Heeding the Past As She Looks To the Future

By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 31, 2005

This article includes material adapted from a new history of the Clinton presidency, "The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House."

As she ran for Senate as a sitting first lady in 2000, Hillary Rodham Clinton was facing an obstacle that her advisers found a bit awkward to discuss in her presence.

Her husband's impeachment and the sexual affair that precipitated it were still recent memories. Now, that scandal was causing a headwind for the candidate as she found her own values questioned by a key segment of New York voters. This was the delicate subject on the table one evening at a White House strategy meeting, several participants recalled. The president gazed intently at poll data and then turned to his wife. "Women," he announced, "want to know why you stayed with me."

There was an awkward pause among the group of political operatives. But Hillary Clinton did not seem embarrassed. Instead, a half-smile crossed her face. "Yes," she responded, "I've been wondering that myself."

Jabbing the air for emphasis, Bill Clinton gave his answer: "Because you're a sticker! That's what people need to know -- you're a sticker. You stick at the things you care about."

Five years later, Hillary Clinton's tenacity in her personal and political life has left her the most formidable figure by far in Democratic politics -- and in position to make history as the first woman to become president if she runs and wins in 2008.

The drama of Hillary Clinton springs from the uncertainty of the future -- how far her combination of ambition, self-discipline and demonstrated political skill may take her. But the way she pursues her national opportunities will be shaped in fundamental ways by the past.

The disasters of her husband's early presidency and the successes that came later inform Hillary Clinton's politics today. That same history is also key to how she is perceived by others -- both Democratic insiders weighing her potential as a presidential candidate and the larger electorate that ultimately would have the final word.

Although focused principally on her Senate reelection campaign next year, her advisers are informally -- and in some cases not so informally -- planning for a White House run.

A presidential campaign, Clinton's advisers acknowledge, would raise anew many of the old questions -- about her marriage, her motives, and her balance of pragmatism and principle -- that she successfully answered in her 2000 race in New York. She is the most popular politician in the state, even in many traditionally Republican areas upstate.

As her advisers see it, Clinton's Empire State campaign and her five years in the Senate are a potent rejoinder to a refrain commonly heard among Democrats anxious about a potential candidacy. As the skeptics see it, she could probably win a nomination by exciting Democratic partisans, but she remains too personally and ideologically polarizing a figure to win a general election. Some members of her team, discussing strategy on the condition that they not be identified by name, acknowledge that answering this skepticism is among her biggest challenges in the next two years.

Whatever the outcome of the intraparty debate, the recent record makes it clear that Hillary Clinton has staked her future on precisely the same brand of centrist political strategy that her husband fashioned a decade ago -- using many of the same advisers and relying on familiar tactics.

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