President Clinton, if she wins, may be less to our liking than we think
LUIZA CH. SAVAGEMay82006
TOUGHER THAN BUSH?
President Clinton, if she wins, may be less to our liking than we think
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
She hasn’t said she’s running yet, but strategies to defeat Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid are already being drafted. A 10-point plan for conservatives to “Stop Hillary” and to block Bill from becoming “First Gent” is coming to bookstores next week. It’s part of an onslaught of roughly a dozen books about the New York senator scheduled to be published between now and the 2008 election, some from conservative publishing houses, and others by investigative journalists from the New York Times and the Washington Post.
But Can She Be Stopped? Hillary Clinton Will Be the Next President of the United States Unless... is not a biography, muckraking or otherwise. It is an anxious call to arms by the New York Post columnist and neo-conservative scion, John Podhoretz, who believes Republicans aren’t taking the Hillary threat seriously enough. Podhoretz, a founder of The Weekly Standard magazine, worries that conservatives are so blinded by visceral dislike for Clinton they simply can’t imagine she
could win—and therefore won’t take the necessary steps to defeat her. “You need to stop lying to yourselves. You need to stop having those conversations where you begin to doubt her strength as a candidate,” he urges. “If you had to bet on who the next president will be, the safest bet would be Hillary.”
The 58-year-old Clinton regularly tops lists of likely Democratic contenders. As of last
week, she was leading the Democratic primary field, with 38 per cent support among registered Democratic voters, according to a poll for the political newsletter, The Hotline. (The runner-up, John Kerry, drew 14 per cent support.) Its editor, Chuck Todd, called the depth and breadth of her support “daunting” for other potential Democratic candidates. Bill Clinton’s former White House
spokeswoman, Dee Dee Myers, said last week that she expects Clinton to run and is writing her own timely tome, to be called What if Women Ruled the World.
Hillary Clinton has two indisputable advantages: fame and money. She would be one of the most famous people ever to run for president, able to pick and choose when and where to step into the spotlight, when to speak, and when not to. She’s also got both the fundraising advantage of a presumed front-runner, and access to her husband’s fundraising networks. She is running for reelection to the Senate in November and has already raised more than US$30 million for that race against little-known challengers. Whatever she doesn’t spend can be transferred to the presidential campaign coffers. Podhoretz predicts she will raise anywhere from US$50 million to US$100 million by election day, and that alone may discourage many other candidates from taking her on.
Of course, money isn’t enough. And while Clinton may be famous, she is also famously disliked. From that very first 60 Minutes interview in 1992 when she held Bill’s hand, dismissed rumours of his infidelities on the grounds that every marriage has problems, and proclaimed that she wasn’t “some little
woman standing by my man, like Tammy Wynette,” she has simply rubbed some Americans the wrong way. All that was before the Whitewater investigations and her doomed health care proposals. Today, something like 40 per cent of Americans hold a negative opinion of her, Podhoretz writes. The same Hotline poll that showed Clinton a favourite among Democrats also suggested that only 12 per cent of Democrats believe she could overcome Republican attacks against her.
Podhoretz disagrees, arguing that Republican enmity could even help her cause. His analysis: the country is so deeply divided along party lines that any candidate of either party will automatically have 35 to 40 per cent of the country against him or her. So Clinton’s inherent “high negatives” do not put her at a unique disadvantage. (Truly independent voters are down from 20 per cent in past decades to some seven per cent of the electorate today, he writes, citing George W. Bush’s chief political strategist, Karl Rove.) Attacks from the right, he says, will encourage the left to coalesce around her.
Podhoretz also believes Clinton can overcome the problem of her persona. Her 2000 Senate campaign came on the heels of the Lewinsky scandal, which earned her some sympathy as the wronged wife. Nonetheless, suburban women gave her a particular challenge. In focus groups they described her as “self-serving,” “pushy” and “cold.” But while that may turn off some soccer moms, Pod-
horetz predicts it will serve her well in a post9/11 world. A woman seeking the presidency, he writes, “needs to be cold. She needs to have a hard, almost unbreakable shell. She needs to seem unambiguously comfortable with wielding power, because she may have to go toe-to-toe with Kim Jong II.” Calling Clinton’s manner “almost pathologically unsexy,” he concludes: “If there was ever an American woman politician who could pass for a tough guy, Clinton is that politician.”
With money, publicity and personality on her side, the Republicans’ chief hope may rest on her ideology. In the days of her husband’s administration, she was perceived as a force pushing for the political left. That is certainly how the political right, including Podhoretz, continue to see her. “Hillary will almost surely use her time in the White House to advance frankly liberal or leftist ideas,” he writes, ideas he sees as harmful to the economy and national security.
