Take Two: Hillary's Choice

How Hillary Clinton turned herself into the consummate Washington player

While she has been fitting herself into the Senate, Clinton has risen to become the dominant figure in Washington’s Democratic establishment. In its ideology, the Democratic Party has moved a long way since the Clintons came to Washington in 1993. The Clinton administration succeeded over its eight years in moving the party’s center away from the balkanized, liberal attitudinizing of the 1980s and toward something much closer to the American mainstream. There remain plenty of intraparty differences on the war, trade policy, and the like. But the terms of argument themselves are more or less where Bill Clinton worked to get them.

Most of the intellectual energy within the Democratic establishment today is directed at infrastructure, not ideology. Having watched reasonably moderate candidates lose the last two presidential elections in heartbreaking fashion, and feeling further frustrated by the steady failure to win either house of Congress, Democrats have made it an article of faith that they lack the political and policy mechanisms to compete with their Republican counterparts. Over the last few years they have moved to restore the balance by building up institutions of their own. More than anyone else—certainly more than any other elected official—Hillary Clinton has been central to this process, taking a hand in almost every new Democratic institution.

Clinton helped John Podesta found a think tank, the Center for American Progress, which serves as a kind of Democratic administration-in-waiting. She has supported another, the American Democracy Institute, run by veteran Clinton allies. She has advised a watchdog group, Media Matters for America, that keeps tabs on the vast right-wing conspiracy and is run by David Brock, the reborn conservative hatchet man who helped launch the Paula Jones scandal before he renounced his past and became a liberal activist. Clinton has also advised the Democracy Alliance, an organization of the party’s richest donors that is aiming to raise $200 million for party-building efforts. While each group purports to work for the Democratic Party generally, and will support the next presidential nominee regardless of who it may be, among the possible contenders Clinton is at the very least the first among equals.

The only place where Clinton lacks a strong hand is the Democratic National Committee, chaired by Howard Dean, and here her supporters have simply worked around the problem. The big advantage that the DNC will try to offer candidates in 2008 is access to a huge database of voter information, a level of technological power now considered crucial to winning races. Having no friend in Dean, and skeptical of his abilities, the Clinton camp allowed a longtime ally, Harold Ickes Jr., to raise money to set up a private version of that database for use in the likely event that Clinton runs.

Bill Clinton’s long tenure as president and the fact that no figure has risen to replace him have given birth to a professional class of Washington Democrats who both reflect the thinking of and feel intensely loyal to the former president—and, by extension, his wife. Al Gore might have been another claimant to such a heritage, but he rejected it, and never engendered anything like the visceral loyalty so many Democrats still feel for Clinton. At least in Washington, it’s Hillary Clinton’s party now.

What this means in practical terms is that she commands almost all the top talent. With rare exceptions, she can lay claim to the best fund-raisers, political operatives, pollsters, and media consultants—often several of each. Clinton’s ascendancy over the party is such that one prominent adviser to her told me that his biggest concern in the near term was “a Noah’s Ark problem”: there are more people loyal to her than her campaign could reasonably employ. Though Clinton faces no serious challenger in her Senate race, she has already raised almost $50 million; should she run for president, insiders say that she could raise $400 million—over $100 million more than George W. Bush raised for his reelection.

This show of strength highlights a disparity between the Democratic Party as it exists in Washington, with Clinton the regnant power, and in the rest of the country, where the party has yet to decide who that power should be. And, oddly, it does not necessarily reflect any confidence, even in Washington, that Clinton can win the presidency. A number of mid-level Democratic operatives—the kind who could expect a good job in any Democratic administration—told me they didn’t believe she could win a general election, especially against a popular Republican like McCain. But at the same time, they did not entertain the possibility of working for another Democratic candidate. “It’s simple, really,” one of them explained to me. “Bill Clinton made my career—I wouldn’t be who I am, in the job I’m in, if he hadn’t made me. There’s no way I could ever work against Hillary.” He was conflicted about this, as are many others. It sounded as though he and his colleagues would rather cede the race than work against Bill Clinton’s wife.

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Joshua Green is a senior editor of The Atlantic.

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