Under different circumstances, it would have been the perfect place for Barack Obama to deliver the closing Democratic argument for the 2014 midterm elections that will shape the partisan environment for the final two years of his presidency.
Instead, there was Bill Clinton—again.
The former president has traveled coast to coast in his new-found role as the Democratic closer, while an unpopular Obama has mostly taken himself out of game. With the Des Moines skyline in the background and four blocks from the president’s 2008 campaign office, the scene was filled with political irony, as Clinton made a final pitch for the election of Bruce Braley, the Democratic nominee in a state that could decide whether Republicans take control of the Senate. If they do, Obama’s final years in office could be dominated by investigations and veto threats; if Democrats can hold the chamber while the Republican House majority grows, a stalemated Congress would at least give him more room to operate through his executive powers.
Clinton got some of his biggest applause when he took on a television ad Braley’s opponent, Republican Joni Ernst, ran during her primary campaign that showcased her experience castrating hogs on her family’s farm. “She said she wanted to take her pork-cutting skills to Washington and make ’em squeal,” Clinton said. “That sounds good, but in order for it to work, you’ve got to know the difference between pork and people.”
Soaking up the applause of about 600 gathered on an ice skating oval rink on a sunny, but chilly Saturday afternoon, Clinton then sought to turn what’s been an asset for Ernst on its political head. “I don’t want to hear minimum wage workers squeal. I don’t want to hear middle class and working families squeal. I don’t want to hear college students squeal. I don’t want to hear seniors squeal,” he said. “I want to hear them say, ‘Thank goodness that America is back and we’re part of it again.'”
It was the sort of message that Obama might have delivered when his political stock was still on the rise and his oratory skills were often compared to those of Clinton or former Republican President Ronald Reagan. There’s no state that’s played a bigger role in Obama’s national political career. His 2008 Iowa caucuses win over another Clinton–one named Hillary–launched him on the road to the White House and he carried the swing state in both 2008 and 2012. At the end of his re-election campaign, Obama held his final rally in Des Moines, delivering an emotional speech where he asked Iowans to help him “finish what we started.”
Yet with his approval rating among Iowans below 40 percent, Obama hasn’t been to the state since then. His aides acknowledge that his presence in Iowa could do more harm than good in a race where polls have shown Braley slightly behind Republican Joni Ernst. “If it made sense to go, we’d be happy to go,” Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to Obama said on Bloomberg Television’s “With All Due Respect” program last week. “But what we want is for Bruce Braley to be in the Senate, and we’re going to let him run his campaign.”
Because of Obama’s history with the state, few other places offer a more tantalizing target for Republicans seeking the net gain of six seats they need to take control of the Senate. The seat in question has been held for three decades by Tom Harkin, a liberal Democratic icon. A CNN/ORC poll released Friday showed Ernst leading Braley, 49 percent to 47 percent, a difference within the survey’s margin of error.
In a message that could find its way into his wife’s prospective 2016 presidential campaign, Clinton argued that the nation has been “growing apart ever since I left office” and that voters should look for the candidate who is most willing to compromise. “Who’s the work-together candidate in this race and who’s the divide and polarize candidate?” he asked. “Those are the only two things that matter in the end.”
Although he didn’t mention Obama by name, Clinton also sought to steer voters away from turning to a Republican to punish a Democratic president. “You need to vote for progress, not protest,” he said. The former president also charged that Ernst has supported “getting rid of the student loan program,” something he called a “dead-bang loser” and a “grow-apart” position. And he made a similar argument against Ernst’s opposition to the 2014 farm bill.
“Bruce Braley worked with Republicans as well as Democrats to pass this farm bill,” he said. “She has said she would have voted against the farm bill. That’s not a work-together position, and it’s not even a Republican position. It may be in Tea Party heaven, but it’s not in the world that you live in, in Washington.”
In his introduction of the former commander-in-chief, Braley called Clinton the “president, emeritus with gravitas” and told supporters they only have three days to “make it happen” and secure the Iowa seat for the Democrats.
Music icon James Taylor, in town for his own concert, served as the warm-up act for Clinton and Braley, urging voters to ignore the outside super-political action committees that have spent millions on the race. “It’s important that we say no and that our vote is not for sale,” he said.
It’s an odd twist of fate that Bill and Hillary Clinton have been reborn as the likely future of the Democratic Party, a crown Obama took from them in 2008. On the final weekend of the 2014 campaign, the former first couple are traveling to this year’s hot zones and banking favors for a potential second Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. They’ve had a presence in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first and second states to vote in the 2016 nomination process.
Obama, meanwhile, is confined to politically safer Democratic ground with visits to Michigan, Connecticut and Pennsylvania to stump for fellow chief executives: the party’s nominees for governor. His schedule isn’t that different from his last midterm campaign, in 2010, when he spent the final weekend stumping in urban Democratic strongholds inside Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Illinois and Ohio, ahead of a wave election where Republicans took control of the U.S. House.
“It’s been disappointing because he hasn’t been able to do more,” said Julie Sorci, 57, an independent voter who attended the rally and plans to support Braley. A suburban Des Moines resident who works in human resources for an engineering company, Sorci said she has mixed feelings about a potential Hillary Clinton White House bid because of the political baggage she carries as a former secretary of state and presidential candidate.
“Bill is a very talented individual,” she said. “I’m torn on her as a candidate.”