September 23, 2005,
EDITOR'S NOTE: This piece appears in the October 10, 2005, issue of National Review.
"Clinton for President The Sequel" has been receiving rave notices during its road show in New York and Washington, D.C. Hillary Clinton looks like a sure bet for reelection to the Senate next year, and surveys show her lapping the field of potential Democratic presidential candidates. She is widely admired as a clever, centrist consensus-builder. A top Republican strategist warns his party, "We underestimate her at our peril."
But while it's true that no Clinton should ever be underestimated, neither should Democrats underestimate the formidable obstacle Hillary Clinton's presidential production faces: its lead.
A single memorable photograph from Hillary's years in the public spotlight illustrates the intimidating determination that marks her political ambitions. It was early January of 1998, and her husband was preparing for his deposition in Paula Jones's sexual-harassment suit. During their New Year's vacation in the Virgin Islands, the presidential couple were "caught" dancing together on the beach. In Bill's arms, Hillary gazed lovingly at her affectionate husband, her 50-year-old body revealed in all its bathing-suited glory. Most middle-aged women dread leaving a dressing room in a bathing suit, yet Hillary readily posed for a photo bound to grace front pages around the world. It was a perfect fašade of normal matrimony, and succeeded brilliantly in distracting attention from the Jones suit. I remember thinking, "Wow, it's true that she will do absolutely anything for the sake of political survival." In the months ahead, after Monica Lewinsky had been exposed as Bill's latest paramour, Hillary would endure even greater public indignities. But she stuck with her husband and, in the end, she had her reward: a seat in the Senate.
Her recent press notices praise the pose she is now striking in order to position herself for the races to come. The Nation exults that "Homespun Hillary" wows the rubes in upstate New York with a rural accent, an impressive command of farming issues, and a winning disdain for city folk. Talking about city restaurateurs' demand for specialty produce, she charmingly says, "We need all those little funny things you don't know what they are when they put 'em on your plate." In such settings, "she effortlessly wins over people who, we're told, are supposed to hate her." One Hillary supporter explained, "Upstate that's all the Midwest. That's Cleveland and Detroit. The themes that will be tested, we'll see how they work also on the national level." She's playing in the sticks on her way to Broadway.
Haunted by the flip-flop charge hung around John Kerry's neck last year, Team Hillary anxiously insists that there is no rescripting going on. Her media adviser Mandy Grunwald says, "People have gained a more complete view of Hillary in the Senate than they had when she was in the White House. People are getting past the cartoon version of her and seeing that she's culturally moderate and sensitive to rural and small-town America. That mix has always been a part of her."
Self-deluded reporters demand precious little evidence before touting Hillary Clinton as a centrist, and hype at every opportunity her collaboration with retrograde rightists. She has appeared in public with Newt Gingrich to propose computerizing medical-billing records! She sponsored legislation with Rick Santorum to study the effects of media violence on children! She and Sam Brownback are against blood and gore in video games! It's as though such unremarkable cooperation on uncontroversial issues had expunged Hillary's record as a diehard partisan, the liberal conscience and combative half of a 30-year-old, fiercely ambitious political partnership.
ABORTION AND IMMIGRATIONOn two issues in particular, Clinton has won praise for her supposed moderation. She is said to have mollified the pro-life crowd with her call for common ground in the abortion wars, and to have outflanked President Bush on the right with a tough stand against illegal immigration. Noting such "red-state-friendly pronouncements," the San Diego Union-Tribune warned that "Republicans salivating over having Sen. Clinton to run against should be careful what they wish for." A closer examination of her record and rhetoric, however, suggests that a Hillary presidential candidacy could indeed be a tasty treat for Republicans.
Marking the anniversary of Roe v. Wade this January, Senator Clinton spoke to 1,000 fellow abortion supporters in Albany. She referred to abortion as "a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women" and declared, "I, for one, respect those who believe with all their hearts and conscience that there are no circumstances under which any abortion should ever be available." She called for cooperation across the abortion divide to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies. Mort Kondracke, executive editor of Roll Call, called the speech "a political masterstroke." She was, supposedly, aligning herself with mainstream views: Polls consistently show that a majority of Americans want to see abortion either outlawed or strictly limited.
