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The Woman in the Bubble

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Clinton with Senators Pete Domenici, Barack Obama, Jack Reed, Dan Inouye, and Joe Lieberman this past summer.  

When everyone moves around the corner to the Indian Treaty Room for a meeting, Clinton remains firmly in command. She loosens up the group with a joke, then takes questions. The credit-union executives want to talk about fighting legislation pushed by big banks that will make it tougher for credit unions to compete. Clinton listens sympathetically, but she returns, again and again, to asking why the credit unions can’t find ways to make more loans to upstate farmers.

This is the side of Clinton that the public rarely gets to see: decisive, analytical, working the angles on behalf of the state. The greatest triumph of her Senate term has been in forcing the Bush administration to live up to its promises of money for victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Clinton has had to be determined and diplomatic, and occasionally confrontational, using both her cordial relations with Republicans who used to be enemies and her star power to keep the issue alive.

Six days later, after a weekend at home in Chappaqua, Clinton flies to Binghamton, for a conference on venture capitalism organized by New Jobs for New York.

Campaigning in 2000, Clinton talked of creating 200,000 new jobs for the region north and west of the Hudson. Her legislative proposals never made it out of committee, so instead Clinton has tried to become a rainmaker for the region. NJNY is her signature creation, a hybrid of private enterprise and government largesse, big-money insider connections and wonky policy notions that Clinton helped launch, with former Treasury secretary Roger Altman.

The great surprise of her first term as senator, however, is how Clinton has reveled in the Al D’Amato model of the job. She’s become Senator Hillary Pothole. But it isn’t just helping farmers hire enough pickers come harvest time. Clinton has developed the crucial retail-politics skills that seemed alien to her in the First Lady years—the warm handshake, the casual banter. Way back in 1993, Lawrence O’Donnell clashed with Clinton. He was Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s top staffer on the Senate Finance Committee, which became an enormous roadblock to Clinton’s health-care proposal; she was the inflexible crusader who slammed any compromise health-care proposal as “incremental.” Today, O’Donnell is a TV writer (The West Wing) and a political pundit, and he looks at Senator Clinton with nothing but admiration. “In 2000, her polling got significantly better by Hillary Clinton campaigning,” O’Donnell says. “People think that’s the way it works; no, it isn’t, at all. This time, Hillary is going to win counties upstate that Democrats never win. She is the rare politician who has the ability to change minds. That’s the reason I look at her and think she could win a presidential election.”

While Clinton hits the pancake breakfasts and union halls upstate, her behind-the-scenes battleship plods onward, its destination far more glamorous than Utica or Lindenhurst. One March afternoon in midtown, Clinton’s city insiders assemble at a midtown law firm. Orin Kramer, Roger Altman, Lisa Perry, John Catsimatidis, Fred Hochberg, Robert Zimmerman, Alan Patricof, about 150 heavy hitters in all, gathered for what one of them calls “a pep rally.” This is a crowd of pros. They’re passionate about Hillary, but they’re cold-blooded about restoring Democratic power.

The timing of the meeting was both curious and brilliant. It was already clear that Clinton would be facing only token opposition in her reelection campaign, on both the left and the right. The stated purpose was to discuss her Senate reelection. The part of the program that sent ripples through the room came when Mark Penn, Clinton’s most trusted pollster and strategist, narrated a series of slides and charts. The story he told was of Clinton’s political strength—against other nationally prominent Democrats, people like John Kerry, John Edwards, and Al Gore. This was as close to an open discussion of the great public unmentionable, the Hillary Race That Must Not Be Named, as any of her prime advisers had ever come. “It struck me as peculiar, because she’s not running against any of those people,” says one person in attendance. “At least she wasn’t then.”

The meeting broke up on a short-term, keep-your-eyes-on-the-ball moment: Clinton’s staff distributed personalized folders to each donor. “Inside was a sheet tallying your donations and whether you had maxed out,” one contributor says. “It felt like getting your grades at the end of the school year! Fortunately I’d given all I could, so I got an A-plus!”

Every major candidate has similar gatherings. But Clinton’s organization is different, not just because it’s the most professional on the Democratic side. It’s the Clinton administration that never disbanded, the East Wing of the White House. Clinton’s six years as senator, particularly a senator from New York, have enabled her to broaden and deepen the structure so that it’s ready to serve whatever electoral needs may eventually occur to her. There are 32 full-time employees, plus 10 from her Senate office who receive part of their salary from Clinton’s political funds; 13 consultants; and a national direct-mail operation, a fierce, permanent campaign with a momentum of its own. Her team is frighteningly disciplined; no one talks out of turn or without prior approval, and even when they do, aides repeat the same anecdotes almost robotically.


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