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Heeding the Past As She Looks To the Future
Centrist Strategy Shapes Hillary Clinton's Politics

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.

The strategy, confidants say, has three elements. On social issues, it is to reassure moderate and conservative voters with such positions as her support of the death penalty, and to find rhetorical formulations on abortion and other issues -- on which her position is more liberal -- that she is nonetheless in sympathy with traditional values. On national security, it is to ensure that she has no votes or wavering statements that would give the GOP an opening to argue that she is not in favor of a full victory in Iraq. In her political positioning generally, it is to find occasions to prominently work across party lines -- to argue that she stands for pragmatism over the partisanship that many centrist voters especially dislike about Washington.

This is the same political map -- updated for the new circumstance of a post-Sept. 11, 2001, world -- that her husband used from 1995 on to navigate conflicts with the GOP in the budget battles of 1995 and 1996, and the impeachment drama of 1998 and 1999.

Even so, there are abundant historical ironies as Hillary Clinton seeks to tread this familiar path. More than any politician still in power, she is identified with the strategic miscalculations of 1993 and 1994 that vaulted congressional Republicans into the majority status they have held since.

Clinton and her advisers are operating on the bold but uncertain assumption that one of the most divisive figures of the past decade can be reintroduced to Americans as a reassuring and even uniting figure in this one.

A Taste for Political Combat

It was Newt Gingrich's success that left the then-first lady grasping for explanations -- and bereft of self-confidence. Days after the soon-to-be House speaker and his GOP "revolutionaries" stormed to power in the midterm elections, Hillary Clinton was commiserating with Dick Morris, the mostly Republican consultant who ran Bill Clinton's Arkansas team and would soon become the most influential voice on the White House political team. In tears, as Morris recalled it, she confessed: "I don't know which direction is up or down. Everything I thought was right was wrong."

She was the architect of the failed health care reform effort, the unpopularity of which helped fuel Republican success. Her dominant role in how to handle questions relating to the Clintons' investment in the Whitewater land deal had not prevented the controversy from metastasizing into a major distraction from the presidency. And two of her closest friends and former law partners had come to grief in Washington -- Deputy White House Counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr. by suicide, Associate Attorney General Webster L. Hubbell by financial scandal -- with both cases causing major controversy for the administration.

The strategy that Hillary Clinton relies on today has its origins in the repositioning Morris crafted in those bleak days of early 1995. Here is another irony, because as a conservative commentator he is now one of her most vehement critics.

The strategy Morris advocated -- centrist positioning on the budget, and emphasis on small but concrete actions and rhetorical statements to underscore the incumbent's values -- came with relative ease to Bill Clinton. An accommodator by nature, he was instinctively comfortable with the split-the-difference brand of politics that Morris called "triangulation."

For Hillary Clinton, current and former aides acknowledge, it has been a much more arduous journey. These days, aides tout her willingness to sponsor bipartisan legislation and to enjoy a cordial relationship with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), one of the leaders of the effort to impeach her husband. But in the early days of the Clinton White House, she was known for her zeal for combat. Her instinct was to regard political opponents with deep personal antagonism; she was certain they regarded her the same way.

In 1993, White House aide Rahm Emanuel -- now a Democratic House member from Illinois -- planned an event inviting prominent Republicans to a White House dinner as a way of garnering support for the North American Free Trade Agreement. He assumed he would win praise for a clever tactical maneuver. Instead, the first lady was infuriated. "What are you doing inviting these people in my home?" she said, according to people familiar with the episode. Nearly sobbing with anger, she told him: "These people are our enemies. They are trying to destroy us."

It was on health care that her early instincts to regard compromise as weakness had the most consequential effect. By the middle of 1994, it had become apparent to most of the White House political team that what the president had announced as his nonnegotiable goal -- health insurance for every citizen -- was unattainable. He was eager to signal a willingness to settle on a lesser but still considerable target -- 95 percent of the population covered. But she argued that anything less than 100 percent coverage would not represent an intellectually coherent solution to the problem.

One day in July 1994, the president was in Massachusetts when he slipped off message and announced that he would consider 95 percent coverage a victory. Hillary Clinton was at the White House when she got word of her husband's statement, and soon she was on the phone with him. "What the [expletive] are you doing up there?" she demanded, according to an aide who overheard the conversation. "You get back here right away." The next day, Clinton retracted his statement.