But she also said that Roe v. Wade "is in more jeopardy than ever," and she was not ambivalent about her support for abortion-on-demand. As First Lady, she "saw firsthand the costs to women when the government controls their reproductive-health decisions." Where had she seen this? In Communist Romania, women were rounded up, stripped, and examined by a government doctor with the secret police looking on, and a "celibacy tax" was slapped on families that failed to conceive. In China, the government monitored women's menstrual cycles and their use of contraceptives. By adducing such examples, Hillary implied that any restriction on abortion puts women on a continuum of oppression that terminates in totalitarian coercion. Whether she was unaware of the absurdity of the comparisons or cynically indifferent to it, she no doubt delighted her audience of "family-planning" practitioners.
Hillary's faux-centrism on abortion is nothing new: In 1999, at a National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) dinner celebrating the Roe v. Wade decision, she called for common ground to achieve "our goal of keeping abortion safe, legal, and rare into the next century." But it was quite a different Hillary who ran for the Senate the following year. Her opponent, Rep. Rick Lazio, described himself as "pro-choice," but parted ways with abortion absolutists on three issues: He opposed federal funding for abortion, backed a ban on partial-birth abortion, and supported parental-notification legislation. Owing to these common-ground positions, NARAL's president Kate Michelman declared, "He's not pro-choice." Candidate Clinton agreed, and campaigned as though she were running against Operation Rescue's Randall Terry. "Abortion rights will be an important issue in this race," she said. And she made a pledge: "The estimates are that the next Senate is going to confirm three or four justices. I will not vote to confirm judges who do not believe that Roe v. Wade should be upheld." Rick Lazio, by contrast, refused to adopt a litmus test on judges. Abortion-rights groups trumpeted Clinton's pledge in campaign literature and TV ads and slammed Lazio for his refusal to promise the same.
In the Senate, Clinton has been true to her word. She has voted twice against banning partial-birth abortions. She opposed a bill that would require murderers of pregnant women to be charged with two federal crimes one for the death of the mother, the other for the death of the child and she opposes a bill that prohibits transporting minors across state lines for abortions without parental consent. On the judicial question, her allies don't seem a bit worried that she will vote to confirm John Roberts as chief justice of the Supreme Court. "She's a passionate supporter of the right to choose, and I don't see that equation changing," says Kelli Conlin of NARAL New York.
In Senator Clinton's ballyhooed pronouncements on illegal immigration, there is also less than meets the ear. During a WABC radio interview in February 2003, she said, "I am, you know, adamantly against illegal immigrants." She criticized employers for hiring illegals and said she wanted to see an entry-and-exit system that tracks non-citizens. These remarks have smitten no less an opponent of illegal immigration than Pat Buchanan, who thinks Hillary Clinton "has spoken out against illegal immigration with a forthrightness that makes Bush sound like a talking head for La Raza."
But just how forthright was Hillary Clinton about this antipathy to illegal immigrants when she spoke to the National Council of La Raza in Philadelphia this July? She talked about education, health care, and the need to tackle asthma and lead poisoning among Hispanic children. The only mention of illegal immigrants came when she highlighted her support for legislation that would give amnesty to tens of thousands of illegal-immigrant students who graduate from high school and help them get in-state tuition at universities. The senator who is "adamantly against illegal immigrants" got no fewer than three standing ovations from the La Raza crowd.
She also supports a bill that would provide amnesty to up to 1 million illegal agricultural workers a bill that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat, calls a "huge magnet" for illegal immigration and has backed Ted Kennedy's proposal to grant permanent-resident status to some illegal aliens who have been in the U.S. for at least five years. Although she maintains that security at our borders must be "paramount," she opposes the Bush administration's proposal that anyone entering the U.S. from Mexico or Canada be required to show his passport, on the grounds that it would hurt "tourism and the regional economy" in upstate New York.
