This last bit was unprovoked and an apparently conscious effort, maintained throughout the interview, to come across as sweepingly critical—even angry—about the war. Clinton is prominent among the top Democrats who voted to support Bush’s resolution and who are now furiously trying to backpedal without recanting their votes. A popular dodge is to declare that the president exceeded the authority Congress granted him and allowed the war to become a distraction from the fight against terrorism, and to then express surprise that he could act so irresponsibly.
I asked whether Bush’s decision to go to war was really something she didn’t expect at the time. “Well, I’ve said that he ‘misused’ the authority granted to him,” she replied. “When I spoke at the time of the vote I made it very clear that this was not a vote for preemptive war; this was a vote, I thought, that would enable diplomacy to succeed because we would have a unified front between the president and our Congress to go to the Security Council to try to get the inspectors back in. Obviously we now know, in retrospect, that the president and vice president and his team probably didn’t intend for the inspectors to do their work.”
Most people correctly foresaw the vote as authorization for Bush to invade Iraq. Did she really mean to suggest she had not been among them? “Well, I think that’s right,” she said, affecting total ignorance, and then launched into a point-by-point defense of the position. “That’s what Bush said in his speech in Cincinnati on October 7th. They called me to the White House on October 8th and gave me another briefing. When I got back to my office, Condi Rice called me and asked if I had any questions. I said, ‘Look, I have one question: If the president has this authority, will he go to the United Nations and use it to get inspectors to go back into Iraq and figure out what this guy has?’ [Rice replied,] ‘Yes, that’s what it’s for.’ Privately and publicly, that was the argument they were making.”
She returned to blaming Bush, with her familiar charge that he had withheld intelligence about the locations of possible weapons of mass destruction from the UN inspectors. Then she made a final, sustained push to get away from her decision and onto the safer terrain of the administration’s execution of its mandate: “And, you know, it was also hard to believe that they would be so foolhardy and shortsighted as to do something without adequate preparation.”
Did she feel that Bush lied to her? “I feel like he”—pause—misled the Congress and the country.” Intentionally? “I don’t know about ‘intentionally.’ I don’t know what Bush knew. I honestly don’t know. I think he is surrounded by people who limit his access to information. I believe that you could have taken the major players in this drama in the Bush administration and they would have passed polygraphs about what they believed the threat was, because they were so obsessed with what [Saddam Hussein] had done before, and the potential for what he could do again.”
Clinton’s answers to questions about the war can be fugue-like in their complexity, and often assume a processional quality: the laundry lady, pinning up every fact, every conversation, every tidbit of exculpatory evidence for public display, attempting to disappear behind a screen of detail. Clinton harbors no illusion that her war vote will be anything less than a serious problem should she choose to seek the Democratic nomination. That’s why she works so hard at her public testimony. For a growing segment of the party, the sin of having authorized the war is not an issue on which one’s position can simply be readjusted—it’s one of inexpiable moral trespass with the potential to engulf any race. On the day we met, the political world was consumed with the fallout from the Connecticut Democratic Senate primary, where the three-term incumbent, Joe Lieberman, had fallen to an upstart challenger, Ned Lamont, largely over the issue of the war. Lieberman, like Clinton, had voted for it, so I asked her to explain her position and why the same voter animosity might not be directed at her.
Here is her full answer:
I think our positions are very different. We may have cast the same vote, [but] I was not standing in the Rose Garden with George Bush announcing the desire to go into Iraq. I have been a consistent critic of the way they conducted the war, and I was pleasantly surprised to see Tom Ricks referring to my questioning of Paul Wolfowitz in his book [Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq]. You know, I’m reading his book, feeling depressed, and I get to page 385, I think it is, and it says, “Finally the Democrats began to go after people,” and he has a page about my questioning of Wolfowitz. So I have consistently gone after the administration, and I worked with my Democratic colleagues, first in November, then in June, to craft a Democratic response. I thought both times we did a good job, and Lieberman didn’t vote for it either time. So we have very different positions. It is indisputable that we both voted to give Bush authority. But what we thought we were voting for, and what Bush eventually did, and then how we have responded since, I think, is really distinctive between us.
