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SENATOR CLINTON’S first two years in the Senate were years of quiet industriousness that reminded political observers of LBJ’s early Senate years. She put in such long hours that in 2002 she became one of only six Democrats to earn a Golden Gavel award for presiding over the Senate for more than 100 hours, admittedly mostly to empty seats. She cultivated senators on both sides of the aisle, particularly senior senators such as the West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd and the Arizona Republican John McCain, but also such conservatives as then House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, with whom she worked on foster-care legislation. Following the Johnson model, she landed choice committee seats, including a seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee that in time of war might protect her from her antimilitary past. She also is on the Democrats’ powerful Steering and Coordination Committee, thus giving her influence in setting the Democrats’ agenda. By 2004 no senator since Johnson had amassed so much power so fast. Hillary has been collegial, but she can also be brutal. Senators still recall her insulting remarks about Sen. John Edwards looking “pretty.” On another occasion, at a closed-door meeting with fellow Democrats she assailed her colleague Sen. Russ Feingold for the mischief his campaign finance reform bill had caused her fundraising. “She tore into Feingold,” a Senate aide says. “Other people at the caucus were not happy about it. The other senators resent her. But they’re so weak. Their weakness permits her to grow.”
Perhaps it is with an eye to the schizoid nature of her party, divided as it is between its Angry Left and its Establishment, that she has devised an ambiguous approach: in policy she is centrist; in rhetoric she is caustic — especially toward President Bush, whom the Angry Left detests. The centrism is catnip for the Establishment. The sarcastic rhetoric is raw meat for the Angry Left.
In her Senate floor speech before voting for Bush’s option to go to war with Saddam Hussein, she employed her ambiguous approach relentlessly. She criticized the United Nations for limiting inspection sites. She warned of Saddam’s ambitions for weapons of mass destruction: “It is clear, however, that if left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare, and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons.” She also worried that an unchecked Saddam could endanger the entire Middle East. On the other hand, she fretted that a “unilateral” attack on Saddam would prompt Russia to attack Chechen rebels in Georgia, China to attack Taiwan, and India to attack Pakistan. Her vote was to enable the President to go to war, but her conclusion was that doing so “on the present facts is not a good option.”
So effective has she been in repositioning herself that in 2005, the Observer, one of Britain’s most prestigious left-wing newspapers, noted, “Her list of conservative credentials is growing.” It reported her “espousing homespun values and with a fondness for prayer.” She sympathized with a faith-based charity led by a clergyman opposed to homosexual marriage and appeared with “ultra-conservative” Sen. Rick Santorum to introduce legislation to probe sexual and violent images in media. As a senator she favors the death penalty and more money for firefighters and other first responders. Despite her vaunted feminism, she has sympathized with opponents of abortion. From the Armed Services Committee she has supported increased veterans benefits and — unlike Senator Kerry — she voted for the $87 billion legislation to fight the Iraq war. But on international relations and economics she is witheringly critical of the Bush administration. She is also a reliable opponent of tax cuts, insisting that they are a scheme to enrich the wealthy and take money from government’s assistance to the needy.
SO ARE THE CLINTONS about to come together, unite their party, and lead the youthful idealists of the late 1960s in a return to the White House and a vindication of their claim to being the true representative voice of their generation? Or is another child of Goldwater conservatism going to sweep past them, reminding the world that Ronald Reagan’s 1980s and the administrations of Bush 41 and Bush 43 were not flukes? Republicans are fearful of a Clinton victory. They know the power of the Kultursmog can overcome the Clintons’ scandalous past and engaud their paltry record. Who knows; maybe these Republicans, too, think Hillary a rock star. Democrats, at least Democrats with their antennae to Middle America, fear she is a sure loser. They fear that her past will not be forgotten. They fear the power of the Republican “smear machine” as deeply as Republicans fear the power of the Kultursmog.
Hillary has a tremendous challenge ahead. By 2005 a news story had crept into the media, remaining long enough to take on the character of Truth, to wit, that her party is fragmented and without direction. This became a Truth even in the Kultursmog. The fragmentation within the party might have become too bitter even for such masters of mob psychology as the Clintons. On July 25, when Hillary agreed to the DLC’s offer to set off on her “national conversation” as part of its “American Dream Initiative,” she let the Republicans have it: “After four years of Republican control, our country has not only gone off track, it has reversed course.” But she also said something that got her into dreadful trouble hours after she uttered it. She said, “It’s high time for a ceasefire. It’s time for all Democrats to work together,” and “Let’s start by uniting against the hard-right ideology.”
Kaboom! “Clinton Angers Left with Call for Unity,” read the headline in the next day’s Washington Post. “Long a revered figure by many in the party’s liberal wing, Clinton (D-NY) unexpectedly found herself under attack after calling Monday for a cease-fire among the party’s quarreling factions and for agreeing to assume the leadership of a DLC-sponsored initiative aimed at developing a more positive policy agenda for the party,” went the story, whose import echoed in most of the nation’s major media. The left-wing blogs such as Daily Kos were gravely disappointed. Spokespersons for the Angry Left’s new organizations, such as the Campaign for America’s Future and MoveOn.org, were also antagonistic. “There has been an activist resurgence in the Democratic Party in recent years,” the Post noted, “and Hillary risks ensuring that there’s a candidate to her left appealing to those activists who don’t much like the DLC.”
For three decades, the 1960s Coat and Tie Radicals have been the dominant influence in the Kultursmog and an influence in the Democratic Party disproportionate to their numbers. Now there are signs that a rising generation might be ready to replace this influence. If so, the intragenerational war between the 1960s left and right might not have its anticipated last battle. Political historians will tell you that though Hillary has been the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination since her first year in the Senate, no modern-day Democrat who has been a frontrunner so steadily in the years before the election has won the nomination, with the lone exception of Walter Mondale.
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