LET THE RECORD SHOW . . .There is a pattern here: Clinton has a long history of taking positions entirely at odds with the words she proclaims from the housetops. This is apparent in almost any analysis of her voting record. Hillary's "Liberal Quotient" from the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) was 95 last year, a tie with Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dick Durbin. Her lifetime ADA rating is also 95, outscoring both Ted Kennedy (89.16) and John Kerry (88.7). On social issues, National Journal rated Clinton as more liberal than 82 percent of her Senate colleagues. NARAL has scored her a perfect 100 percent since her election. In 2008, she might be found, Kerry-like, stomping through Ohio fields with some poor goose in her gun-sight, but so far the National Rifle Association has graded her an "F."
Senator Clinton opposed all of President Bush's tax cuts and, according to the National Taxpayers Union, is the second-biggest spender in the Senate, bested only by Jon Corzine of New Jersey. The Nation approvingly notes that Hillary Clinton "voted against the biggest trade bill of the new millennium the Trade Act of 2002 . . . even though Bill [Clinton] sought a similar version of this 'fast track' legislation as president." She also voted against the trade pact with Central America (CAFTA).
One of the very few issues on which Clinton has earned demerits from the scorekeepers of the Left is the Iraq War. She voted to authorize the war and, unlike John Kerry, supported legislation to continue funding the troops. That record may anger the Bush-hating Left, but Clinton's rhetoric has been carefully calculated to give her an exit strategy from the political consequences. Explaining her vote authorizing the use of force, she said, "Bipartisan support for this resolution makes success in the United Nations more likely and, therefore, war less likely." Come the Iowa caucuses, she'll be explaining that it wasn't a pro-war vote at all, but a pro-U.N. one. She now insists that she had hoped President Bush, backed by Congress, would force tougher inspections, but alas! he refused to let them continue. And she has derided the administration's war plans as "a combination of na´vetÚ and incompetence."
By any reasonable standard, Hillary is no hawk. The conservative American Security Council gives her a measly 20 percent on national-security issues. She has voted to restrict a missile-defense system and to eliminate funding for a nuclear bunker-buster weapon. She may support increasing the size of the Army, but the legislation she has sponsored suggests an interest primarily in burnishing her security credentials on the cheap: She introduced a bill to recognize military service during the Cold War, and is cosponsoring a resolution to provide airborne troops with a day in their honor. Liberals compare her with true hawks and acknowledge happily that she is not one of them. The Nation writes that her work on the Armed Services Committee and "mastering military arcana" is smart politics for an ambitious liberal aware of Democrats' weak reputation on defense issues, but "it's not off-putting to the Democratic base, which loathes Joe Lieberman-style militaristic posturing."
In fact, Senator Lieberman has earned the antipathy of the anti-war Left precisely because he is not merely posturing. Clinton's ersatz hawkishness, in comparison, is one of tepid gestures and hollow speechifying. And, skilled poseur that she is, she takes pains not to distance herself too far from the military's slanderers on the left. When Sen. Dick Durbin compared the American military's treatment of detainees at Guantanamo to "Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime Pol Pot or others that had no concern for human beings," Hillary Clinton was asked for a reaction to it. Conveniently, she hadn't read Durbin's speech and when a reporter read the offensive bits to her, she simply declined to comment. Such suggestive evasiveness was also on display in last year's presidential campaign, when she said she hoped that uncommitted voters would be moved into the Democratic column by Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, although she hadn't seen it herself.
ENEMIES TO CONQUERSenator Clinton is betting that the warring Democratic factions, after frustrating years out of power, can be unified in a fight against the force of darkness that is the Republican party. She set the lefty blogs buzzing when, at a July meeting of the Democratic Leadership Council, she called on the party to unite around the "values violated every day in Washington by the ideologues of the Republican Right." Her modus operandi has always been to rally troops against the enemy whether the Clintons' "Arkansas enemies," the Gingrich forces in the House, Ken Starr and "the vast right-wing conspiracy," George W. Bush and his band of ideologues, or whoever will bear the Republican mantle in 2008.
On the stump, Clinton seethes like Howard Dean. "Right now we have a White House and a majority in Congress who are systematically weakening the democratic traditions and institutions on which this nation was built. They are turning back the clock . . . on the 20th century . . . beyond Franklin Roosevelt, even beyond Teddy Roosevelt." And, "There has never been an administration, I don't believe in our history, more intent upon consolidating and abusing power to further their own agenda. . . . It's very hard to stop people who have no shame about what they're doing. . . . It is very hard to stop people who have never been acquainted with the truth."
