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The Trouble With Hillary

The right believes she’s a liberal under her newly centrist skin; the left doesn’t know who she is. And everyone wonders if she can win.

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Hillary Clinton near the U.S. Capitol earlier this month.  

Conservatives have a recurring nightmare. President Clinton—that’s Hillary Clinton—having spent more than a decade building a protective centrist cocoon in preparation for her successful presidential run, emerges in her first 100 days as the proud liberal they always knew she was. Old friends like Lani Guinier are consulting on policy; Barbara Ehrenreich spends a night in the Lincoln Bedroom.

Democrats have their own Hillary nightmare. It begins on a frigid Monday night in January 2008. The Iowa caucuses have just ended, and the results are as clear as the stars in the blue-black midwestern sky. Hillary Clinton 43 percent, and the other candidates far behind. Her closest competitor, Wesley Clark, manages to get only 17 percent of the vote; Mark Warner receives an even more anemic 14 percent.

From there, it’s on to a big win in New Hampshire and the kind of momentum that feeds on itself. Hillary raises record-breaking amounts of money, inspires armies of volunteers. She sails through the convention on the shoulders of a unified, focused party. But as the campaign unfolds, dark clouds appear. Despite the enthusiasm surrounding her historic candidacy, Hillary can’t seem to get over 50 percent in the polls.

She campaigns like the seasoned veteran she is, disciplined and on message, drawing huge crowds wherever she goes. It is a near-flawless, if heavily scripted, effort, directed by the party’s most astute strategist—her husband. But in the end, it’s just not enough to overcome her negatives. On Election Day, she loses the popular vote by three points and the electoral-vote count, in essence, by the state of Ohio. The Democrats have managed to blow it again.

Beneath Hillary Clinton’s bland midwestern exterior is a figure of vast mystery. Is she a leftist? A New Democrat? A ruthless Lady Macbeth who believes only in her own power? Her self-discipline, a political asset in many ways, carries a cost. There can be something inhuman about her, something hard to love, even for those who share most of her stated political beliefs.

“I meet people all the time who say, ‘I just don’t like Hillary,’ ” says Susan Estrich, longtime Democratic strategist and author of The Case for Hillary Clinton. “But I’ve learned not to fight with them. I smile and say, ‘Well, you go vote for a pro-life, pro-war, pro-gun, anti-environment conservative. Enjoy yourself.’ In the end, people have to make a choice, and a lot of people who’ll say they don’t like her will end up voting for her.”

Those on the right, of course, have more biting ideas on these questions. “I think Bill has always been protected by the attractiveness of his personality,” says David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “Even people who believe he’s a fundamentally amoral person can’t help but be charmed by his scampish exterior. She, on the other hand, is such a scolding presence. He’s Tom Jones, she’s Blifil.”

“Let’s face it, all Bill wanted to do was get laid,” says David Keene, head of the American Conservative Union for the past 25 years. “He was a politician who wanted to be president so he could be Bill Clinton. Hillary Clinton is a politician with a mission. She is smart, focused, devious, and disingenuous. Hillary is a left-wing Democrat, a collectivist, who is hostile to most of the values we conservatives hold dear.”

Then there’s the spectacular weirdness of her marriage, the pain she must have suffered over Monica Lewinsky, and the way she endured it for the sake of both of their political futures. “Most women questioned why she stuck it out,” Estrich says. “Is she madly in love with him, or is it the power thing? Most believe it was ambition. But at this point, after 9/11 and terrorism, the whole Monica Lewinsky thing is almost laughable. And now that he’s had heart trouble and he looks so frail, he seems much less like the playboy.”

As a strategist and campaigner, Bill Clinton is undoubtedly a huge asset. But the nature of their relationship is liable to be a factor in the campaign in unexpected ways. There are always rumors swirling around Bill and possible extracurricular activity. The Democrats’ biggest worry is that if a problem should arise, it will be too late to do anything about it. “I had a long talk with him last fall,” Estrich says, “and he told me he wouldn’t be the one to cause a problem. If she runs, his problems won’t get in her way.”

Hillary’s huge fund-raising advantage and the stature gap between her and her Democratic opponents make her a prohibitive early favorite in the primaries. But polls show that, as a national candidate, her support tops out somewhere in the mid-forties. Worse, because she is so well known, there are almost no undecideds. “There is real concern among certain Democrats that she simply can’t win the general election,” says Steve Jarding, who played a key role in getting Mark Warner elected governor of Virginia.


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