We have been writing lately about Republicans. Let’s pay some attention to Hillary Clinton, just for fun.
I wrote a book about her more than four years ago. The idea came from a friend, a bright former-Republican-now-Democrat who thought my Wall Street Journal pieces on Mrs. Clinton’s looming senatorial candidacy could be turned into something longer that made the case against her. I immediately thought: Yes, that could make a difference. I went to my publisher, who agreed, and I hit it hard, speaking to Mrs. Clinton’s friends and enemies, scouring the record. What I concluded was that Mrs. Clinton was an unusually cynical leftist political operative who had no great respect for the citizens of the United States or for America itself, but who saw our country as a platform for her core ambitions: to rise and achieve historic personal and political power both with her husband and without him.
Since the book came out I haven’t written much about Mrs. Clinton. I’d said what I had to say. In interviews on the book tour I said what seemed to me the obvious: she would keep her head down in the Senate and work hard, she would gain praise for her ability to get along with Republican senators, she would position herself as a moderate, and run for the presidency in 2008.
She is, right now, in what is surely the happiest time in all of her life, her zestful, independent and productive 50s. She is the single most powerful figure in the Democratic Party. She is popular and broadly supported in her adopted home state. She has a star’s presence at meetings, symposiums, podiums and parties. She is the Democrats’ premier fundraiser. She is its presumptive presidential nominee in the 2008 cycle. Her daughter is grown and launched; her husband is recovering from recent surgery and is not likely to cause her future embarrassment because he is (a) not in office, and (b) the happy recipient of low expectations regarding his personal behavior. Beyond that any unfortunate actions on his part will only make her look more sympathetic and, in comparison, more mature and stable.
* * *
So what about the future? Let’s do some Q&A.
How is Mrs. Clinton positioning herself in terms of the issues?
She is taking care of her liberal base while cherry-picking key issues on which she can get to the right of the Republican party. This is most astute and quite effective. For the liberals she produces a steady stream of base-friendly efforts (Special Committee on the Aging, education funding, help for the emotionally disturbed, extended unemployment insurance) and classic pork barrel. To get to the right of the president she talks homeland security and immigration. On homeland security she fights for increased funding, better controls at U.S. ports, tightened security for nuclear power plants and chemical plants. She issues warnings about the use of weapons of mass destruction on American soil. She is a member of the Armed Services Committee and likes to talk about military reform. On immigration she has begun talking tough on border security, accusing the administration of not spending enough, employing enough people, using the best technology. She recently called herself “adamantly against illegal immigrants,” by which she no doubt meant illegal immigration, and has been inching toward support for a national ID card.
Why does she want to get to Mr. Bush’s right on these issues?
Three reasons. The first is that she knows another attack on American soil is inevitable and wants to position herself politically as The Wise One Who Warned Us.
Second, she knows that a woman perceived as a liberal has no chance at winning the presidency while a woman perceived as a tough, pragmatic moderate does. So she is tough where Mr. Compassionate Conservative is soft (immigration), or is vulnerable, after a coming attack, to charges that he was soft (homeland security). She can’t lose on this one. Security can always be better, and after America is attacked again anger and finger pointing will be widespread.
Third, Mrs. Clinton knows the Democratic Party as a whole is to the left of the electorate. She is used to this. It is the story of her life. The electorate in Arkansas were always more moderate than Gov. and Mrs. Clinton, and President and Mrs. Clinton for that matter. She knows how to operate in such conditions. She does not intend to go down in flames as a leftist when she runs for president. This will take guile. She has guile.
But what about what people are saying is the key difference between the red states and the blue states, the values thing, religion. So many Americans cleave to a religious faith, and the Democratic Party is perceived to be uninterested in faith except to the degree that they are mildly hostile (“Take down that Merry Christmas sign!”) or believe religion is a “language” they must learn to “speak effectively.” Isn’t that an essential problem for the Democrats?
Yes. And she knows it. And she is about to get very spiritual. She knows it’s not enough to run around quoting scripture on the stump, as John Kerry did. On the other hand she cannot speak as Bush did of Christ as the center of her life because that would not be credible: She has never spoken that way and strikes no one as born again.
But she can go about it in her own way. She will begin giving interviews in which she speaks of the importance of the teachings of Christ in her thinking about policy issues. She will also begin to emphasize as never before her Methodist youth, and her hometown pastor’s emphasis on public service. Something tells me a big black Bible is being put on a coffee table in her office even as I type. And there will also suddenly be more media availabilities after Sunday church service.