Her husband wasn't as comfortable launching such strident partisan broadsides. Bill Clinton really did want us all to just get along. Hillary wants more: She would see her enemies vanquished. In the Clinton political partnership, the missus has always been the enforcer, the holder of grudges, the one who rides into battle when her husband lacks the stomach for it. In a huge 1994 New Yorker profile of Hillary, chockfull of unflattering tales about the then First Lady, someone who had known the Clintons for many years explained, "Bill Clinton, calculating as he is, genuinely cares about people he loves everyone, he is a sucker for every individual. Hillary, no. It's an intellectual thing she loves the many, not the individual."
Unfortunately for the senator, this difference is observable even from afar. Bill Clinton is utterly comfortable in his own skin, an invaluable attribute he shares with Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has been constantly remaking herself ever since her husband lost his governorship in 1980. That was when she changed her name, her appearance, and her public behavior to be more pleasing to Arkansas voters. She projects a manufactured personality and an air of moral superiority. If Bill is open and genuinely charismatic, Hillary is tightly controlled, with a hint of something resentment? rage? seething just beneath the surface. A staple of Hillary profiles is the assertion that she has a terrific sense of humor. But if, behind closed doors, Hillaryland is all laughs all the time, shouldn't a glimmer of spontaneous good humor have been glimpsed during Hillary's 15 years in the national spotlight? Miles of videotape have failed to capture even a single natural laugh.
Democrats fervently hope for a repeat Clinton White House, but Hillary will enjoy none of the advantages Bill did. In 1992, Bill introduced himself on the national stage as a moderate southern governor. The Cold War was over and national security was not among voters' top concerns. There was a recession; conservatives were disaffected with President Bush; and Ross Perot appeared on the scene, allowing Bill Clinton to be elected with just a 43 percent plurality.
Hillary, by contrast, is not a fresh political personality. Polls show that only 7 percent of the public has no opinion of her. A leading Republican strategist says, "I can't think of anyone who would rally conservatives more than Hillary Clinton. She would give the Republican nominee a jump on energizing the base." Moreover, most of the Democratic Leadership Council's political strategists argue against nominating a liberal from the Northeast. Will Marshall, head of the DLC policy working group, has cautioned against "getting in bed with the secular absolutists of the ACLU." Senator Clinton is precisely that: Last year, the ACLU gave her a rating that tied her with Chuck Schumer and put her ahead of Barbara Boxer.
Clinton's boosters and their Greek chorus in the press think she is an electoral powerhouse. But her history in actual elections short though it is does not bear that claim out. In her 2000 Senate campaign, she spent $41 million to win 55 percent of the vote in one of the bluest of states. When her predecessor, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was reelected in 1994 an exceptionally good year for Republicans he won the same 55 percent of the vote and spent only $6.7 million. When Al Gore ran for president, his share of New York voters was five points higher and his margin among New York women was twice Hillary's.
And Hillary has a history (pardon me: a living history). The New York Observer may say that she is "no longer encumbered with the image of the jilted wife who's willing to accept her husband's outrageous behavior," but that assertion is absurd. I'm just an amateur compared with the real Hillary-haters, and my file on her is two inches thick. It starts early: In high school, she was known as Sister Frigidaire. Nor has she become more likable with age. A supposedly fierce protector of her family's privacy, she invited Jesse Jackson to the White House for personal counsel the day before Bill fessed up to his affair with Monica. Predictably, Jackson held a press conference the next day. Even her explanation of the Lewinsky scandal smacked of political opportunism: "I think a lot of this is prejudice against our state. They wouldn't do this if we were from some other state."
And we haven't even gotten started on Bill. In 1992, Hillary Clinton declared, "If you vote for my husband, you get me; it's a two-for-one blue-plate special." A President Hillary would put her husband back in the White House with lots of time on his hands.
Even if voters don't think she is constitutionally barred from seeking another term as co-president, they are likely to see her for what she is: an aggressive, calculating, insincere, opportunistic, and exceptionally liberal woman. Her rhetoric, no matter how deft, cannot hide that character and if Republicans underestimate her at their own peril, neither should she give them insomnia.