Arkansas may look like it is playing host to a Democratic convention this week, as hundreds of the party's best-known faces and most influential political hands descend on Little Rock for the opening of former president Bill Clinton's presidential library -- an event that suddenly promises to be much more than a nostalgia tour.
It is not just Clinton's presidential past, but his party's -- and his wife's -- presidential future that will be driving conversation at this reunion, Democrats say.
John F. Kerry's failure to unseat President Bush, who will attend the opening ceremonies on Thursday, gave Democrats new reason to appreciate Clinton as a politician who sometimes stumbled but still managed to win. And it has bolstered those in the party who argue that his brand of centrist politics and policies offers the best path back to victory.
But the debate is not so simple. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the politician with the most personal claim to the Clinton legacy, saw a potential path to the White House opened by Kerry's loss. Yet her luster was simultaneously dimmed by a belief among some Democrats that the party should not again nominate a northeastern senator with a polarizing past and a liberal reputation.
Perhaps not since Robert F. Kennedy, whose Senate seat Hillary Clinton holds, has there been a politician whose presidential future generates more speculation and controversy, ensuring that she will be drawing nearly as much notice as her husband at the media-saturated library opening.
The Clintons, Bush, former president George H.W. Bush, former president Jimmy Carter and others will speak, U2's Bono and the Edge will perform, and thousands of guests will get their first glimpse of the $165 million, 150,000-square-foot glass and steel structure overlooking the Arkansas River.
This confluence of personalities and circumstances will make Little Rock a perfect place for political pot-stirring. "Virtually everyone who is anyone in the Democratic Party will be at the same place at the same time -- at a critical time," said Jake Siewert, a former Clinton White House press secretary.
Although "it's silly to think of this as some sort of '08 strategy session," he added, the event "gives us a chance to reflect on a winning formula" and "puts the Clintons and the Clintons' agenda in the spotlight."
That spotlight has not always been kind in the four years since Clinton left power.
After surviving his 1998 impeachment, Clinton's reputation plunged again -- irreversibly, some commentators predicted at the time -- after he left office amid controversy over a wave of last-minute pardons he granted to fugitive financier Marc Rich and others. His reputation suffered, too, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when some critics complained that the al Qaeda threat had metastasized on Clinton's watch.
Since then, Clinton's stock on the historical exchange has climbed higher, at least among Democrats who contrast his ability to win support around the world with the ill will Bush has garnered among allies over Iraq and other policies.
"He almost always rises back up to the surface, even if events seem to beat him down for a while," said Mark Penn, Clinton's White House pollster, who still regularly asks survey questions to measure the 42nd president's approval rating. "He's become less of a polarizing figure, more of a uniting figure."
Even some voices on the opposite side of the ideological debate agree in part. National Review editor Rich Lowry, who wrote a scathing critique of Clinton's legacy from a conservative perspective in a book published last year, said after Kerry's loss that "a lot of people, not just on the left, have to have an even keener appreciation of Clinton's political abilities.
"He won, and that's a pretty important thing," Lowry said, noting that Clinton in his 1992 and 1996 victories managed to blur the "red state-blue state split that we have now" in part by blunting the suspicion rural and small-town voters harbored toward Democrats over liberalism and cultural issues. An irony of Clinton's tenure, Lowry noted, is that the sex-and-perjury scandal that erupted in his second term helped make the red-blue divisions more vivid than ever.
Complicating the debate is that even among sympathetic Democrats there is hardly a consensus about what the Clinton legacy is. Some people put the emphasis on style, noting his southern roots and ability to connect with voters in a down-home, conversational way. On policy, a debate that began early in his presidency still echoes. Moderate Democrats say the key to Clinton's political success was his willingness to defy liberal orthodoxy on welfare, free trade and balanced budgets. Liberals note that he prevailed by confronting Republicans with promises to protect traditional Democratic programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
"Everyone picks out different threads in the tapestry," noted former White House chief of staff John D. Podesta.
Just which threads of that tapestry Hillary Clinton intends to emphasize is still uncertain, but people close to her say they regard it as a virtual given that she will seek the presidency in 2008.
The New York senator does not fit neatly in an ideological box. Since moving out of the White House and launching her Senate bid in 1999, she has steadfastly cultivated a centrist record. As a senator, she has voted for the Iraq war and Bush's $87 billion request for the postwar occupation. She employs Penn, one of her husband's top aides, whose specialty is finding poll-tested policy ideas that appeal to swing voters.
But for many voters she remains the author of an overreaching health care plan in 1994 and the ideological warrior who denounced the "vast right-wing conspiracy." Political strategists disagree whether this diverse history would prove a liability, or allow her to unite both wings of the Democratic Party by letting both sides believe she is one of them.
No matter her real designs, she must first win reelection in 2006 -- a potentially formidable task if a major New York Republican such as Gov. George E. Pataki or former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani decides to challenge her. And she faces a delicate balancing act.
Hillary Clinton quieted some of her critics by taking a nose-to-the-grindstone approach in the Senate, where she has focused heavily on New York issues, assumed the role of team player with her fellow Democrats and even courted some conservative Republicans to pass legislation. If, as expected, she begins to step out more to enhance her profile as a national leader, she will summon the intense media scrutiny and partisan opposition that made her a divisive figure in the first place.
Before Kerry seized the nomination in 2004, polls routinely cited Hillary Clinton as the most popular choice among Democrats. Some operatives warn that it is unlikely she can sustain this popularity for several years without inviting second thoughts among Democrats, who might conclude that the best way to emulate the electoral success of Clinton is not with someone whose last name is Clinton.
Hillary Clinton, says one former Kerry adviser who worked in Clinton's White House, is red meat for the red states. "Now that we lost, it's going to be harder for her," said this Democrat, who did not wish to speak on the record for fear of offending the former first family. "She comes from the bluest of the blue states, and she's polarizing. That's not going to be seen as the way to win those [culturally traditional] voters we lost."
Michael Tomasky, executive editor of the liberal American Prospect magazine and the author of a book on Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign, said people should not assume she cannot win moderate voters the same way her husband did. In 2000, he noted, she defied stereotypes and ran nearly even with her opponent in Upstate New York, which normally votes overwhelmingly Republican.
But at least until the ceremonial ribbon is snipped at the new presidential library, all eyes will be on Bill Clinton. And from Clinton's perspective, the focus on his own record comes at a fortuitous moment. "The overwhelming view among Democrats," including many liberals who regarded Clinton as an opportunist while in office, Tomasky said, "is that his presidency was a success."