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Clinton Is A Politician Not Easily Defined
Senator's Platform Remains Unclear

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.

That she polarizes the electorate is clear from a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. The survey found that 84 percent of Democrats have a favorable impression of Clinton, while 73 percent of Republicans have an unfavorable view. As a point of contrast, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), a leading potential candidate for the Republican nomination, is viewed favorably by 65 percent of Republicans and 50 percent of Democrats.

Although she has drawn criticism from the left for supporting the Iraq war, Clinton remains more popular among liberal Democrats than among moderate Democrats. Overall, 37 percent of Americans said she is too liberal, which is less than the 45 percent recorded for Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) during the 2004 campaign and almost identical to perceptions of then-Vice President Al Gore in 2000.

Clinton's advisers argue that most Americans have formed opinions about her based not just on Iraq or health care but also on how she has conducted herself through personal circumstances. In the Post-ABC News poll, for example, 68 percent said they see Clinton as a strong leader, 16 percentage points more than Bush received a few months ago.

On balance, most of those around Clinton say her hard-to-pigeonhole profile is a political asset -- the product, they say, of a curious intellect, the absence of rigid ideology, an instinct for problem solving and a willingness to seek consensus even across party lines. Her detractors see her career as the work of an opportunistic politician who has sanded the sharp edges off her views, so much so that there is little sense of authenticity when she speaks.

On Iraq, she has tried to be a critic of Bush without renouncing her support for the resolution that authorized him to go to war, as other Democrats have done. She opposes both a timetable for withdrawing troops and an open-ended commitment.

In the interview, Clinton defended herself. "I've said many times I regret how the president has used his authority," she said. "But I think I have a responsibility to look at this as carefully as I can and say what I believe, and what I believe is we're in a very dangerous situation and it doesn't lend itself to sound bites, and therefore I have resisted going along with either my colleagues who feel passionately they need to call for a date certain or colleagues who are 100 percent behind the policy and with the president and [British] Prime Minister [Tony] Blair. . . . I know I take criticism from all sides on this, but I've tried to work my way through it as clearly and responsibly as I can."

Bill Clinton is also a defender. At a meeting of a group of well-heeled liberal donors called the Democracy Alliance this month in Austin, he lost his temper when an audience member suggested that Hillary Clinton should follow the lead of 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards and renounce her 2002 vote authorizing military force in Iraq, audience members said. He glowered and lectured the donor that it was more important to look to the future than to debate the past in Iraq.

In the Senate, Hillary Clinton has introduced about 190 bills. Of those not strictly involving parochial New York matters, about half include at least one Republican co-sponsor, her advisers say.

But a Congressional Quarterly analysis found that she has voted with a majority of Democrats 95 percent of the time and has consistently recorded one of the highest percentages for opposing Bush on legislation of any of her potential 2008 Democratic rivals.

No One Label

Those who have dealt with Clinton say she is not easily caricatured. "Reviewing her writings, which I've done, having chatted with her and knowing personally something about how the Clintons raised Chelsea, I believe she holds what we sometimes call traditional values about personal responsibility and family," said Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute.

Peter Edelman, who resigned in protest from the Clinton administration after the president signed, with his wife's support, the welfare reform bill in 1996, said no label fits her. "Anybody who thinks she's some sort of down-the-line liberal who has tailored her thinking for electoral reasons, I think that's just not true," he said.

The defeat of her health-care proposal in 1994, advisers say, taught her to respect the limits of the political system to absorb major policy changes.

She said the biggest lesson learned is that there can be no progress on health care without the business community. "There has to be a consensus in the public and private sector before we can ever get the political system to respond," she said.

Hillary Clinton has a populist streak that sometimes takes on an angry edge, in contrast to her husband. But one policy aide in the Clinton White House who has worked closely with both Clintons suggested their differences are stylistic. "She's just blunter in the way she talks about things than he is," the adviser said. "If you hear the same policy from both of them, because he sugarcoated it and she didn't, it might sound more centrist coming from him than from her."

No Clinton speech has drawn more attention than her January 2005 address in which she described abortion as a "sad, even tragic choice" for many women. The speech was widely interpreted as her effort to move toward the center. Her advisers, worried that she would be attacked for inconsistency, insisted that it represented no change from her past position.

The speech, read in its entirety, was a ringing endorsement of a woman's right to choose, and its political purpose, advisers say, was to put abortion foes on the defensive about contraception, not to make news by softening Clinton's tone on abortion.

This summer, Clinton will participate in the rollout of a Democratic agenda, a project initiated by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. At her urging, the project includes participation of the liberal Center for American Progress, as well as two other centrist groups, the New Democrat Network and Third Way.

When he sought the presidency, Bill Clinton used the DLC to signal a break from the old Democratic Party when the DLC officials were at war with the liberal wing. Hillary Clinton appears to have the opposite goal, which is to use the DLC as a base from which to unite the party to rebut criticism that Democrats have no common message.

Galston suggested that people are asking the wrong questions about her. "I think the real issue that people ought to be talking about is not whether she's consistent or sincere," he said. "If I'm reading her correctly, she is. The real question that people ought to be asking is, given what she's stood for unflinchingly, is that the direction they want the standard-bearer to take the party?"

Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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