Clinton Is A Politician Not Easily Defined

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is a potential 2008 presidential candidate.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is a potential 2008 presidential candidate. (Photo: Charles Dharapak -- AP)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Hillary Rodham Clinton has fashioned a political persona that generates intense passions but defies easy characterization. She is viewed as a hawk on Iraq and national security, stamped as a big-government Democrat for her work on health care in the 1990s, and depicted as seeking the middle ground on abortion.

After three decades in public life, New York's junior senator is one of the most recognized women in the world, her every move and utterance interpreted amid the assumption in Democratic circles and her own circle that her reelection campaign this fall will pivot into a run for president in 2008. Yet for all her fame, there are missing pieces to the Clinton puzzle: What does she stand for? And where would she try to take the country if elected?

Clinton's roles as senator, first lady, governor's wife, lawyer and children's advocate have given her a depth of experience that few national politicians can match, but she is still trying to demonstrate whether these yielded a coherent governing philosophy. For now, she is defined by a combination of celebrity and caution that strategists say leaves her more vulnerable than most politicians to charges that she is motivated more by personal ambition and tactical maneuver than by a clear philosophy.

In recent weeks, Clinton has moved to clarify her agenda with major speeches on the economy and energy. Later this summer she will help present a new strategy for the Democrats. She has also given speeches setting out her foreign policy views. But she has yet to wrap up her ideas in a kind of package like the "New Democrat" philosophy her husband, former president Bill Clinton, used in his 1992 campaign or the "compassionate conservative" label George W. Bush adopted in 2000.

To the contrary, she made clear in a telephone interview on Friday that her governing philosophy may never be easily reduced to a slogan. "I don't think like that," she said. "I approach each issue and problem from a perspective of combining my beliefs and ideals with a search for practical solutions. It doesn't perhaps fit in a preexisting box, but many of the problems we face as a nation don't either."

As a result, everyone seems to have a label for her. Roger Altman, a former Treasury Department official and one of her outside advisers, calls Clinton "a modern centrist." William Galston of the Brookings Institution, who was domestic policy adviser in the Clinton White House, describes her as "a progressive without illusions" and a politician who has been "consistent but complicated."

Her detractors find much -- and much different -- to criticize. Liberal columnist Molly Ivins dismisses Clinton as the embodiment of "triangulation, calculation and equivocation." Markos Moulitsas, whose Daily Kos Web site often attacks the Democratic establishment, ridicules her as a leader who is "afraid to offend." The Rev. Jerry Falwell, echoing a view shared by many Republicans, calls her a liberal "ideologue" who is far more doctrinaire than her husband.

A selective reading of Clinton's record can produce evidence to prove she is a centrist, a liberal and much in between. But there are clear patterns. On defense, she has consistently supported the use of force abroad, having advocated military intervention in the Balkans during her husband's administration. She differs with Bush administration officials on many aspects of how they have conducted foreign policy, but not on combating terrorism or the imperative of winning in Iraq.

Domestically, she has a more complex profile, a product of life experiences that have shaped and refined her approach to issues. She is an activist who believes in the power of government to solve problems, but those pro-government instincts have been tempered by the health-care debacle of 1993-94 and the nation's budgetary squeeze. On family policy, she has some traditional, even moralistic, instincts that those who know her best say are genuine and deeply felt.

Asked whether there is anything that connects her different interests and positions, she answered in spacious language: "What's framed all the work I've done in the Senate and all the years before that is my belief that our most important obligation is to take care of our children . . . and that as a nation, America should remain as a symbol of freedom and hope around the world."

She believes government is an essential partner in a three-sided relationship that also includes the free market, and a "civil society" of churches and nonprofit groups. "I am a big believer in self-help and personal responsibility and a work ethic that holds people responsible," she said. "But I know one of the reasons our country has been one of the most successful organizations in the world is because we got the balance right."

A Polarizing Force

The debate about Clinton's beliefs is linked to one about her electability. Many Democrats fear she carries so much baggage that, if she becomes the party's standard-bearer in 2008, she would prove too polarizing and lead it to a third straight defeat. Many Republicans see a shrewd politician who they fear would be a formidable opponent in a general election and who, if elected, would move the country leftward.

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