The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Senator Hillary becomes a 9-11 hero, centrist chameleon, and Iraq hawk

Hillary Clinton was at her breakfast best back in May, reminding the Anti-Defamation League's National Leadership Conference that Robert Frost said "fences make good neighbors," and saluting Ariel Sharon's 450-mile wall as "the responsibility of any government" faced with deadly border incursions.

Highlighting the letter she'd just sent to the U.N. and the World Court protesting their decision to review the fence issue, Clinton took two questions before rushing a few blocks to a 10 a.m. closed hearing of the Armed Services Committee about the just-breaking Abu Ghraib scandal. One question was about the "evolving" Patriot Act, which comes up for renewal in 2005, and balancing "the need for security" with "the preservation of civil rights." One of all but two Senate Democrats who voted for the act, Clinton has begun expressing "worries" about it and vowed that morning to make sure the renewed act achieves "that right balance."

"I think there are so many on the right and so many on the left who are worried about the act, that's a good sign," she concluded. "We ought to be able to figure out how to end up in that mushy middle, you know, that center ground that basically has marked the best place for America to stand over the length of our very long history."

illustration: David O’Keefe

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Related:
Dr. Clinton Versus the Ground Zero Cough
by Christine Lagorio

Mush is not the way New York's fiery junior senator usually describes the golden goal of her own, or the nation's, politics. But finding the middle—equipoise, as she puts it—is a surprisingly big part of her public agenda, and even of her personal image. As she watches the nomination this week of a Democratic ticket that may doom the Clinton dream of a family presidential dynasty, the record of her first three and a half years in the Senate seemingly anticipated a moderate run for the presidency that she may now never make. At 65 years old in 2012—when a possible second Kerry administration ends—she would be the oldest new president, other than Reagan, in the 20th century, running a dozen years after her husband's version of Bimbo Camelot. How long can boom nostalgia last?

With this all-but-conceded presidential ambition as backdrop, Clinton has certainly been much more of a centrist senator than her liberal New York constituency required. She may have been even more centrist than her local base would ordinarily tolerate, given a pass partly because of her aura as right-wing obsession and left-wing pioneer, and partly because of the promise of her grand White House return.

Not only did she vote for the blank-check Iraqi war and $87 billion resolutions in 2002 and 2003, she voted against three anti-Bush amendments—sponsored by Democrats Carl Levin, Richard Durbin, and Robert Byrd—that got 24, 30, and 38 Senate votes respectively. John Kerry and Clinton's NY sidekick, Chuck Schumer, were among the Democratic majority that supported the Durbin amendment in 2002, which simply required that Bush demonstrate an "imminent threat" before launching an invasion. Schumer also voted for the Byrd bill in 2003, which withheld $15 billion of the $87 billion until reconstruction costs could be thoroughly examined; Kerry was absent, but informed the chair that he would've voted aye if present. Of course, both Kerry and John Edwards also voted against the $87 billion appropriation itself.

In sharp contrast, Clinton was a Joe Lieberman Democrat on Iraq, sometimes voting with Bush virtually alone among Northeastern Dems, and insisting to this day that she has no regrets about her votes. Ironically, her public statements now are echoes of the arguments made on the Senate floor for the amendments she rejected.

Illinois's Durbin, for example, dissected the war resolution during the October 2002 debate as authorizing "a unilateral, go-it-alone invasion of Iraq," shredding what he said was 50 years of American foreign policy that, "even at the height of the Cold War," didn't endorse a first strike against the Soviet Union. Clinton's February 2004 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations cited the same "50-year bipartisan consensus" and said it was "not an excuse for weakness but an exercise of strength," and repeatedly tossed the same "go-it-alone" and "unilateral" barbs Durbin had fired before the war. While she perpetually talks in multilateral terms now, she voted against Levin's amendment, which would have merely required Bush to come back to a continuously in-session Congress if he couldn't get U.N. approval for an invasion.

The first New York senator to serve on the Armed Services Committee, she's voted for every defense appropriation since arriving in the Senate in 2001, backing new Bush weapons systems and focusing her critique of Bush's Iraq tactics on an inadequate deployment of troops. She even bucked the majority of Senate Democrats on a Bush cost-cutting proposal to close military bases, and opposed a Kerry-backed bill to shift hundreds of millions from the navy's controversial V-22 Osprey aircraft program to the fight against global AIDS.

When 40 Senate Democrats voted for a 2002 Chris Dodd amendment to try to maintain minimal U.S. ties to the newly U.N.-created International Criminal Court, Clinton was one of eight Democrats to join the Republicans in a vote to crush it. Ironically, she'd voted for the ICC on a similar Dodd bill in 2001, and in 2000, her husband signed the Rome treaty creating it. But, over the howls of the New York Times editorial page, Bush became the first world leader ever to "unsign" a treaty, followed within weeks by Israel. That led to Dodd's attempt to at least permit American cooperation with the court if it ever tried bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and a few others—an amendment backed by Kerry, Edwards, and Schumer.

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