The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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

Elie Wiesel wrote a letter warning that the Bush attack on the court "would erase the legacy of U.S. leadership on international justice" and Dodd placed it in the Senate record, but Clinton rebuffed the Dodd bill without explanation. Wiesel invoked Nuremberg in supporting the ICC, which targets war crimes and genocide and includes 70 nations (it's unconnected to the anti-fence World Court). Bush and the Republican bill went so far as to authorize military action against the Hague court should it ever attempt to prosecute an American.

Even on the domestic side, where she's a bitter opponent of the Bush tax cuts and Medicare drug bills, she's co-sponsoring a brutal bill imposing a 40-hour work week on welfare recipients and a Bush-backed, Rick Santorum-sponsored bill for faith-based social-service funding. While she's received strong ratings from top environmental groups, she's voted with the Republicans on curious key issues—from air-conditioning efficiency to toxic incinerators. She was even part of a Senate bipartisan minority to back oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Her ADL comments on the Patriot Act were typically ambiguous. She has yet to join 24 Democratic and Republican co-sponsors of two current bills that try to cure the sneak-and-peek, library, and immigration abuses in the act, and she is never specific about what she thinks is wrong with it.When the Abu Ghraib scandal exploded and she was on national television questioning Defense Department witnesses, she raised the telling issue of whether the ex-commander at the notorious Guantánamo detention facility had helped reshape interrogation practices in Iraq. What no one noticed was that Clinton had not publicly criticized Guantánamo techniques before making the linkage. Neither has she ever been quoted objecting to any of the extralegal Ashcroft abuses in the Padilla and other cases.

"Like many other Democrats," says Timothy Edgar, the ACLU's legislative counsel, "Senator Clinton has been finding her voice on the issue of civil liberties, and obviously is very troubled by the Ashcroft record, but has not taken a firm position on the controversial issues." Edgar says she's "not been as much a problem for us as Schumer," who's "been actively pushing for bad ideas," including a 2003 wire tapping bill he co-sponsored with Arizona Republican John Kyl that the ACLU vigorously opposed.

These key votes are exceptions. Clinton still does regularly get 90-plus ratings on the scorecards of liberal groups like Americans for Democratic Action. But each of these votes is calculated to give her moderate cover—particularly on national security issues—that would be unnecessary in NY, where her approval ratings often exceed Schumer's. They are much more consonant with the national agenda she's unveiled in pivotal appearances at the annual meetings of the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist pro-business group once chaired by a young Arkansas governor who rode its ideology all the way to the White House.

In her July 2001 DLC speech, Clinton said her husband and DLC boss Al From had "turned our party around and showed in the White House what it would take not only to govern from the vital center, but to raise voices on behalf of the vision we hold for our future." She declared that she had shed "the wonkish answers" about why she supported the DLC for four simple words, insisting that it "comes up with ideas to make America richer, safer, smarter and stronger." She made no mention of where fairer might fit in with the DLC's congenitally anti-poor formulations. A year later—with 9-11 wedged in between—she called From a "first responder" who rescued the Democratic Party, reminiscing about how the DLC shaped the earliest, kitchen-table Clinton agenda. It was another Hillary salute to the mushy middle, her onetime springboard to the presidency.


Of course, there is another possible, and far less political, explanation for at least some of this Clinton positioning: Namely that it is not positioning at all, that her fixations on everything from Iraq to defense appropriations to the Patriot Act might be her way of responding to an attack that has left her so drained she told Larry King she thinks about another one "every single day." Within weeks of 9-11, she told the Times that "it"—meaning all the disparate elements of meeting this unique challenge—"will be the primary obligation for my term," and she no doubt meant it. The issues of her "living history"—from women to schools—have taken a backseat. Her office's 2003 list of "accomplishments" starts with the premise that "like many of you, my top concerns were economic security, homeland security and national security."

Certainly her direct 9-11 work is a study in the art of effective politics. Joined at the hip with an equally aggressive Schumer, she has chased every dollar of the $20 billion promised New York as if it were a new book advance (she and her husband combined to get $20 million). No one, other than Congressman Jerry Nadler, has been more vigilant than she about the appalling EPA failures in Lower Manhattan, securing finally one asbestos cleanup of 4,000 residences and setting up now her own panel with the agency to extend the cleanup to others. Single-handedly, she snared two giant federal grants to create what's probably the largest health-screening program for disaster victims in history, Mount Sinai's exhaustive examination of the toxic cloud that still hugs at the lungs of thousands of Ground Zero workers.

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