If you liked the first Clinton administration, you'll love the next one. That was the not at all subtle message Sen. Hillary Clinton delivered Sunday at her very first New Hampshire house party as a presidential candidate.
For readers unfamiliar with New Hampshire politics, the house party is one of the two traditions -- the other being town meeting -- that make up the Granite State's signature retail politics. Candidates visit the home of a sponsor and mingle with a select crowd of invited guests (and, of course, local, national, and sometimes international media).
No other event in American politics is as intimate. Guests -- friends, family, business associates, etc. of the host -- can sit in the living room and be addressed directly by a candidate seeking their votes in the presidential primary. They get to ask questions and collect autographs, and sometimes engage in conversation. But most importantly they get to size up the candidate in a more personal way than at a large event with hundreds or thousands of folks. And unlike fundraising dinners with big donors, house parties are not choked full of supporters. To get in you don't have to donate or even support the candidate, you just have to know the host. (At this party, I even found an undercover Republican.)
Clinton's been to too many house parties to count, but until yesterday all as the wife of the candidate. Sunday was her debut, so to speak, her social coming out party as the first woman seeking the office the American people had trusted her husband with for eight years.
For all the talk of her personal independence, her experience and accomplishments as a senator, and the distance she has put between herself and the long shadow cast by her husband, one might think that Sen. Clinton would introduce herself to voters in the first primary state by impressing upon them a sense of who she is as an individual, a formidable politician wholly separate and distinct from her husband the former president. But when it comes to feminism, Clinton takes it only so far as it can take her. Which is not very far. Instead, she retreated right back into the warm and comforting embrace of Bill -- and brought the crowd with her.
Unless Al Gore decides to get into the race, Clinton has an advantage no other candidate can claim: She's already spent eight years in the White House -- a very popular White House. Of course, that presents liabilities, too. But Clinton clearly views it as an asset to be exploited.
At her first stop in New Hampshire since 1996, Clinton on Saturday made a point of repeatedly reminding the audiences at her two large campaign events that, in fact, she was still the wife of the still enormously popular President William Jefferson Clinton (she calls him "Bill"). On Sunday in the elegant home of a prominent Manchester attorney, Clinton couldn't find enough reasons to let the small crowd know that, if elected, she'd basically give them another four -- preferably eight -- years of everything they loved about the first Clinton administration.
"As I travel around, I hear doubts in people's voices about whether their country is on their side anymore," she said by way of introduction. "What happened to the economic progress? What happened to the opportunity?"
Message: You were better off when my husband was president, and I can bring back those happy days again.
"I'm running for president to restore the promise of America."
Restore. Return. You know, to the good old days when my husband and I ran things.
"I believe I'm the best qualified and experienced person to hit the ground running."
Only one term in the Senate, but eight years in the White House, you know, when my husband was president.
On health care: "I, more than anybody, know how hard it will be to deal with health care."
On economics, she sounded like a 1990s Internet entrepreneur, speaking of "A new source of economic dynamism" and "incentivizing entrepreneurs."
On foreign policy, it was all about "vigorous, aggressive diplomacy... but it also has to be patient. We cannot be telling people what to do. We have to use lots of carrots and sticks." At this point she told of a few diplomatic victories her husband had notched on his belt.
"We are going to shelve the cowboy mentality," she said.
On point after point, Hillary let it be known that she would take America forward by taking it backward -- exactly seven years backward, "back to sensible, workable, practical solutions."
Yes, America, you loved Bill Clinton's eight years in office, and his warm, charming, self-deprecating wife will, if you elect her, return America to those glorious years when America was prosperous, united and well respected.
It is a message pregnant with dangers. But she clearly thinks it's her best message, and she's hitting it hard.
How was her talk of Bill Clinton's Third Term received? With great enthusiasm, and enough applause to give Clinton the reassuring feedback she needed to continue pounding the same theme. And this was not necessarily a pro-Clinton crowd. I was not able to speak with all the guests, but everyone I talked to was both impressed and uncommitted. They loved what they heard -- with the possible exception of her very nuanced position on Iraq -- but they wanted to hear from the other candidates before making up their minds.
Clinton, though, has already made up hers. She's running as Mrs. Bill Clinton. So far, at least, she's not baking anybody any cookies. But the campaign is still young.
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