Hillary Clinton reached capacity (300) in the hotel Winneshiek's third floor Opera House in Decorah, a small town in northwest Iowa that is home to Luther College. A good crowd for a Tuesday afternoon.
The crowd skewed heavily toward older and white and was about 80% women.
Perhaps to rebut the stereotype that Hillary supporters are women, a backdrop of mostly men and a few kids sat on the edge of the four-foot opera stage, slightly above where Hillary was speaking on the floor below. The set-up was kind of like a State of the Union speech, except above Clinton's right shoulder a man spent most of the time with his arms folded and his head down. Above Hillary’s left shoulder an amusing ten-year-old girl just couldn't resist yawning.
Before Hillary came out, we were entertained with a five minute video called "Fighter" in a timeline format that started in 1973 when Clinton worked for the Children's Defense Fund. It then jumped to 1995 when she addressed the United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing and criticized the Chinese government's population control policy and the resulting infanticide of females, jumped to 1997 with the passage of the Children's Health Insurance Program, then to 2001 and then-Senator Clinton's response to 9/11, to 2009 when she was appointed Secretary of State by President Obama, and then to the present-day Presidential campaign. There was no mention that between 1973 and 1995 she mostly worked as a corporate attorney, not for the Children's Defense Fund, as the timeline implies. Hillary Clinton worked for the Children's Defense Fund for about one year between mid-1973 and mid-1974.
When she arrived on stage, Clinton came out swinging for her opponent, Bernie Sanders, who has her in a dead heat in Iowa.
Electing a Republican or Bernie Sanders for President would have similarly disastrous results for Democrats, she explained:
"I believe we should build on the progress we have made and go further, but I do not want to see us either have the Republicans rip that away and turn us backwards or start all over again. Because there are lots of good ideas in the world, but you've got to be able to act on them and make them real in people's lives. So I want action, not gridlock, I want progress not regression."
Later she returned to this point, attacking Sanders’ "medicare for all" plan, and saying: "We share the goal and want to get to universal coverage, but it's somewhat easier to imagine getting from 90% to 100% than 0% to 100%."
On the student debt crisis, Clinton said she supported ways of making college affordable, contrasting her plan with Senator Sanders' plan to essentially make public universities an extension of America's K-12 public school system. "I want you to have debt-free tuition. And what that means is that for families that can afford to pay for their kid to go to college—those that are wealthy—they should. I don't think we should have free college for people that can afford it." She said Sanders' plan would only increase college tuition, because, "the colleges have to lower their costs and if all you do is say, 'We're giving free college to everybody,' there is no incentive to lower the costs, and pretty soon it will just go up and up and we'll be back in the soup again. A lot of colleges need to take a hard look at what they are putting into that tuition base because it has gone up 40% in the last ten years and that is just unsustainable."
In the same vein, Clinton said that she wanted to give others the same low student-loan debt she had when she left law school, which enabled her "to take the job I wanted to do with the Children's Defense Fund, not go take some lawyer job I wasn't interested in, but needed the money to pay back my debt. I just believe so strongly you all deserve the same opportunity."
She somberly reminded the crowd that they're electing "a president and a commander-in-chief," raising questions about whether Bernie Sanders was up to the task, hinting that he would be like his Larry David stereotype and unable to focus on the task at hand. "As the president said, when urgent news comes through the door, you can't just say, 'Well you know what, that's not on my schedule, I'll get to it when I can'— no, you've got to be ready to respond as quickly as possible."
She also said anti-Islamic comments by Republicans candidates would only increase terrorist threats, saying, "After 9/11—as you saw in that film—I learned a lot about what it takes to combat terrorism. And one thing is you need everyone in your community to be on the same side. Our American Muslim neighbors are our first line of defense. They're the ones that are more likely to hear something or see something. If they are made to feel that they are not wanted, they're excluded, that's not only wrong, but it could be a loss for us."
She spent a few minutes talking about her time in the White House, asking people to think back 24 years ago, to remember that they inherited a recession and had turned things around.
At several moments the crowd clapped and cheered, but there were also several long stretches where a few attendees nodded off and others began to fidget with their phones.
The event was billed as a question-and-answer session with the candidate, but Clinton spoke for most of her hour-long appearance and ended up quickly answering three softball questions in the remaining 10 minutes (What do you think about appointing Obama to the Supreme court?)
After the event, several attendees were gung-ho for Clinton, but many were still undecided.
Terry Sparkes, a 61-year-old and an Associate Dean at Luther College, said she is still hasn't chosen between Sanders and Clinton. She said that she liked that Hillary, "has an ability to focus and get things done a progressive track," but that she has concerns about her judgement. “I was one of those that protested the Iraq war and I knew then what she said she didn't know. And I still worry about that. She leans a little bit too hawkish for me." She went on, "On the flip side, one on the reasons that I'm leaning toward Sanders is that I think he's got it right on income equality, I think he's got it right on trying to move toward universal health care. . . . The reason I keep going to the other side is that I understand the practical issues as well."
Connie McGrane of nearby Lime Springs, said she recently retired as a secretary and that her pick for the caucus "will probably be Hillary," because "she can hit the ground running, she has experience, won't waste time—no learning curve."
An older guy in his 70s declined to give his name, but said that he was planning on supporting Martin O'Malley. If that didn't work out, he said he'd probably shift to Hillary. Why not Sanders? "There are just too many people that lived through the Cold War, and when they hear socialist, they hear communist. I like Bernie, but I'm worried about him being able to get elected."
Megan Coy, a 25-year-old from nearby Fayette Iowa, was bouncing her 13-month-old daughter on her hip. She works part-time at Upper Iowa University. Megan said she is still very undecided, but likes the way Hillary has given detailed answers, "and, of course, I would love to have a woman president." She also said she is "very torn between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, mainly because she feels more establishment in her policies as compared to Sanders, and I would really like it if as a country we moved to the left. It would be more incremental with her. I would like something more quick, but I don't want to elect an unelectable candidate."
Ellen Johnson, a retired teacher from nearby Guttenberg Iowa, is enthusiastically supporting Hillary. "I supported her eight years ago and will do so again this time." She said she loved Hillary, because of her "intelligence, experience, and a good heart. I think she sincerely wants to help people." She said her main reason for supporting Hillary over Sanders is that "she can be elected."
Kristen Propson, a 39-year-old textbook writer and a nurse from Decorah, was having a tough time deciding. "I went to see Bernie just a couple days ago and I came to see Hillary today and both times I walked out convinced," she said laughing. Referring, to Sanders she said, "I love to see the underdog win, but I don't know if the underdog can take on our country in the right way."
Jud Lounsbury is a political reporter and regular contributor to the Progressive.