Always remember what Bill Clinton did after he lost re-election to the governorship in 1980. He joined the choir in the only local church whose services were broadcast on television throughout Arkansas every Sunday morning. You could turn in every Sunday and see him in his robe, with his music book, singing spirituals.
* * *
If Mrs. Clinton is such a big Democratic star, why didn’t her colleagues consider her for majority leader, instead of the less impressive and sophisticated Harry Reid?
She doesn’t want it. She doesn’t want to lead the Democratic senators. She wants to lead the Hillary for President effort. She wants her independence. She will in fact demonstrate some of that independence down the road by opposing the Democratic Conference when it is insufficiently tough, pragmatic and moderate on some key issues of her concern. Nothing will more underscore her reputation for moderation, and she has nothing to lose, as she doesn’t care what the other senators think of her. She thinks they’re the guys in the background in the photo-op. Similarly she will take no serious part in telling her party how to turn itself around. She will keep her wisdom to herself.
So how will she spend her time the next two years or so?
She will continue as the peerless fund-raiser of her party. She very much believes in money and its power to ensure success. She will continue to reach out to conservative opinion makers. She likes to surprise them by asking them to come by or go to lunch. This is bold and shrewd; it leaves them “surprised” and “curious,” the first step toward “more impressed than I wanted to be.” It won’t change their minds, but to some small degree she hopes it will declaw them. She will continue to quietly pork-barrel the left and push base-friendly issues while speaking more and more about improving the military and national security.
But wait a second, she can’t win her party’s nomination that way. The primary voting base of the Democratic Party is leftist.
Yes, but in her case it doesn’t matter. The base of the party will be with her, for two reasons. First, they know her history and know her. They believe she sees the world as they do but does certain things to survive. She was woven into the left and knew everyone on the left for 25 years.
Second and just as important, after the trauma of the Kerry loss, after the morass of doubt and depression in which the party now finds itself, she will seem to be one thing they really want: the person who can win. Because she is a winner. She always has been. The base will make a calculation not unlike the one she has made: We can play moderate to win, no problem.
You make it sound like a Hillary candidacy is inevitable.
She is inevitable as a candidate, but not as a president. There will be serious drawbacks and problems with her candidacy. When she speaks in a large hall she shouts and it is shrill; she sounds like some boomer wife from hell who’s unpacking the grocery bags and telling you that you forgot not just the mayo but the mustard.
That’s fixable, to some degree. What may not be fixable is that many voters associate her with a time of scandal and bad behavior. I mean not Monica, which the Clintons always pretend is The Scandal, but every other scandal of the Clinton era: FBI files, illegal fund-raising, sleazy pardons, the whole ugly mess. There will be some who associate her with the cultural disaster that was the Clinton presidency. There will be those who remember she and he led the country down a path both dark and merry while Osama tapped out his plans on a laptop in a cave.
Are those all the potential impediments to her plans?
No. There is still, always, with Mrs. Clinton, the question of her deepest convictions and beliefs. Also known as What She Stands For, or What She Believes. She has been finessing all this for decades and will continue to attempt to, but it may not work in a national presidential run. What she believed did not seem all that important when she was running for first lady, and was easily finessed when she ran in liberal New York. But there is an old paper trail, there is a record of radical statements and writings by Mrs. Clinton. She could disavow what she has written in the past, but never has. In this she is like John Kerry, who could not disavow his youthful, radical statements about Vietnam. Why has she not disavowed, and why can’t she? That will be a question.
* * *
Does that stuff really matter?
Sure. It’s at the heart of things. Americans want to know the deepest beliefs of their president. Mrs. Clinton is no doubt correct that the first woman president will be a conservative or a tough moderate. But maybe the American people would prefer a woman who actually is a conservative or a moderate, such as Sen. Kay Baily Hutchison, as opposed to one who plays one on TV.
So in your view the Democratic bench consists of Hillary. Who’s on the Republican bench?
They’ve got a deep bench and a big fight coming. Alphabetically the list so far can be considered to include George Allen, Bill Frist, Rudy Giuliani, Chuck Hagel, John McCain, Bill Owens, George Pataki, Mitt Romney, and beyond that any number of potential surprise guests from Tommy Thompson to Colin Powell to Mrs. Hutchison. It will be quite a race. I’m already looking forward to it.