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First Clinton, Now Biden Offer Iowa Their Versions of 2016 Populism

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

She went out to grill some beef, and now he’s going out to help some nuns.  

The two former senators who overshadow all other Democrats with ripe presidential ambition, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joseph R. Biden Jr., are ending up in Iowa less than 72 hours apart this week. Every detail of their back-to-back forays will be scrupulously dissected for clues about how and when the 2016 contest will take shape.  

On Wednesday morning, the vice president will be at the state capitol in Des Moines during the kickoff of a 5,200-mile road trip by Nuns on the Bus, a group of Catholic sisters who plan to visit three-dozen cities to promote voter registration, along with their views of social justice.  

It’s an official, not political, trip for Biden because he’s arranged to deliver a speech about the Obama administration’s economic policies. But the actual contexts — not only the midterm elections but also his potential presidential quest — are absolutely clear. So everyone with a keen political ear will be listening for both similarities and subtle differences between his rhetoric and the partisan call-to-arms Clinton delivered Sunday, when the previous secretary of State was in Indianola for the 37th annual  steak fry, the final one Sen. Tom Harkin will host before his retirement.

It was her first speech in the state since her inevitability-sapping defeat in the caucuses that opened the 2008 contest, and Clinton offered the requisite clear-if-cheeky hints that she’s decided she wants a second shot: “Hello Iowa. I’m baaaack,” was the way she opened, and her walk-off line was, “Let’s not let another seven years go by.”  

The quickly fading suspense about her plans was offset by the meat in the middle of her remarks. Clinton offered the crowd of more than 6,000 a potential foretaste of some themes she’ll be testing once her candidacy becomes formalized sometime early next year.  

She alluded to the economic prosperity of the first Clinton administration, declaring that “when it comes to moving America forward, we know what it takes.” She was gentle in patting herself on the back, reminding how she’d abandoned her fast-rising trajectory in Congress as a second-term senator from New York to spend four years at the State Department wading into all the world’s intractable problems. She made several clear appeals to the female voters who are crucial to every Democratic victory. She reduced the differences between the two political parties as “a choice between the guardians of gridlock and the champions of shared opportunity and shared prosperity.”  

Perhaps most consequentially, Clinton auditioned a sound bite designed to subtly rebut the principal criticism of her from the left, which is that she’s not sufficiently concerned about rising income inequality because she’s become too closely allied with Wall Street and business interests. “Today, you know so well, American families are working harder than ever — but maintaining a middle-class life feels like pushing a boulder uphill every single day,” she said. “That is not how it’s supposed to be in America.”  

Her rhetoric doesn’t leave Biden with all that much that’s obvious to work with. And, if he decides he’s not going to defer to Clinton and seeks the White House for a third time, his only chance may be to boldly and quickly differentiate himself from his frenemy.  

Biden rarely misses an opportunity to talk about the relatively humble upbringing and fondness for muscle cars that inform his “lunch bucket Joe” persona, and he’s arguably been more consistently populist than Clinton during his much longer career in public life. During 36 years as a Delaware senator, he drove dozens of legislative deals and chaired both the Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees, but his contributions in Congress to keeping the economy humming, promoting the needs of the middle class, advancing causes important to women, combating the most conservative GOP proposals and shaping foreign policy have largely faded from the electorate’s consciousness.  

Just last week was the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, which Biden has repeatedly called his "proudest legislative achievement." But many Democrats who will pick the party’s next standard-bearer understand Biden only one very different way — as a loyal cheerleader for the administration whose efforts in the past six years have been overshadowed by his own hyperbole and loquaciousness.  

The vice president can take a big step toward repairing the losing reputation in Des Moines, where his speech will draw outsized attention entirely because it’s coming three days after Clinton’s return. Flanked by liberal activists, Biden has a prime opportunity to deliver a punchy rallying cry for his commitment to American working people in economic distress — unless the presence of those nuns prompts him into a meandering digression about his Catholic school education.  

Biden delivered one of his more focused stump speeches as the main attraction of the 2013 steak fry, which Harkin transformed during his congressional career from a sleepy end-of-summer fundraiser into one of the iconic events on the annual national Democratic calendar.  

“I don’t know how many times I’ve walked the picket line, I don’t know how many times I’ve been with you in your hometowns as factories were being padlocked and jobs were sent overseas,” the vice president said then.  

It’s a strong line that, if revived in some form in Iowa this week, will renew speculation about the number of former senators getting ready to hike the presidential comeback trail.  

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