The Smallville Campaign: Hillary Goes Back in Time

Until I saw her on the stump these past few days, I’d never have believed that Hillary Clinton could attract voters by appealing to their sense of yearning for the 1950’s.

It seems, on the face of it, an absurd idea. The only thing that Mrs. Clinton’s most zealous fans and shrillest critics agree upon is that her Presidential candidacy represents a decisive and potentially transformative break with tradition. To her fans, she’s a courageous trailblazer; to her critics, she’s a radical feminist in disguise.

But the language that she uses on the campaign trail—beyond the rote answers to the policy and process questions she gets at each campaign stop—is that of a sentimental nostalgist.

As the Senator made a quick swing through Iowa on Sunday and Monday, the frequency with which she invoked a lost American golden age was striking. Her comments went far beyond the de rigueur Democratic lamentations about the current administration and its effects upon the nation.

Often sounding startlingly conservative—in the literal, traditionalist sense of the word—Mrs. Clinton harked back repeatedly to her youth, citing the era of Eisenhower and Kennedy as a shining example of how government and citizens can work together for the greater good.

Everything from the American response to the Soviet Sputnik program (“Google it!” she semi-teasingly advised any perplexed younger listeners) to her late father’s energy-conservation habits was thrown into the mix.

During a Q&A session at an event at the University of Dubuque, one woman asked the Senator about the religious right’s apparent hostility to science.

Instead of taking the opportunity to whack social conservatives, she declared, “As President, I want to get back to what we did in the 1950’s and 60’s.” She spoke glowingly of the willingness of administrations in that era to fund scientific research.

At the same event, and again the following day when addressing biotech workers at a facility on the outskirts of Des Moines, Mrs. Clinton wistfully recounted being told by one Mrs. Krause, her fifth-grade teacher, that President Eisenhower wanted American children to do better at science and math. And she recalled, to general amusement, that she believed the President had “called Mrs. Krause” and made the request personally.

Mrs. Clinton’s evocation of times long past is about more than just feel-good sentimentality. Her point appears to be not only that the Bush administration today lacks the wisdom of its predecessors from a half-century ago, but that the citizenry itself has lost its sense of personal and civic responsibility.

In Dubuque, Mrs. Clinton declared that it was important to bring education “back to the way I remember it.” She went on to say that back then, while it was less financially burdensome for students from middle-income families to go to college, it was also a time when “students understood that it was their responsibility to take it seriously.”

(There is precedent for Mrs. Clinton’s stuffy disapproval of contemporary youth: She apologized publicly to her daughter Chelsea last year after the younger Clinton called to complain about her mother’s comment that “Young people today think work is a four-letter word.”)

In Des Moines, faced with a question about Hugo Chávez and America’s dependence on foreign governments for energy, Mrs. Clinton suggested that citizens take a leaf from the book of her late father—“a child of the Depression”—and turn off the lights in each room as they leave it.

“If we said, ‘Turn off that light, because we don’t want to send any more money to Chávez in Venezuela,’ that would make a difference,” she asserted.

To the extent that it constitutes a tactic, Mrs. Clinton’s show of longing for times gone by could well pay off.

The frequency of her admiring references to the likes of Eisenhower may reassure older floating voters that she is not, after all, positioned outside the American mainstream. And foregrounding her status as a child of the 1950’s could also blunt one of Senator Barack Obama’s perceived advantages over her by suggesting that her age is an asset—not just in terms of her experience, but also because of the connection it gives her to America’s headiest days.

Mrs. Clinton also knows that, as the first woman to have a realistic shot at the Presidency, her candidacy is inherently progressive. But if her appearances in Iowa are anything to go by, she is gently seeding the idea in voters’ minds that a Hillary administration would be as much a renewal of faith in the past as a break with the present.