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The Woman in the Bubble

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“Hill-a-reee! Hill-a-reee!”

“Run for president! We love you!”

The chant follows her the entire route of the Columbus Day parade, all the way up Fifth Avenue, bouncing off the front of Gucci and Abercrombie & Fitch and that giant tilted mirror. Inside the Redken hair salon, stylists have dropped their blow-dryers and customers, dripping mid-shampoo, are lining the second-story picture windows to chant and wave.

“Hill-a-ree!”

No one calls out the names of the other New York Democratic stars, past and present, even though they’re all here, marching together, waving with one hand and gripping a City Council banner with the other: Eliot Spitzer, Andrew Cuomo, Geraldine Ferraro, Christine Quinn. The perceived inevitability of her presidential nomination puts other New York politicians in her shadow. Some take it better than others.

Marching about 50 paces behind this show of party unity, flanked by aides carrying red-and-blue-lettered signs shouting MEET CHUCK SCHUMER!, is the state’s senior senator. Schumer dashes from one sidewalk to the other, shaking hands, posing for pictures. He’s not up for election this year, which doesn’t mean Schumer isn’t running.

And now, at 61st Street, Schumer is zipping past his fellow Dems, along the west side of the avenue, trailed by his black limo, which pulls into the middle of the reviewing stand’s red carpet and blocks the rest of the parade. Spitzer shakes his head and chuckles. “Don’t get in Chuck’s way!” he says to Clinton.

“You’re telling me!” she hollers back, laughing.

Clinton and Schumer dismiss any talk of tension and lavish each other with praise. “She’s done a great job, because she’s a great listener and she’s a great learner,” Schumer says. “I think the biggest lesson she learned from the White House years is that you’ve got to bury the hatchet whenever you can and work together with whoever you can work with. She’s accused of having no principles, but I don’t buy that. Max Weber had a great quote: ‘You can’t save your soul and save the city.’ I think she’s found a very good balance there.”

After the parade, Clinton hops into her black van for a short trip to East 73rd Street and Via Quadronno, a sliver of an Italian restaurant, where she sits at a table in the back corner beneath a painting of a flying pig and next to three thrilled British tourists. After ordering a bowl of lentil soup and a glass of fresh grapefruit juice mixed with carbonated water, the senator takes a bite out of the Republicans. “This administration is populated by people who’ve spent their careers bashing government. They’re not just small-government conservatives—they’re Grover Norquist, strangle-it-in-the-bathtub conservatives,” Clinton says. “It’s a cognitive disconnect for them to be able to do something well in an arena that they have so derided and reviled all these years.”

“I’m always interested in what other people think I should do. It’s like watching this movie that I’m in that I had nothing to do with. But ultimately, I'll decide what I think is the best thing for me to do."

Yet even in the wake of two catastrophes of active neglect—the Iraq war and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—doesn’t it remain hugely difficult for Democrats to win by arguing for themselves as the party of competent government? For the only time in our conversations, Clinton shows real heat. “It’s not so long ago that FEMA actually worked!” she says, setting aside her soup. “This is not ancient history! It actually worked in the nineties! It’s not so long ago that the VA was a disaster, and it was turned around in the nineties because the right decisions were made. So you can point to two parts of the government that deal with emergencies and take care of our veterans, which most Americans can relate to, and say, ‘We know how to do this. We did it before; we can do it again. And so don’t be misled.’ ”

The nineties we, of course, weren’t just generic Democrats; it was Bill Clinton’s time in the White House, and the Veterans Affairs bureau was one of First Lady Hillary Clinton’s primary causes after the universal-health-care debacle. But the senator is rolling now. “Let’s take the two areas where they claim to be better than Democrats: in foreign policy and national security,” Clinton says. “And what do they have to show for it? Even there, they’ve been an abject failure, putting our country in greater danger and more at risk. So I think you can make a very strong case. Now, you’ve got to make it, and you have to be quite aggressive in making it.”

Government works. At bottom, after all these years in public life, that is the core principle to which Hillary Clinton clings: her faith in government to actively spread justice and opportunity, and to reward responsible behavior. That faith has been refined over time. The incrementalism she’s practiced for six years—Mark Penn–style government—isn’t merely a product of Clinton’s place in the minority; she’s now a believer in small steps. But the goals remain steady.


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