“It’s the stories that drive your passion. It’s the people you’ve met along the way,” Hillary Clinton was saying on the night after her microscopic victory in the Iowa caucus. “It’s their worries, it’s their hopes, it’s their troubles that get you up in the morning.” It had been a long day of campaigning in New Hampshire after only a few hours’ sleep. She was still avid, though. I had asked why she suddenly seemed so animated on the stump in the days before the Iowa vote. Her normal bandwidth is measured, wonky, sometimes a touch uncertain, as if she were afraid to appear–nasty, sexist word alert–shrill. But she had tossed that all aside in Iowa, simply letting loose, shouting, fiery, even ironic sometimes. “What’s going on?” I asked. “Is this some sort of a midlife crisis for you?”
She laughed, the Hillary belly laugh that she doesn’t often show in public, and then got down to business, retelling a story she often told on the stump, about the woman in Clinton, Iowa–of all places–who had been paying $200 a month for a specific drug since the 1980s. Then last year the cost suddenly exploded to $14,000 per year. She had found out that the drug was provided by “a company called Valeant Pharmaceuticals, formed by a bunch of hedge-fund guys to go out and buy small drug companies, get ahold of old drugs. They’re not putting any new research money in, they’re not trying to find new uses for it. They just want to jack up the prices as high as they can to just make as much money as quickly as possible … It gets me outraged.”
And so she’d been letting loose in her speeches, naming names–Valeant Pharmaceuticals, Johnson Controls (which was moving its headquarters overseas after participating in the Obama Administration’s auto-industry bailout)–telling stories of the people she’d met along the way, and it felt good. “The campaign really seemed to be going well,” she told me. Unlike her last bout in Iowa, in 2008, she was doing everything right–the ground organization, the attention to detail, the listening tour that was mocked by the press but which always provides the stories that anchor the themes she fixes on in a campaign. Bernie Sanders was gaining ground, but she felt that she had stopped the recent charge through hard work, always her trump card. The conventional wisdom was that she was going to win, narrowly, and she felt it. But she had come a whisker away from losing–and that had become the story, rather than her victory. There were rumors of internal disputes about what she should do next–go to New Hampshire, or skip it and go to Nevada or South Carolina.
On caucus night, the Clinton operation seemed a bit frayed. Her staff had announced the win prematurely. It was still up in the air when she took the stage in Des Moines, where she didn’t claim victory but said she was “breathing a big sigh of relief.”
Nothing, it seems, ever comes easy for Hillary Clinton in politics. “It’s always hard,” she agreed. “There are issues and obstacles that I’ve got to get over,” but, when asked, she wouldn’t get specific about the obstacles. “I felt really good as we were moving through those last couple of weeks before the caucus, [but] it’s a very strange election … This has a lot of psychodynamics as well as economic pressures, and there’s just an incredible sense of frustration on all sides of the electorate, and for me, I could feel my campaign moving forward, picking up support, and I had to do every single bit of it to win.”
This was the eternal Clinton dilemma: the sense of something missing, that something wasn’t quite clicking, the suspicion of ulterior motives even when she was talking about things she really cared about. It was said the problem was that she was too distant and formal, and she had moved to address that in Iowa, and it sort of succeeded, but it wasn’t quite enough. It seemed that Clinton had passed the point in the arc of her celebrity where she could be judged on her own merits–as an independent entity, not someone’s wife; unencumbered by the quarter-century of garbage that has been thrown at her; unencumbered by the missteps she has made, which have been inflated beyond reason because every step she takes is on a very public high wire. She has become so encrusted with notoriety at this point that it’s near impossible for her to get a clean shot to make her argument. Her positions on the issues, thoughtful and well argued as most of them are, are almost secondary–even her fans don’t really care what she stands for, aside from the obvious stuff: health care, the rights of children and the panoply of all those other “rights” that Democrats reflexively support. As for her enemies, who are legion and rabid, everything she says or does is easily dismissed. Hillary Clinton is a Republican epithet. She’s a liar, she’s untrustworthy, she lives two steps ahead of the law–the drumbeat is so relentless that it transcends the conservative fog machine and has infected the Democratic electorate, according to exit polls. She is considered “untrustworthy” by Sanders voters, even young women.
On the weekend before the Iowa caucus, the State Department announced that some of the emails Clinton–carelessly–received on her private server were so top secret, they couldn’t be released to the public, even though none were marked “classified” when she received them and one consisted of an article published in the New York Times (and was subsequently found to reveal some arcane security protocol). I asked her whether she could ever put the dispute to rest. She was skeptical. It was a Republican tactic, she said, which was true enough. But the email situation was a problem, part of the perpetual haze surrounding her–the sense, fair or not, that she cuts corners.
