Take Two: Hillary's Choice

How Hillary Clinton turned herself into the consummate Washington player

Hillary Clinton is viewed through the lens of her larger ambition—and ambition is definitely there. Though she has always downplayed the issue, Clinton apparently flirted with running for the presidency in the 2004 election. According to one insider, in 2003 Mark Penn had created a unit within the polling firm of Penn, Schoen & Berland so clandestine that most of the staff didn’t even know it existed. It operated in a room whose computers had been disconnected from the company’s network. Penn polled to find out whether Clinton could break her pledge to serve a full term in the Senate and still maintain enough political viability to run for president. (Penn wouldn’t confirm—or deny—this episode, and said he believed that “at no time was she ever leaning in that direction.”) Ultimately, of course, she chose not to. But she must have been tempted. “Some very important people were coming to her on bended knee asking her to run,” a close friend of Clinton’s told me. “That was the phrase she used: ‘on bended knee.’”

This past July, Clinton was the keynote speaker at the Democratic Leadership Council’s annual conference in Denver. Her appearance at such a resonant event heightened speculation that she is preparing to run. The DLC was formed after Walter Mondale’s landslide loss to Ronald Reagan in the 1984 election, to guide the party back to the political center. Bill Clinton chaired the organization when he was governor of Arkansas, and it served as a crucial vehicle in his advance to the presidency.

If you were studying how to get elected president, and you had examined Bill Clinton, you might, as he did, give a series of national policy speeches that, taken together, shape a platform right before the political class’s eyes. Hillary Clinton has done this. You would seek as best you could to position yourself as far as possible from the party’s leftward fringe. Hillary Clinton has done this, too, recalibrating when necessary. And if you wanted people to draw a pointed comparison to his presidential campaign, you might give a speech, as Clinton did in Denver, laying out a positive, centrist, credibly detailed message that echoed a lot of what Bill Clinton had said—although you probably wouldn’t go quite so far as to swipe his campaign’s catchphrase, as Clinton did when she struck the refrain: “It’s the American dream, stupid!”

Clinton has nothing like her husband’s skill at delivering a speech. She doesn’t dominate the room the way he does. Her political talent is precisely the opposite—she dominates in the Senate by yielding. She has a kind of anti-talent for hitting the right cadence, and her flat, midwestern voice lends itself poorly to impassioned exposition. When she tries to increase her register, it comes out as a sort of strained honk. An odd fact of Clinton’s public persona, an implicit acknowledgment of this shortcoming, is her reliance on sentimental videos to connect with her audience—essentially outsourcing the emotional element of a speech. Video presentations were a key part of both her 2000 announcement speech and her second-term nomination-acceptance speech in Buffalo this past June, where she elicited little more than pro forma applause. Afterward, when the crowd rose to its feet and the luminaries onstage poured into the audience, she herself inexplicably disappeared. It was her husband who characteristically soaked in the mass adoration and shook hands until his aides dragged him away.

Clinton has done what traditionally must be done to win your party establishment’s nomination for president. But her husband had the benefit of running as an outsider against a tired, intellectually listless Democratic Party. A lot has changed since then. The DLC, a band of outsiders twenty years ago, has become the veritable embodiment of what and who is connoted by the term Democratic establishment. Years of tireless study have made Hillary Clinton the consummate insider—but at a time when antiestablishment fervor in the Democratic base is at its highest point in a generation. It is not just her war vote but the very fact of being a Clinton that threatens her: an emerging liberal critique, especially virulent in the blogosphere, blames the Clintons and their self-absorption for the atrophy that has befallen the party. Clinton has reached the top of the Democratic establishment that once thwarted her. But that is looking like a less viable launching point to the presidency than at any time since she got to Washington.

There remains another option—one to which she is unquestionably well suited. As an admiring senator put it to me, “Hillary Clinton is everyone’s secret choice for majority leader.” It’s a line you hear often on Capitol Hill, and it has two possible meanings. For some it’s polite code for “Lord, I hope she doesn’t run for president.” But for others—I’d venture to say the majority—it is a compliment genuinely felt, an acknowledgment that she has satisfied the lions of the Senate and, should she wish to, might one day rank among them.

Clinton has overcome many unique obstacles to succeed in the Senate, but she has followed Washington’s well-worn path to power, acquiring patrons with a connoisseur’s discerning eye. Those whose talents can keep pace with their ambition are always in need of new patrons as they move ahead. This inevitably means leaving old ones behind, and sometimes disillusioning them. Out of all the people I asked to talk to about Clinton for this article, only one person refused: Jay Rockefeller.

Even though the Democrats are in the minority, Byrd, as the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, remains worth cultivating. His forty-eight-year career makes him the longest-serving senator in U.S. history: of the 1,885 people who have ever been in the Senate, Byrd has served alongside more than 400. Clinton, he tells aides, is among his very favorites. As I waited in the antechamber to his office, I noticed a letter atop the in-box on the desk thanking Byrd profusely for his help “funding key funding priorities for New York” in the fiscal year 2007 Homeland Security appropriations bill, and singling out each of his staffers for praise. The letter was signed, in looping cursive, simply, “Hillary.” “I guess I’m blowing myself up a little,” Byrd told me sheepishly, “but I think of her as a pupil of mine.”

The story emerging from Clinton’s top advisers about her Senate career, however, does not suggest a thirst to stay. They clearly and unequivocally assert that when she sets her mind to learning and doing something, she’s successful—often against very long odds—and that she has proven to be a great leader for New York. If Clinton decides to run, this will be the theme of her campaign.

Her advisers try to give the impression that it’s all they can do to keep up. “We recently tried to review what she did in the Senate,” Penn told me, “and it took sixteen hours. And I don’t think we covered it all. There are very few people I could sit down with for whom, even after thirty years, it would require sixteen hours to review all the bills and positions and the involvement in so many issues.” When I remarked that most of the issues struck me as small-bore, he conceded as much, but insisted that they did not truly define Clinton. “In a Republican Senate, she has learned to gain ground a yard at a time,” he said. “But she hasn’t lost the ability to throw the long ball.”

Yet it is fair to wonder if Clinton learned the lesson of the health-care disaster too well, whether she has so embraced caution and compromise that she can no longer judge what merits taking political risks. It is hard to square the brashly confident leader of health-care reform—willing to act on her deepest beliefs, intent on changing the political climate and not merely exploiting it—with the senator who recently went along with the vote to make flag-burning a crime. Today Clinton offers no big ideas, no crusading causes—by her own tacit admission, no evidence of bravery in the service of a larger ideal. Instead, her Senate record is an assemblage of many, many small gains. Her real accomplishment in the Senate has been to rehabilitate the image and political career of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Impressive though that has been in its particulars, it makes for a rather thin claim on the presidency. Senator Clinton has plenty to talk about, but she doesn’t have much to say.

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Joshua Green is a senior editor of The Atlantic.

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