This was pure Hillary Clinton: the clear-eyed avowal of innocence, succinct and perfectly composed like a college-application essay; the flawless elocution; the slyly purposeful language (“… a consistent critic” … “I have consistently gone after …”); the “offhand” reference to a page-specific vindicating instance—right, of course. On big issues like the war, Washington judges you not by whether you were right or wrong—at least not in the short term—but by how systematically and formidably you maintain your position. Get caught skating in circles (“I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it”), and you’re finished. Clinton’s position on the war may feel like justification after the fact for a decision that is coming to look much worse in hindsight. But over the last four years she has managed, with lawyerly precision and in politically acceptable gradations, to shift from a stance of Thatcherite fortitude before the war to one of betrayed dismay and anger at the Bush administration afterward without any jarring breach of consistency or abrupt shift in direction. When the judges are scoring you on form, that’s like landing a triple Lutz.
When Clinton prepares to answer a reporter’s question, there’s a split-second pause when you can almost see her imagining, in floating cartoon bubbles above her head, the worst-case headline that a candid answer could yield, and then pitching her reply in the least-objectionable terms. Several of her friends told me that they believed her to be genuinely happy in the Senate, liberated in a way she never was able to be as first lady—an impression I developed as well. I asked which job she liked better, and she replied that they were very different and that she liked them both. (Washington Post: “Clinton Denounces First Lady Role.”) I asked how she compared her political strengths and weaknesses to her husband’s, now that she’d served a full term in the Senate, citing Podesta’s observation that she was a disciplined, deep thinker. Clinton visibly recoiled: “I don’t talk about that.” (New York Times: “Clinton Calls Husband ‘Shallow,’ ‘Undisciplined.’”) Retreating to safer territory, I wondered how she had displaced the legitimate anger she surely felt when she was in the White House toward some of her current colleagues. “I had a job to do,” was the considered reply. (New York Post: “HIL STILL AIMS TO KILL!”)
The only question that seemed to throw her concerned her actual Senate record. After we’d gone through her positions and policies in some detail, I suggested that for all she’d been busy doing in the Senate, I couldn’t find an instance where she had taken a politically unpopular stance or championed a big idea, like health-care reform, that might not yield immediate benefits but was the right thing to do. Interviews with colleagues and observers seemed to imply an unspoken disappointment that her talents promised a record of more height and substance than she had displayed—he one consistent criticism I heard was that her record was marked by overwhelming caution. Could she refute their doubts, and point to a few examples of politically brave votes?
Clinton laughed. “Oh, well, see, my view is, how do you get things done? When you’re in the minority, getting things done is not easy.” She cited her work after September 11: “I think taking on the administration over the effects from breathing the contaminants that were in the air, fighting to get the tracking and screening programs set up, going back time and time again—”
I couldn’t help breaking in. These were certainly worthy programs, but where is the political risk in standing up for the victims of September 11?
She tried again: “I voted against every tax cut, and I represent the richest people in America.”
But you’re a Democrat!
“But I have a lot of constituents for whom those tax cuts were personally quite important.”
Aren’t they Republicans?
“I had no support in the financial-services community when I ran in 2000—none,” she replied, rather reinforcing the point. “That’s a slight exaggeration—I have worked really hard to develop credibility with them, but I have voted against their tax cuts, I have voted against repealing the estate tax, I took on Alan Greenspan at a hearing about his appearance before the budget committee.”
I was about to suggest that these might qualify as politically brave actions for a Republican, when her answer took a sharp turn toward the personal.
“Everything I do carries political risk because nobody gets the scrutiny that I get,” she said finally. “It’s not like I have any margin for error whatsoever. I don’t. Everybody else does, and I don’t. And that’s fine. That’s just who I am, and that’s what I live with.”
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.