The Media Are Bored, but Below the Radar, Clinton Is Connecting

They don’t go viral, but Hillary Clinton’s proposals on substance abuse, Alzheimer’s and other issues are hitting home with voters.

01.03.16 6:15 AM ET

As we go into the New Year mesmerized by Donald Trump and his politically incorrect rants, it’s worth noting that among all the candidates in both parties, the one with the best odds of becoming the next president is Hillary Clinton. With the Iowa caucuses just weeks away, don’t you think it’s time we paid attention to the multitude of policies, proposals and programs she has rolled out over the last seven months?

They may not lead the nightly news or go viral on social media, but they are breaking through with voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. There are two-dozen in all, fleshed out with fact sheets according to a tally provided by the Clinton campaign, and they range from national security to quality of life issues.

It’s a liberal’s wish list, but the problems Clinton tackles are universal, and there’s something for conservatives too in taking on student debt, lowering the price of prescription drugs, providing a tax credit for care giving, and, in the midst of the holidays, announcing an ambitious $2 billion plan to find a cure for Alzheimer’s by 2025.

If you hate government, and think it’s too intrusive, Clinton’s probably not your candidate. But if you’re caring for one of the 5 million Alzheimer’s sufferers in the country, or you or someone you know has been affected by the disease in some way, then you’re with Newt Gingrich, who tweeted his approval of the Clinton plan, or Julianne Moore, who played a linguist afflicted by the disease in Still Alice and tweeted her support.

Or if your family or someone you know has been affected by addiction, Clinton was the first of the candidates in either party to realize how big a problem heroin and prescription drug abuse has become in New Hampshire, claiming so many young lives. It was at a town meeting in August in Keene where Clinton became aware of the extent of the problem when almost every hand went up at a substance abuse forum signaling a personal experience.

She researched the issue and followed up, says Joe Grandmaison, the former Democratic Party state chair in New Hampshire who crowned Bill Clinton the “comeback kid” after his second-place finish in the 1992 primary. An unabashed Hillary fan, Grandmaison observed that her diligence on the addiction issue recalled the “listening tour” Clinton took when she first ran for the Senate from New York in 2000. “You don’t have to be terribly cynical to think it is mostly a public relations tour, but Hillary demonstrated just the opposite,” Grandmaison told me. “Helping people in this way is who she is, and it’s better politics than normal because it cuts right through the cynicism.”

Grandmaison had just returned from a Clinton event in Portsmouth when I reached him on the phone. It was cold and snowy and he had waited 40 minutes in line to get in, but he was still chuckling over the little boy who told Clinton his mommy doesn’t make as much money as his daddy “and that’s not fair because she works harder than he does.” That elicited lots of knowing laughter, along with Clinton’s standard answer about equal pay.

He went on to say the woman who introduced Clinton at the event brought people to tears as she told of caring for two Alzheimer patients, her 59-year-old husband and his 89-year-old mother. “Everybody reaches a certain age and they fear it’s in their future and there’s not a damn thing they can do about it,” Grandmaison said, expressing what has to be a universal worry about a disease that claims mind and memory and has no cure in sight.

It might also be political pay dirt. Sitting in the sanctuary of the Portsmouth church, with people squeezed into every available seat, Clinton’s empathy and her command of information were on ample display. “It shows her at her best,” Grandmaison says, adding, “Those of us who have a great deal of affection for her feel she’s been misunderstood.”

The Clinton campaign has released two new ads related to Alzheimer’s, one about a New Hampshire librarian who cares for his 84-year-old mother and must take her to work with him because he can’t afford day care. The other features an Iowa woman, mother of five, whose husband passed away in May at age 53, after suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s. In the ad, Clinton is visibly moved as she embraces the woman, then says she spoke with the four leading researchers “who are untangling the neurodegenerative diseases” and their excitement about more money for research as opposed to “some additional military asset,” Clinton says. “Just think of the lives it would save.”

In an election cycle that has been anything but conventional, Clinton is running a textbook campaign, methodically laying out her proposals from what she would do about ISIS and terrorism, down to her views on GMO’s (genetically modified organisms in our food). Clinton was asked about GMO’s at a recent Baltimore fundraiser. A donor who was there told Grandmaison that he thought that would stump her, but she has a three-point program.

It’s almost comical how prepared Clinton is, especially when compared to Trump, who offers very little in the way of conventional policies. “She has a different electorate than he does,” says Matt Bennett with Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. While the Republicans are focused on style and rhetoric, the race between Clinton and Sanders is much more substantive, “and she’s got to make clear what she stands for. And because she is the favorite to become president, she is acting like a president.”

At events in Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton asks how many have college debt, how many have been touched by addiction, how many by Alzheimer’s. “What Bill Clinton taught us is that campaigns aren’t about the candidate, they’re about the voters, and how as president you can change people’s lives for the better,” says Bennett.

Bill Clinton survived impeachment in part because he kept working on behalf of the American people, who rewarded him with strong poll numbers. Hillary Clinton learned that lesson when she was in the White House, and she’s putting it to practice now. The campaign isn’t about Trump’s latest volley, says Bennett, “It’s about the lives of the voters who wake up in the middle of the night worrying. Some of them have all three stressors [college debt, addiction, Alzheimer’s] and almost everyone has one at least or knows someone with one, it’s a very smart strategy.”