For Clinton, Even Presidential Politics Is Local
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
On the same day that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) announced that he had raised $25 million in the first three months of his presidential campaign, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) made her own $25 million announcement -- a federal grant to restore oyster beds in Long Island Sound.
She also lined up $14 million for the Montauk Point Lighthouse and $18 million to stop erosion at Orchard Beach. A few days earlier, Clinton took a break from her presidential campaign to applaud a new Bass Pro Shops megastore in Buffalo and to meet with the federal railroad administrator about train derailments in New York. Another day, she toured Upstate veterans hospitals and visited troops at Fort Drum instead of heading to Iowa or New Hampshire.
In the 6 1/2 years since she was elected to the Senate, Clinton has paid close attention to the constituent services and pork-barrel politics that earned one of her predecessors, Republican Alfonse M. D'Amato, the nickname "Senator Pothole." Even now, when many fellow candidates have no time for making all their Senate votes, much less announcing federal grants, Clinton seems intent on proving her commitment to her adopted state.
In part, her focus is a carryover from her entry into New York politics in 2000 as the wife of a president with no ties to the state, eager to demonstrate her seriousness and convince voters that she was not using the Senate as a steppingstone to return to the White House.
"I still remember the bumper sticker: 'Not her, not here, not now,' " said Iva E. Deutchman, political science chairman at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. "She is still trying to prove people wrong."
But keeping her plate full at the Senate is also part of Clinton's campaign strategy, a real-time illustration that she is a workhorse with a practical view of government. That emphasis on small-scale initiatives rather than ambitious ones was famously championed by Mark Penn, her campaign pollster and chief strategist, when he worked for President Bill Clinton nearly a decade ago and promoted such administration policies as school uniforms.
"I think Americans are feeling neglected," Penn said. "It's been a long time since they had a president who if they said they were going to work on the Upstate economy, they actually did it."
When Clinton took office in 2001, her staff asked her what leadership model she preferred: the approach of the icon whose seat she was taking -- Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D), a former Harvard professor who relished engaging in ambitious ideas on entitlement reform and social policy -- or the brass-tacks style of D'Amato. The D'Amato role was already being filled aggressively by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D), who had beaten him in 1998. But Clinton replied that she wanted to try a blend of both.
Over time, she has evolved into a hybrid legislator, a figure of outsize influence but limited scope, offering no big initiatives. As the main strategist for one of her husband's principal policy initiatives, Clinton learned firsthand during the 1993 health-care reform debacle that a big legislative failure can carry a heavy cost.
She discovered early on in the Senate that working on the margins can be an effective way for a junior member to deliver results for her state -- especially from the minority side of the aisle, where Democrats have dwelled for most of her Senate tenure.
Two months after taking office, she introduced a package of seven initiatives to stimulate economic development in chronically depressed Upstate New York. They were key planks of her Senate campaign, but only three passed. Aides said the experience led Clinton to narrow her focus to initiatives that she could largely control.
For instance, on May 17, 2002, she introduced a resolution to pay the famous runaway slave Harriet Tubman a pension for her Civil War service. On Oct. 29, 2003, Clinton announced she had secured the $11,750 for Tubman's estate in Auburn, N.Y.