Hillary Rodham Clinton continued to buck her husband's administration on key New York issues today, staking out a conflicting position on dairy price supports crucial to the state's farmers only a day after rejecting some of the president's controversial policies on Israel.
In the opening days of her unprecedented Senate exploratory campaign, the first lady seems eager to prove that from now on, her first loyalties will be to her adopted state. She had already expressed concern that the administration's Medicare policies have hurt New York's teaching hospitals, complained that New Yorkers pay $14 billion more in federal taxes than they receive in federal aid, and broken with the president to support Jerusalem as the "indivisible and eternal" capital of Israel.
Those may have been fairly predictable talking points for a candidate for statewide office in New York, which has the nation's largest collection of teaching hospitals as well as the nation's largest Jewish population. But it was still jarring to hear them from a sitting first lady, even one whose husband was involved in the most heavily publicized extramarital affair in American history.
Her aides insist that there is no calculated campaign strategy to separate the first lady from her husband, that she supports "99 percent" of his administration's positions, that their differences are being exaggerated by the media. But the aides acknowledge that since the first lady is campaigning for the first time as a candidate, after decades as the woman behind the candidate, at least some mild disagreements are sure to emerge. And on issues ranging from Medicare to financial services modernization to bankruptcy reform, she could face tough choices between administration policies and influential New York interest groups.
"We're in a different place now," said one Clinton aide. "She's not just the first lady anymore. She's running for office in New York."
That means dealing with New York issues, and in America's No. 3 dairy state, that means dealing with the esoterica of the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact, a regional system of price supports designed to keep struggling farmers afloat. Most Northeastern politicians want to extend the compact, which is scheduled to expire Oct. 1, and New York farmers are desperate to join it. Midwestern politicians and many consumer groups are eager for the compact to die, calling it a mix of regional favoritism and anti-competitive socialism that raises milk prices across America. The Clinton administration has taken a middle position, proposing to replace the compact with a national price-support system that would be less generous to New York farmers than the compact system but more generous than no system at all.
The first lady plunged into the issue today at an economic development forum at a converted military base, after Oneida County Farm Bureau director Pat van Lieshout asked what she would do to help the area's struggling dairy farmers. Clinton replied that she supported extending the compact and adding New York as a member -- a position shared by most of the state's politicians of both parties.
"From what I now know, it would be a very important step for dairy farmers, and over the long run, for the entire population," she said. "I don't think anyone works as hard as a dairy farmer."
Once again, the first lady had distanced herself from the president, who has been notably absent from the early stages of her statewide "listening tour." Her aides caution not to read too much into that, but it is starting to look like a pattern. At a news conference Wednesday, she acknowledged her private disagreements with the president over the 1995 welfare reform law. It marked her first public discussion of a private dispute since they arrived in the White House. At a health care forum Thursday, she described the president's plan to subsidize prescription drugs for seniors as an insufficient fix to an intractable problem. And in a letter to an Orthodox Jewish group released Thursday, she revealed her split with the administration on the Jerusalem question and said she supports moving the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv.
But the first lady's advisers say the apparent flurry of disagreement is much less than it seems. For example, Clinton did say that she ultimately supported her husband's decision to enact welfare reform and supports his prescription drug plan as well. As for her stance on Jerusalem, advisers pointed out that Bill Clinton made the same "indivisible and eternal" commitment during his presidential campaign in 1992. And in her various "listening sessions" with New Yorkers, she has made frequent references to her husband and his administration, although she almost never uses the first-person plural.
"This is not a strategy," one adviser said. "On 99 percent of the issues, she's going to agree with the president. She thinks his administration has been great for America and great for New York."
Judith Hope, head of the Democratic state committee, cites one more reason for skepticism about the Hillary Abandons Bill scenario: New Yorkers seem to like President Clinton. In 1996, he won 52 of the state's 62 counties and all 31 of its congressional districts. The first lady has said she expects him to campaign for her in New York, and the president has said he expects her to oppose him on some issues.
"She might be distancing herself a little; she's not the same person," Hope said. "But she's not going to distance herself too far. The president's policies have been very popular in New York."
Still, as she starts trolling for money and votes, the first lady is sure to face heavy pressure from some well-funded and well-organized New York constituencies. The state's 100-plus teaching hospitals, which stand to lose about $5 billion over the next five years from the president's 1997 balanced-budget agreement with Congress, are a perfect example. The president's new Medicare reform plan sets aside $7.5 billion to restore some cuts from that agreement, and aides to the first lady say she is already lobbying for teaching hospitals to get "a large chunk."
"Texas has oil wells," said Kenneth Raske, president of the Greater New York Hospital Association. "We have teaching hospitals."
The first lady could face a similar dilemma over the financial services modernization bill: If she opposes it, she could alienate a rich and powerful New York industry, which is counting on the bill to help it expand into new markets. And she has already taken on powerful financial interests as the administration's point person on a bipartisan consumer bankruptcy reform bill, which she has helped block because she believes it favors major credit card companies over ordinary Americans.
Here in Upstate New York, dairy farmers can be an important constituency, too. They believe their way of life has been threatened by years of stagnant milk prices and that the compact may be their last hope. But action after the 2000 election may be too late.
"We're glad she supports the compact," said Bill von Matt, the president of the Oneida County Farm Bureau. "But right now, we really need to get to her husband. You think she can help us with him?"
Staff writer Dan Morgan in Washington contributed to this report.