gathered around her in a small room at Mills College in Oakland, "If people have health care and they like it, they can keep it. If people have health care and they don't like it, like me, or--take that--it'll get back to my employer." After some laughter, the dialogue moves on to No Child Left Behind. What's interesting is that during this unusually long session of Q & A, in which the students ask some probing questions, no one, even though the women preface their remarks with comments about what they do, asks Chelsea Clinton what she does. So she works for Avenue Capital, the (still) hugely successful hedge fund, owned by Marc Lasry (no. 317 on the Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest Americans), and she doesn't have good health insurance?

The larger irony that never surfaces for this largely pro-Hillary crowd is the disjunction between what Chelsea does and what the young women of Mills do. Among the questioners are a public policy major already working on poverty issues in Oakland, a welfare worker who counsels poor young mothers, an advocate for California children with disabilities, and a biology major, a senior, who is wondering where best to invest her knowledge and talents. These are the careers, if perhaps on a higher, policy level, one would have predicted for Bill's and Hillary's daughter back when she was talking about pre-med at Stanford.

Stumping for her mother in California, Chelsea has turned down an invitation from her alma mater in favor of Mills College. Now maybe this is because, as President Jan Holmgren says, "Mills is one of the most diverse schools in the nation"--albeit on the undergraduate level women only. Mills, founded in 1852, granted the first baccalaureate degree to a woman in California. That fact alone could be reason enough for the daughter of a woman candidate for president to choose Mills. Nevertheless, the strong presence of Students for Obama at Stanford might have had something to do with the decision. Surely, a Stanford student or two would have confronted Chelsea about her career path.

Chelsea Clinton is poised and beautifully pulled-together. (My husband says he doesn't think much of the Clinton Campaign Youth Outreach Director, who accompanies Chelsea. I press him why, and the best that he can come up with is that the young woman is sloppily dressed. I tell him that that's the dress code de rigueur for Democratic campaign staff.) More importantly, Chelsea is highly intelligent and articulate. Her slow, deliberative manner of speech is a refreshing change from the rat-tat-tat of the pros on the campaign trail. Nevertheless, there is a slight whiff of spoiled child about her, not only in her comment about her health insurance but also in her irritation at the low ring of a cell phone.

Maybe Chelsea's persona is the reason the women of Mills aren't feisty with her. They are respectful, even a bit cowed, and with one exception don't take her up on her assertions. Predictably, Chelsea has been well-schooled. She never mentions Barack Obama by name and consistently refers to "the other campaigns," plural, as if there were more than one other Donkey in the room. Three times, students ask her to compare her mother's position on an issue to Obama's. Wisely, she refrains. The closest she comes, asked what her mother would do to promote peace between Israel and Palestine, Chelsea replies that "it's not right for the President to drop into Tehran on January 22." And, of course, she does not answer the question about Israel and Palestine. If she had, her answer would have been up on the AP in the time it takes me to log into the Huff Po.'

On a more serious note, a couple of the questions are illustrative of how hard it is going to be, in the real world beyond the campaign trail, to bring to pass the various changes in society that both Clinton and Obama are promising. The fact that California is facing 10% across-the-board budget cuts in a desperate attempt to adjust to lower state revenues (not to mention a 14 billion-dollar deficit) affects some of these women directly. The advocate for children with disabilities doesn't know where she will get the money for all the wheelchairs chidlren in the state need. Several students who are single mothers, Calworks Moms, are worried about cuts in state services for low-income families. But it's the vast state, not the federal, bureaucracy that controls such things, even though these are precisely the bread-and-butter issues that Obama and Clinton, especially, address.

The one revealing exchange between Chelsea Clinton and the Mills students is on the subject of Calworks Moms. A young woman asks Chelsea if her mom would change her dad's Welfare Reform Act. "It's difficult for young moms on welfare to go to college," the student says. Chelsea replies, before moving quickly to the subject of green collar jobs (one of her mother's pet topics), that "education would count as work" in her mom's education plan. But a second Mills student wants to press further. "We can already count the hours we spend in the classroom [toward the 32 hours a week requirement for work under the Welfare Reform Act], but we need to have study and homework time count, too." The possible ramifications of changing Bill Clinton's Welfare Reform Act to include homework time as work show the glibness of campaign promises like "counting school as work."

On balance, however, Chelsea seems to have closed the deal with a hundred women, who are very likely to get to the polls Tuesday. In the end, it's not so much about what Chelsea says as her presence--the fact that she shows up and takes questions. If the Clinton Campaign had figured this out earlier, before Chelsea made her snippy rejoinder to the Cedar Rapids fourth grader, a kid reporter for Scholastic News, that "I don't talk to the press and that applies to you," then her mother might have done better in Iowa.