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."

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 Timeseditorial 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.

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.

Ask the public-relations director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a subdivision of the Bush administration's Department of Commerce, how it got the $16 million to fund the ongoing, penetrating investigation of the WTC collapse and evacuation and he will tell you: Hillary Clinton. From a NY point of view, NIST will answer more potentially lifesaving questions than the 9-11 Commission, and its work is a product of Clinton's newest "listening tour"—the one she continuously takes with the families, whose own rating website gave her an A.

Ask a Republican administration at City Hall who's carrying the ball in Washington on homeland-security formulas that put pork ahead of threat, and the annual reports of Bloomberg's Washington lobbying office mention Clinton more than any other legislator. They cite her block-grant amendment that focuses on risk, her Domestic Defense Act that boosts caps for high-threat urban areas, and "several bills" of hers that put "decisionmaking" on the use of homeland funds "in the hands of the City and the first responders themselves." While she has lost some of these battles—by just a couple of Senate votes —she has been the city's centurion in Washington, always on guard.

Her maiden speech on the Senate floor in February 2001—when 9-11 could not have been imagined—was a gracious confession. With only three other senators and a dozen tourists present, she reminded the body that she'd been there before—seven years earlier—"when I came to Capitol Hill with an idea or two about how to improve health care." She said she'd learned "some valuable lessons about the legislative process" from that "unsuccessful" experience—"the importance of bipartisan cooperation and the wisdom of taking small steps to get a big job done."

Attending prayer meetings now with Republican senators who voted to impeach her husband, and chipping away a day at a time on homeland and reconstruction aid for her city, she is slowly getting a big job done. Even if the biggest job may no longer be on her horizon.


Research assistance: Abby Aguirre, Caitlin Chandler, Daniel Magliocco, Marc Schultz, Ben Shestakofsky, and Ned Thimmayya

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