Politics & Policy

The Democrats’ Irrelevant Commander-In-Chief Debate

Hillary says she'd be better. But do Democratic primary voters really care?

St. Clairsville, Ohio – It’s 23 degrees and snowing hard outside St. Clairsville High School, here in the Appalachian region of Ohio, not far from the West Virginia line. It doesn’t take long to start feeling deeply chilled, but a lot of people have been standing in line for nearly two hours outside the school’s two entrances, waiting to see Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton make her first and only appearance in St. Clairsville. Struggling to take notes with a frozen pen, I ask why they are willing to endure such conditions for Sen. Clinton.

“Because we’re stupid,” one man tells me as everyone begins to laugh.

It’s not a unique sentiment among the males in line. Several aren’t big fans of Clinton but are here because their wives really, really want to see Hillary. “I think we need to put a woman up there,” a woman named Kim tells me. “The men have done enough.”

“She cares a lot about health care, and there are so many people that fall between the cracks right now,” another woman, Jane, says. “I really think she could make a positive change and it’s about time we had a woman president.”

“I like what she does, and how she fights for the people,” a woman named Gloria tells me. “That’s what this country needs, somebody who’s going to fight for us.”

There’s a lot of that feeling in St. Clairsville. Things are not going well here. According to the U.S. census, the median household income in Belmont County, where St. Clairsville is located, was $32,910 in 2004, well below the Ohio median household income of $43,371, which is itself a bit below the national median. College degrees are rare; according to the census, just 11 percent of adults in the county have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 20 percent never finished high school.

Clinton surely knows that as she promises to lower the costs of going to college, offering debt relief for people who graduate and go into teaching, or nursing, or law enforcement. “And I want to say something about all the other people who don’t go to college,” she adds. “You know, most people don’t go to college and graduate. And these are the people who build the buildings that we live and work in. They keep the economy going. They do most of the jobs in our society. I want to pay more attention to you.” She promises job training and community college programs.

The economy is what people want to hear about, and the economy is what Clinton gives them. Even her relatively brief remarks on the war in Iraq focus on quickly pulling U.S. troops out and providing them more benefits upon their return home. Promising a “21st Century G.I. Bill of Rights,” Clinton pledges more money for veterans to go to college, buy homes, and start businesses.

When it comes time to take questions, they’re nearly all about the economy. The first man to stand up says, “I work in a steel mill. We didn’t get no help last time. Are you going to help us this time? Those Chinese are killing us.” Clinton pledges help. Other questioners want to know about reducing the cost of special education and how to save money installing solar energy systems in their homes.

No one talks about Hillary Clinton’s readiness to be commander-in-chief. But not long after her appearance in St. Clairsville, Clinton will roll out a new attack against Barack Obama, the now-famous phone-rings-at-3-A.M. ad, charging that Obama doesn’t have what it takes to command the nation’s armed services. It’s gotten a lot of attention in the press and put Obama on the defensive. But it’s not what this Democratic race is about, certainly not here in Ohio.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll, finished a couple of weeks ago, asked Ohio Democrats to name the most important issue in their choice of a presidential candidate. Thirty-four percent said the economy and jobs. Thirty percent said health care. Nine percent said the war in Iraq, by which they most certainly meant a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops. Three percent said ethics and honesty in government. Three percent said “change.” Two percent said education. And one percent said terrorism and national security. (The Post and ABC asked the same question in Texas, and the answers were similar; one percent named terrorism and national security as the top issue.)

Those numbers are supported by the experience of just walking around in Ohio. I ask a lot of people why they support, or don’t support, Hillary Clinton, and no one tells me it is because she would be a better or worse commander-in-chief than Barack Obama.

And it’s hard to believe that it’s a top priority for Sen. Clinton herself. Her event before coming to St. Clairsville was an “Economic Solutions for America Summit” in Zanesville, about 60 miles away. The event was by nature about the economy, but there was a weird, inadvertent moment when one of the participants made a little speech that was a perfect preview of the “3 A.M.” ad the Clinton campaign would release little more than a day later. And Sen. Clinton appeared to have no interest in it at all.

It happened when Clinton called on Florine Mark, who is the CEO of Weight Watchers, Inc. Clinton wanted Mark to talk about health care, weight control, and disease prevention, but Mark seemed more interested in fawning over Clinton and describing what a marvelous president she would be. At the end of her remarks, Mark said, “I will tell you one other thing. I will only feel safe if this woman becomes president of the United States of America. If, God forbid, that phone, that red phone in the White House, rings, I want her there to answer it.”

Nobody paid any attention to it at the time — by the time Mark spoke, the crowd was thinning pretty fast and reporters were checking their BlackBerries — but in retrospect, Mark had hit the Clinton theme for the last days of the Ohio campaign. Except that Clinton wasn’t interested. “We’re going to put a moratorium on compliments,” she said curtly as the remaining crowd applauded Mark’s words. “I’m very grateful for those kind remarks, but I really feel that what you have done to emphasize prevention is key. . . . ”

And that is the Democratic race, here in Ohio and in many other places around the country. Clinton can suggest that Barack Obama isn’t ready for the national-security emergencies the next president will face. But go to her events and talk to her supporters. For the voters, it’s an issue that is way, way down the list of priorities, perhaps because they sense it’s low on her priority list, too.


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