When someone like Newt Gingrich commends a Democrat's service on the Senate Armed Services Committee, you know you're looking at a serious hawk. That hawk is Hillary Clinton, junior senator from blue-state New York and possible presidential candidate in 2008.
Gingrich, with an eye on his White House bid, told a group of newspaper editors last month that she'd make a formidable opponent. "Senator Clinton is very competent, very professional, very intelligently moving toward the center, very shrewdly and effectively serving on the Armed Services Committee," the GOP hard-liner said. Gringrich should know: He sits with her on a star-studded Pentagon advisory group.
When not fending off terrorists or bucking up the troops in Iraq, Clinton has been equally fierce about defending defense dollars for her home state.
Just ask Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who got the back-off sign from her at an April 19 budget meeting of a Senate Armed Services subcommittee. Clinton isn't assigned to this smaller group, but she showed up anyway. And we know what she said, because her aides sent out a press release and video snippet of their Democratic boss fighting the good fight on Capitol Hill.
Lieberman, a fellow committee member, had sought a coveted $1.7 billion contract to build the presidential Marine One helicopter in his home state. The deal was awarded January 28 to Lockheed Martinin upstate New York. Now Clinton feared he would try to block its funding.
She spoke briefly, telling the subcommittee: "Now that the contract has been awarded, we think it is important we proceed expeditiously." Cut this money, in other words, and you're crossing me.
For the defense industry in New York, the Marine One contract ranks among its hardest-fought battles in recent memory, and plenty of state politicians had a hand in advocating that the 750-job contract go to Lockheed's plant, in Owego, a struggling area outside Binghamton. Yet no one was more tenacious than Clinton. On April 7, she and fellow senator Chuck Schumer thwarted a sneaky attack by Connecticut's Christopher Dodd, who tried to insert a fatal amendment into an unrelated bill. Clinton and Schumer pulled some parliamentary moves of their own, and prevailed.
"Lockheed Martin won it fair and square," Clinton said of her actions at the time, "and the people at the Owego plant worked their hearts out for this project."
So did she, turning the Marine One bid into something of a pet project over the past year. She took a test flight of the Lockheed chopper and met with navy administrators. She even placed a call to British prime minister Tony Blair, who was cheering for the craft to be built in his country.
The first New York senator to serve on the Armed Services Committee in the modern era, Clinton has used her two years there to carve out a muscular image on national security. Last week, when the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency told lawmakers he thought North Korea could deliver a nuclear strike, it was Hillary Clinton who had asked the key question.
Mitchell Moss, who teaches political science at New York University, says Clinton "has done an enormous amount on the committee to establish herself as a hawk on national issues." Moss likens her to the late Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the U.S. senator who represented Washington State from the 1950s until 1983. Jackson epitomized the great centrist Democrathe was a true liberal on domestic issues, and a hawk's hawk on foreign policy and national security.
But there's another way that Clinton mirrors Jackson: bringing home the bacon. The Washington senator worked so hard at it that he earned the title "the senator from Boeing." Clinton doesn't have such a reputationyet. In press releases last year, she took credit for securing roughly $125.5 million in defense projects statewide. This year, she has touted having already inserted $156 million in military construction projects in the fiscal 2006 defense budget.
"Senator Clinton is going back to the Scoop Jackson days," Moss says, "and she's filling a big gap in New York."
Not long after Clinton landed her spot on the prestigious committeewhich controls the $419 billion national defense budgetshe contacted U.S. Congressman Steve Israel, of Long Island, who serves on its House version. Israel says the two discussed how to use their respective seats to New York's advantage. Once a defense stronghold, with companies concentrated in Israel's backyard, the state has seen the industry shrivel over the past two decades.
"We made a decision to work very closely together to fight for defense procurements," Israel says.
Their first test surfaced just months later, in March 2003, when Israel learned the defense giant Northrop Grumman was ready to move part of its Long Island operations out of state. The congressman called Clinton and, within hours, they had company executives in her Capitol Hill office. They discovered the Pentagon had slashed funds for a Northrop-produced radar system for the navy. Without the money, the company would shutter its Melville plant and cut 100 jobs.
Clinton and Israel mapped out a plan to save the facility, working Pentagon officials and Armed Services members to secure additional funding. "We found the money," Israel says. To date, they've brought in $28.3 million to keep the program going.
Clinton has found the money in less dramatic ways as well. Her office puts out a steady stream of press releases highlighting military expenditures for the Empire State. None compare to the big-ticket Marine One deal, her aides say, but there are meaningful wins. Like the $16.8 million the senator managed to earmark for an upstate aircraft manufacturer last year. Or the $43.5 million in defense research grants she got for five universities. When it comes to fighting for such things, Israel says, "Senator Clinton has been an absolute pit bull."
She certainly plays the part onstage. Witness her performance at an April 18 visit to Telephonics, in Farmingdale, a 1,200-person defense operation specializing in radar and electronics equipment. Clinton had come to be briefed by officials of the company on two of its latest defense programs, in hopes of garnering her support. Afterward, she went to the basement to address hundreds of employees packed into three nondescript conference rooms. They listened raptly as Clinton relayed her 2003 pact with Israel.