Since she’s been in the Senate, however, Clinton has time and again thwarted attempts to label her a liberal. She has taken conservative positions on some key issues, and reached out across the aisle to partner with Republicans on legislation. Canadians who were generally more comfortable with the Clinton administration than with George W. Bush’s might be less comfortable with Hillary Clinton, who shares some of the positions they find objectionable in Bush. She supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and voted for Bush’s defence budgets. She has since criticized the way the Bush adminis-
SHE SUPPORTED THE WARS IN IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN. SHE’S EVEN TAKEN A HARDER STANCE ON BORDER SECURITY THAN BUSH.
tration entered into the war and its conduct, but unlike the liberal critics on the left who want American troops reduced or pulled out, she has called for increasing troop levels, and has said U.S. soldiers must not leave until the war is won. She has also taken a tough stance on Iran. Bush has come under fire for saying no option—including nuclear strikes—is off the table when it comes to deal-
ing with Iran’s nuclear amibitions. Clinton told an audience at Princeton University in January: “We cannot take any option off the table in sending a clear message to the current leadership of Iran—that they will not be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons.” Her stridency has not gone unnoticed by the political left. Cindy Sheehan, the antiwar protester, has derided her as “a political
animal who believes she has to be a war hawk to keep up with the big boys.” Members of the women’s anti-war group, Code Pink, demonstrate at her fundraisers, and liberal activist actress Susan Sarandon has called her a “disappointment.”
But Joseph Mercurio, a New York-based political consultant who worked on Bill Clinton’s first gubernatorial campaign, says, “she’s always been more conservative and centrist than her husband. She may disagree with how the President is running the war, but she wouldn’t disagree we need weapons systems, that it was the right idea at the time to go to war. I think you would see that kind of position consistently—not simply because she’s calculating a presidential run. You are seeing what she believes and I think that’s how she would govern.”
Clinton has also raised a stir for taking an even tougher position on border security than Bush. The New York Daily News reported last month that she favours building a wall along parts of the border with Mexico. “A physical structure is obviously important,” the newspaper quoted her as saying. “A wall in certain areas would be appropriate.” (She has, however, criticized a tough House bill that would turn immigration violations into felonies, and target employers and people who help undocumented illegals, saying it would criminalize “even Jesus himself.”) And, speaking of the Nazarene, Clinton, like Bush, wants to make more room for religion in the public square. She has been an advocate for increased freedom of religious expression in the workplace and government institutions—drawing criticism from gay rights groups fearing harassment or intimidation. Clinton uses religious language in her speeches, and has called herself a “praying
person.” While she supports abortion rights, she has also talked of finding “common ground” with the pro-life movement, and promoted adoption. Mercurio points out that back in Arkansas, she helped her husband write legislation on parental consent for abortion for minors. And the largest recipient of funds from her political action committee has been Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate Bob Casey—a pro-lifer, albeit one in a key state.
While her supporters say she is expressing long-held beliefs and values that reflect her Midwestern Methodist upbringing, Podhoretz dismisses her actions as the cynical political calculations of a senator “casting votes to keep herself viable.” George W. Bush did the same thing in 2000, Podhoretz says, when the former Texas governor campaigned as a “compassionate conservative” and even criticized some members of the evangelical movement. Once in office, however, he consistently championed conservative causes and wore his religiosity on his sleeve. Podhoretz predicts Clinton will talk centrism, but through subtle winks and nods will communicate to her party base that, “She truly is one of them but needs to appear less ideologically driven than they are.”
HER STEELY PERSONA MAY TURN OFF SOME SOCCER MOMS, BUT IT WILL SERVE HER WELL IN A POST9/11 WORLD, SAYS PODHORETZ
And here lies the crux of Podhoretz’s prescription for those who would slay Hillary: exploit the tension between the senator and the left of her party. Force her into talking and force her into voting—that will force her to take liberal positions and smoke out what he believes is her true self. The plan: GOP senators should bring up Senate resolutions on
parental rights over their children, on the rights of hunters, and on property rights. They should make her vote against tax cuts on dividends, which help the rich, but also retirees in the key state of Florida. And they should propose a U.S. pullout from the United Nations, and force her to defend the UN. “The goal is to get Hillary to cast ideological votes,” he writes, or to make her skip so many votes that she’ll look like a truant senator.
Much of the Podhoretz book, however,
has to do with his fears about the Republicans. Without an incumbent president to rally around, he worries the party will split apart over issues like religion and immigration-even opening the door to a third party candidacy that could siphon off votes. He wants the party to put aside its ideological schisms, dispense with its social conservative “purification rituals,” and unite around the single goal of defeating Hillary. A former supporter of the maverick Arizona Senator John McCain, who lost the Republican nomination in 2000 when religious conservatives turned against him, Podhoretz says McCain should “think long and hard” about whether to run, given that he could again divide the party.
He thinks the GOP ought to run a candidate like former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He squared off against Hillary in her first Senate run, and pulled out after a cancer diagnosis and the breakdown of his marriage. It’s a dicey proposition. The pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control and notoriously thin-skinned Giuliani could have a tougher time in a Republican primary than Clinton would have in hers. Still, it would be an awfully good show. Or as Mercurio puts it: “That would be the battle of the century.” M
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