Stories of Hillary Clinton's occasionally fierce temper have led to perceptions that she is privately shrewish. Yet very few people who have worked closely with her over the years regard her that way. To the contrary, she has inspired a loyalty among staff that has kept many top aides by her side for more than a decade.

Even as she has gradually modulated her public image, her political team is a composite of people from different chapters of her political life. From the 1992 presidential campaign, longtime aide Patti Solis Doyle and consultant Mandy Grunwald retain central roles. So, especially, does pollster Mark Penn, who was brought into the Clinton fold during the Morris era and is her chief strategist. Two veterans of the 2000 Senate campaign, Howard Wolfson on communications issues and Neera Tanden on policy, are important advisers. Longtime friends Harold Ickes, Ann Lewis and Maggie Williams remain in the fold in either formal or advisory roles.

The Sincerity Question

By the time of her 2000 campaign, Hillary Clinton had long since recognized, along with her husband, that Democrats needed to temper their ideology and modulate their message.

There were two questions at stake as she sought election in her own right -- both of which would re-emerge on a national scale if she sought the presidency. One was whether a woman who, early in her days in the public spotlight, was branded -- some advisers say unfairly -- as being far more liberal than her husband could reintroduce herself as a pragmatic creature of the center.

The other was more delicate. Her polls consistently showed that people were skeptical about her authenticity -- doubts that were often inspired by speculation about her marriage and her ambition.

In a typical 2000 strategy memo, Penn warned the Clintons, "Jewish swing voters feel a strong sense of cultural distance from the first lady, which leads them to question her motives and assume she is motivated primarily by personal goals." She answered the doubts in part through relentless personal exposure. The effort paid dividends in surprising places. She won only 11 of the counties outside New York City but ran competitively in many of them. Combining that with the overwhelming Democratic vote in New York, she trounced Rep. Rick Lazio (R).

The speculation about the Clinton marriage is not confined to ordinary voters. In the White House years and since, it has been a common topic of discussion among Clinton friends and aides. With few exceptions, most of these people concluded that the marriage is a genuine, if turbulent, romance, powered by a shared sense of mission about politics and government. The role reversal between husband and wife in 2000 strengthened the marriage, some friends say.

The unseasoned Senate candidate once confided to Ickes, "I never realized how good Bill was at this until I tried to do it."

Keeping Her Options Open

Still uncertain is whether Hillary Clinton can prove her husband's equal in presidential politics. In interviews, she insists the question is not on her mind -- only next year's reelection. "Oh, I'm not even, you know, remotely considering that," she said on CNN last week. "My view is that, you know, life unfolds at its own rhythm."

Privately, her advisers say she may not have decided to run but she has definitely decided she wants to do everything necessary to keep her options open and allow her to launch a campaign if she decides to after 2006. Her out-of-state travel is increasingly strategic, including trips to swing states such as Ohio.

In 2000, she repeatedly pledged that she would finish her term without seeking the presidency. Aides say she will not issue such a pledge this time. To emphasize her centrist credentials, her Senate office regularly touts her willingness to sponsor legislation with Republicans, including conservative Sens. Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Sam Brownback (Kan.). In her first years in the Senate, she focused largely on New York issues and carefully rationed national publicity. Now she regularly accepts such publicity and takes assertive stands on national issues.

An example was a speech last winter on abortion. Although reasserting her longtime view that abortion should be legal, she argued that more should be done to make abortion rare. Her political team was thrilled with the publicity the speech got, though Bill Clinton said he was irked by the widespread analysis that she was expediently changing her stripes for political reasons.

"Give me a break!" he said at a recent talk at the Time Warner corporate headquarters in New York. Clinton said he did not know whether his wife would run but asserted that the key for Democrats to win in Republican-leaning states is not to change views but to "change the way we talk about" issues so as not to cede the values debate to conservatives.

Hillary Clinton would have ground to make up. In Ohio, polls by John F. Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign showed her among the most unpopular Democrats with swing voters.

Penn, while emphasizing he does not know Hillary Clinton's presidential plans, pointed to a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll last week finding that for the first time a majority of voters say they are likely to vote for her if she runs in 2008. "She's demonstrated in New York and in the years she's been in the Senate that she has the will, the ability and the seriousness to overcome all the obstacles that the Republican Party threw at her and continue to throw at her," he said.

Will Marshall, president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute, said Clinton's challenge in 2008 would be to have the public see her on her terms, rather than the Republican portrayal of her history and values: "She needs to dramatize the contrast between who she really is and what she really believes and what the stereotype is."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company