"We have some of the best and most talented high-tech companies in the country right here in this state, but we're not getting our fair share," Clinton told the crowd. "So we're working hard to make sure New York gets what it deserves."
She thanked the employees for their innovative ideas, which she pledged to showcase to all the right people on the Hill.
"A lot of what will make a difference for our troops will come out of the companies of Long Island," she declared, to rousing applause.
Her appearance lasted 20 minutes, and she dashed out of the room before workers could shake her hand. But it was enough to leave them with a sense of optimism. One manager, who kept marveling that "someone so powerful would come to visit us," said how fortunate the local defense industry is. "Having Hillary on that committee will bring business back to these facilities."
It's a sentiment echoed over and over by local defense experts, most of whom have nothing but praise for the senator. "I haven't heard anyone say anything negative," says U.S. Congressman Peter King, a Long Island Republican. "They are pleased with her, and they tell me that every chance they get."
Adds George Hockbrueckner, a D.C. lobbyist for New York defense companies: "She gets the job done, and people love her for it."
And why wouldn't they? Defense and military folks give Clinton high marks for listening to their concerns, promoting their products, leveraging her ties to the Pentagon in effect, for classic constituent services. At the same time, no one thinks her position on Armed Services can offer more than a marginal benefit to New York. As one retired executive from Long Island puts it: "There won't be any barn burners to bring here." The defense industry just doesn't dominate the state's economy the way it does in, say, Florida and Virginia. New York gets only $5.2 billion worth of defense contractsa fraction of the state's $833 billion economy overall. Virginia, by contrast, reaps as much as $23.5 billion in military expenditures.
"There isn't much that Senator Clinton can do, in terms of the bottom line, on the defense front," says William Hartung, who studies defense policy at New School University's World Policy Institute. "It's not a big industry like finance or human services."
Then again, he adds, "the senator knows what she's doing. She's not serving on this committee purely for constituent services."
As with everything that Senator Clinton does nowadays, people tend to see her Armed Services work through the prism of presidential ambitions. The committee, as Democratic analysts point out, presents the perfect way for Clinton to burnish her bona fides to prepare for a 2008 bid. The seat gives her access to military information, a platform for speaking about national security issues, a rationale for visiting the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, a means to build up her own armor for attacks on her as a Northeast liberal.
"It's all part of creating a centrist Democrat image," says Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. By virtue of her post, she has become well versed in the latest weapons and field tactics. She has backed every defense appropriation bill, including the latest $81 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan. The committee, Sheinkopf adds, "raises her national profile in a way that is out of sync with how her enemies would present her. It's important for her career."
Clinton's advisers take issue with the idea that the senator got on Armed Services simply to boost her résumé. They say Clinton's interest in military and defense matters dates back to her days in the White House, when she pushed for an investigation into why thousands of Persian Gulf war veterans returned with various illnesses. With New York not getting its per capita share of anti-terrorism funding, they argue, the state needs someone where Clinton is.
On the face of it, Clinton has tackled her duties with a sincerity suggesting she's in it for more than opportunity's sake. "It's not transparently obvious that what she's doing is paving the way for a presidential run," says Michael O'Hanlon, of the Brookings Institute, who tracks the committee's work.
O'Hanlon thinks Clinton has stood out, especially as a rookie member. He cites her thoughtful critique of President Bush's Iraq policyher concern about the extended use of Guard and Reserve members, about the lack of body armor, about the exit strategy. He also cites her support for New York's military families generallypushing for better pay and improved health benefits for the Guard and Reserve. She has also visited all 13 military installations across the state at least once, some two and three times.
"She's doing a fantastic job," O'Hanlon says, "and I'm not in any way a Hillary fan."
Neither are Republican members on Armed Services. Yet Clinton has managed to impress them with her thoughtfulness and knowledge. John Ullyot, the spokesperson for the Armed Services Republicans, calls the New York senator "a very valued member of the committee."
All this may bode well for Clinton '08. But today, what matters is how her Armed Services work plays at home. Her devotion to military issues has hardly gone over well among her core base of liberal supporters. Peace activists have already picketed Clinton's midtown office on two occasions. And they don't find much good in what the senator is doing on the committee.
"We don't like it," says Leslie Cagan, of United for Peace and Justice. They don't like her calls for additional troops in Iraq, or her lukewarm critiques of the Bush policy. They're not crazy about her advocacy for defense funds, either. If anything, Cagan adds, "We'd like the senator to be fighting for drastic cuts in military spending."
New York's liberals may just have to swallow their dislike for Clinton's hawkish ways. Her Armed Services work has translated into inroads among defense executives and military familiesin short, key Republican constituencies. They might help in 2008, but she certainly needs them in her Senate race next year.
"They remember the days of Scoop Jackson," says Congressman King, explaining why local defense folks react positively to Clinton. "They realize they've found a Democrat who is willing to work for them."
Indeed. Last January, on the day the Pentagon would announce that Lockheed Martin got the Marine One contract, Senator Clinton boarded a plane in White Plains for Owego. She was there when the good word came. As Clinton told the 2,000 Lockheed workers celebrating that day, "I said I would be here win or lose because we're a team."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.