When George McGovern endorsed Hillary Clinton last Saturday in Iowa City, he recalled how in 1972 she helped organize in Texas for his failed presidential campaign, joining her then-boyfriend Bill, whose long slovenly hair made him resemble a buffalo.
McGovern praised the “marvelous” candidates in this year’s Democratic field, specifically John Edwards and Barack Obama, but he made clear why he gave the edge to Hillary. “I hope to live long enough to see a black president in the White House,” McGovern said, addressing the audience in a cattle barn during the Johnson County Democrats Barbecue. “But we have an old rule and courtesy in the United States: ‘ladies first.'”
As she expands her lead in pursuit of the Democratic nomination, the former First Lady continues to benefit both from the affection many Democratic voters still have for her husband as well as their desire to elect a female president. Backers of Hillary Clinton rave about her intelligence and mastery of the issues, but interviews conducted with her supporters throughout Iowa over the course of her recent four-day swing reveal that something else often separates her from the pack.
“I’ll be honest, I’d like to see a woman president,” said Linda Jensen, a Clinton supporter from Riverside, Iowa who had difficulty making up her mind because she also adores Edwards. “I’d like my granddaughters to see a woman president. It’s more than past time.”
When I caught up with her at the Johnson County Barbecue, Jensen was wearing a button that read: “Miss Bill? Vote Hillary.” It was one of several buttons on sale that featured the 42nd President. Others included: “Bring Back Peace, Prosperity, and the Clintons”; “Bill Clinton for First Gentleman”; and the more casual “Bill Clinton for First Dude.”
“I’d vote for Bill Clinton again if I could,” Jensen told me.
While Hillary Clinton has opened up a commanding lead over her Democratic rivals nationally (as high as 33 points), she has found herself in a dogfight in Iowa, where both Edwards and Obama have strong followings. But a recent Des Moines Register poll has Clinton pulling ahead by 6 points in the state, and her gender could be a major contributing factor to her improved fortunes. As Register columnist David Yepsen noted, women make up 62 percent of likely Democratic caucus goers, and Clinton carries 34 percent of them, which is more than any other candidate.
It’s no surprise that at every campaign stop, she brings up her potential to make history.
“I’m also very excited about the prospect of being the first woman President of the United States,” Clinton said on Sunday at Anamosa, Iowa. As is also her habit, she repeated a story about an elderly woman who she claims approached her after a campaign appearance. “I’m 95 years old,” Clinton said the woman told her. “‘I was born before women could vote, and I’m going to live long enough to see a woman in the White House.'”
The Bill Clinton angle is a little trickier for her to play up, because explicitly making her candidacy about restoring the Clinton presidency could create a backlash. However, the connection between her and Bill is so strong in voters’ minds, it doesn’t take much to drive the point home, which is often done through the help of surrogates.
For instance, McGovern told the crowd in Iowa City: “Many of you here know the affection and admiration I have for President Bill Clinton, but…I think, if we can elect [Hillary] president, she’ll be a greater president even than her brilliant husband.”
In her own speeches, Hillary might be more subtle, but she still is sure to remind voters of the connection. “When this president came into office, we had a balanced budget and a surplus,” she said in Maquoketa, Iowa on Sunday, “and I was proud of my husband for working those eight years to make that happen.”
It is hard to underestimate the fond memories many Democratic voters have of the Clinton years, and they will often refer to Bill by his first name, or even by a nickname.
“I think she’d get some good information from her husband,” speculated Wayne Heiar, of Charlotte, Iowa, who came to the Maquoketa event. “I thought right away that Billy Boy might help her out.”
In a sense, these two desires — to extend the Clinton dynasty and to elect a woman president — go hand in hand, as the prospect of Bill Clinton being around to offer advice if needed provides an added layer of reassurance. It’s like Michael Corleone calming nerves when he took over the family business by saying, “Besides, if I ever need help, who’s a better consiglieri than my father?”
Keene Pickrel, who came to a Hillary Clinton rally in Marshalltown, Iowa on Monday from a nearby home for veterans, wants to see a woman in the White House.
“I’m for women’s rights, and this is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Pickrel said. “If she could win this, if she could pull this baby off, it’d be great.”
As if it were an added bonus, he predicted: “If Hillary goes in there and she has any trouble, Bill will help her out.”
Several Hillary Clinton supporters even cited the infamous “two for the price of one” phrase in a positive sense.
While the affection for Bill may be providing a boost for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, it is unclear how the prospect of extending a two-family dynasty would play among the general electorate.
Even among Iowa Democrats, Bill Clinton is a double-edged sword for Hillary.
“I don’t know if I want another Clinton in the White House,” Kevin Eggers told me before the same rally in Marshalltown. As a union member during the 1990s, Eggers opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Bill signed, making labor leaders more reluctant to support Hillary. The concentration of union membership in the Hawkeye State is one reason why Clinton has faced a tighter race than in other parts of the country, and it explains why in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Monday she said she would appoint a trade enforcement officer and called for a reassessment of NAFTA.
If Hillary Clinton becomes the nominee, to the extent that she runs on Bill’s record in the general election, she may benefit from the positive memories Americans have of the 1990s, but she’ll open herself up to criticism of all of the things that Americans didn’t like about him. Furthermore, at a time when the best thing that Democrats have going for them is a tremendous desire for change among the electorate, it’s not so obvious that in a matchup between her and any of the leading Republicans, Hillary would be the clear “change” candidate.