Some of this she brings on herself. She makes silly mistakes of a sort her husband never would–his mistakes were willful, prurient, outrageous. She is not outrageous, just awkward in the way cautious people sometimes are. She says she and Bill were “dead broke” when they left the White House, which simply demonstrates how removed from reality her life in the bubble has become. She has buckraked shamelessly, both for herself and the Clinton Foundation. She has made serious public mistakes–her support for the war in Iraq and for taking out Muammar Gaddafi’s government in Libya. She has been an opaque public figure; she isn’t “authentic” in any demonstrable way, except for her relentless hard work, which is difficult to demonstrate in the midst of a campaign. She doesn’t have a Brooklyn or an Arkansas accent. She doesn’t eat at McDonald’s or wear cowboy boots; her hair is not messy like Sanders’. There’s no easy way to get a “handle” on her, except that she’s … Hillary. Say her name and the vast majority of Americans think they know exactly who she is, for good or ill.
One of Clinton’s last television ads in Iowa was a history of her advocacy for children over the past 40 years–there were pictures of her as a college student, a baby-boomer protester and then a young wife, a First Lady, Senator, Secretary of State. But the earlier pictures, especially one of her in a T-shirt, looking sideways, proudly, at the camera, were the most resonant. She once was the sort of person who would vote for Sanders in the primary; in fact, her Bernie–George McGovern–won the nomination and was clobbered in the 1972 general election. I asked her what she’d say to that younger version of herself, how she’d persuade her to vote for Hillary Clinton now. “I’d say don’t ever lose your idealism,” she replied, perhaps a bit stunned by the sudden memory of the Hillary Rodham who had worked for McGovern in Texas in 1972. “Stay true to your values … but also don’t just hang on to the idealism at the expense of actually producing results that will improve people’s lives.”
Maybe it’s my age–I’m her age–but there is something almost touching, almost poignant, about this late-in-life campaign. It’s evident when her husband, who says he’s seen “more yesterdays than tomorrows,” talks about her. Think what you will about the exact nature of the Clinton marriage, but the intellectual bond is intense, and Bill is extremely effective when he talks about her lifetime of service: “Everything she has touched, she has made better.”
He uses the current lead-pipe water scandal in Flint, Mich., as an example. And it is a good contrast between who Sanders is and who Clinton has become. Sanders reacted the same way as the Flint native and filmmaker Michael Moore: he called for the governor of Michigan to resign. Clinton, by contrast, sent two aides to ask the mayor of Flint what could be done to help. The mayor asked Clinton to lobby the governor to expedite water funds that were languishing and to get the federal government involved. “I can’t claim that she solved the problem,” a Clinton staffer told me. “But she added to the pressure to get some action.”
And that is the essence of who Clinton is: “I know what it’s like to be knocked down and how you dust yourself off and you get back up and you keep fighting for what you believe in,” she said when I asked how she differed from the young activist who worked for McGovern. “But you do it within the process so that you can actually try to get results for people, so that you can point to our political system working. And I think that that’s what we need more of right now–not less.”
This is what Clinton brings to the table in this campaign, an idealism tempered by time and hard experience. She has become more realistic, and moderate, because–unlike Sanders, who has existed on the periphery of practical politics–she knows what it’s like to lose (on health care, particularly) and to negotiate the small victories (children’s health care) that are the guts of practical politics. It is the precise opposite of what Donald Trump–that other exemplar of the baby-boom generation–is selling. It is about patience and making the phone call to the mayor of Flint–or to the Chinese–about what can actually be done to improve things. This celebration of incrementalism is very difficult to communicate in a campaign, under the best of circumstances. And it’s virtually impossible this year, when grand notional gestures–build a wall, ban the Muslims, bomb ISIS until the sand glows–have become the currency of choice.
In a way, Clinton is the most (small-c) conservative in the race, standing athwart the utopian fantasies proposed by the left and right. Her gamble is that the toughness and stability she offers will slowly become more attractive in the mayhem of the campaign; her problem is that her very Clinton-ness makes the prospect of stability seem remote. Her cast of characters–Bill, the Clinton Foundation, her email server, Huma Abedin, Sidney Blumenthal, the shameless publicist David Brock–will provide constant fodder for those seeking to outrage or titillate the public. Being “Hillary Clinton” is the single greatest obstacle to her being Hillary Clinton.
But she will continue to work, and her army of supporters–most of them older now, retired teachers and lawyers, most of them women–will work their hearts out for her. You meet them at Clinton rallies. “I think the head-and-heart thing is beginning to set in now,” said Patty McKenzie, a retired teacher from Hampton, N.H., who spends her weekends knocking on doors for Clinton. People were giving Clinton a second look–they loved the brashness of Sanders, their support for him had sent the message that alienation was bipartisan, but it was nut-cutting time now. In a way, the emergence of Marco Rubio, an attractive, noncrazy Republican, was working in her favor: he would be a tough opponent in the general election, the one Clinton may fear most. There was no room for Democrats to mess around.
And for once the expectations game was working in her favor: with some polls showing Sanders with implausible 20- and even 30-point leads in New Hampshire, all she had to do was pull close to have a sort of moral victory–the same sort that enabled her husband to call himself, rather goofily, the Comeback Kid after he lost New Hampshire to Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts in 1992. But Hillary Clinton would never call herself the “comeback” anything, because she never really goes away, she just keeps plugging away, pocketing any stray piece of progress that she can.
This appears in the February 15, 2016 issue of TIME.