First Lady to Stump With Fists Up
By Michael Grunwald
NEW YORK – They do not have names or faces, but Hillary Rodham Clinton knows Those People are out there, and she attacks Them almost every time she speaks in New York.
In March, at a Democratic women's fund-raiser in Manhattan: "Many People believe they can turn the clock back, shut our borders, tell people how to live, point fingers at one another." In April, at a teachers union convention in Niagara Falls: "Some People are still arguing against the need for sensible gun control!" In June, at a meeting with Lockheed Martin workers near Binghamton: "Some People just don't understand that you can protect the environment and grow the economy at the same time. . . . They still don't get it."
The first lady's us-against-them instincts have often guided her in public life, from her refusals to compromise on her ill-fated health care plan in 1993 to her behind-the-scenes push for President Clinton to shut down the government in 1995 to her famous broadside about the "vast right-wing conspiracy" when the Monica S. Lewinsky saga broke in January 1998. But as she sets off this week on the first official campaign trip of her all-but-declared Senate race, Democrats are hoping this combative politician proves to be a perfect match for this combative state.
Clinton has never run for office -- no first lady has -- but she is far from a blank slate as a politician. She has served for years as an unsentimental adviser to her husband, perhaps the most talented campaigner of his generation, and as a hard-nosed political operative in her own right. The question is how her confrontational style and the rest of her political package will play on the trail now that she is no longer the woman behind the candidate.
Today in Washington, Clinton will formally launch an exploratory committee, kicking off a still-hard-to-fathom journey that could pit her against an even more pugnacious and polarizing brawler, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R).
Wednesday in Oneonta, she will begin a four-day swing through upstate New York at retiring Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's farm. The trip has been billed as a listening tour, a chance for Clinton to hear about issues that matter to New Yorkers. But it is likely to be a talking tour as well, a chance to start trying to convince voters she is the kind of battler they want fighting for those issues.
"Hillary is someone you want on your side in a fight, and New Yorkers will see that," said Sara Ehrman, a longtime friend of the first lady's. "She will be a vigorous, tireless, brilliant campaigner -- just watch."
This race may have seemed to emerge out of nowhere, but in some ways Clinton has spent her life preparing for it. She has been involved in politics since she started registering voters for George McGovern's presidential campaign in San Antonio in 1972. She helped run her husband's campaigns for Congress, attorney general, governor and president, plotting his strategies, analyzing his polls, tweaking his message, rewriting his speeches. In the 1992 campaign, she was the guiding force behind his campaign's rapid-response deployment to knock down media attacks, and even coined the memorable phrase "The War Room."
As first lady, she has carved out an unprecedented role as a policy operative -- first during the health care debacle, later as a key player on issues from adoption to historic preservation to consumer bankruptcy to arts education to early childhood development. But even though she faces no Democratic opposition, while Giuliani faces potential challenges from Long Island Reps. Rick Lazio and Peter T. King, most early polls suggest that a general election battle between the lawyer and the prosecutor would be extremely close.
Clinton's most obvious liability in the Senate race is her carpetbagger problem: She's never lived, worked or spent much time in New York. And while the state overwhelmingly supported her husband in 1992 and 1996, it is hard to know how much Clinton scandal fatigue -- or general Clinton fatigue -- will hurt her candidacy. She also has a somewhat frosty relationship with the media, and many analysts expect the tabloid-driven New York press to pummel her about the mysterious disappearance of her Whitewater billing records and her unusual success in the cattle futures market.
But in many ways, Clinton is a campaign consultant's dream. She is a national celebrity, a children's advocate with an almost devout following among liberals and many women. She will enjoy access to a well-oiled Democratic money machine. She is riding a wave of sympathy created by her stoic reaction to her husband's affair. And even many critics agree that she is smart, hard-working, charismatic, passionate about policy and eloquent on the stump.
Clinton has been a lightning rod for the right, but she is also a remarkable generator of Democratic energy. She was the most-requested Democratic campaigner in 1998, swooping in for 28 candidate events and 17 fund-raisers in the month before the election; some analysts believe her rallies with then-Rep. Charles E. Schumer in New York helped lift him to the Senate. Here is another measure of the enthusiasm she can inspire: The Erie County Democratic office signed up about 50 volunteers for the entire Schumer race. It is already getting 50 calls a week from would-be volunteers for the Clinton campaign.
In recent months, as Clinton has begun touring the state, she has received rousing "Run, Hillary, run!" ovations from Democratic audiences, with some supporters bursting into tears after shaking her hand on rope lines. But even the nonpartisan assortment of Lockheed Martin employees seemed awed after her brainstorming session about economic development. "That was really incredible," said Doug Becker, a registered Republican who is director of business development at the plant. "That is one impressive woman."
"She's just a fantastic campaigner. No one alive is better than her husband, but she's really close," gushes former White House scandal spinner Lanny J. Davis, who knew both Clintons at Yale Law School. "The first time I saw her, I thought she'd be a senator someday. She's got that natural charisma. She just looks you in the eye and draws you in."
But some critics question Clinton's political instincts, arguing that her suspicious nature has led to unnecessary conflicts, from her decision to bar reporters from the West Wing to her refusal to release Whitewater documents to the press to her role in the firings at the White House travel office. She told her husband to attack independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr during the president's televised apology for the Lewinsky mess, with disastrous results. And even her allies concede she mishandled her health care plan six years ago, operating in too much secrecy, blocking even minor changes, impugning the motives of her critics.
"She's a good campaigner. She's a good debater. But her political skills have always been suspect," said Dick Morris, a longtime strategist for the Clintons who is estranged from them. "It's always combat with her. She always wants to put her horns down and charge."
Former presidential aide George Stephanopoulos was Morris's sworn enemy at the White House. But in his memoir, "All Too Human," he drew similar conclusions about the first lady, "whose combative litigator instincts were, sadly, behind many of her husband's missteps."
On Hillary Clinton's recent trips to New York, those instincts have found their outlet in Those People -- the anonymous cynics who try to tear down public schools instead of building them up, who just complain about crime rates instead of doing something about them, who snipe that it doesn't really take a village to raise a child when the evidence shows that it does. Her allies say that if Clinton sometimes sounds paranoid, well, that's because she has enemies.
"She stands for change, and some people can't handle that," said Lynn Cutler, another friend of the first lady's and a White House adviser on women's issues. "You can never underestimate the depth of the hatred on the far right. They'll do anything to destroy her."
Clinton's aides say she has learned valuable lessons from the health care defeat, and insist her reputation as a liberal ideologue obscures a savvy politician who is a pragmatic consensus-builder. They say her personal warmth makes her ideally suited for the collegial Senate -- unlike, say, the congenitally abrasive Giuliani.
Still, they say, she is ready to come out swinging. Campaigns, after all, are about dividing the electorate into Us and Them -- and making sure there are fewer of Them.
"She'll learn everything there is to know about New York," Ehrman said. "She'll know the dairy farms in Watertown. She'll know that Glovertown is a big labor area. She'll know the best corn is in Suffolk County. . . . Then she'll show people how hard she'd fight for them."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company