Does she still believe in universal health care? “Absolutely,” she says, stretching out the syllables. “In fact, I think the argument for it is even stronger today than it was thirteen years ago. So I think it’s gonna come back as a very big issue. I’m not offering an alternative—right now.”
Ask about any specifics and she remains exasperatingly hard to pin down. “If we take back one or both houses of Congress, we can begin to set an agenda again,” Clinton says. “And we can determine how we can create a majority around those agendas. In the ’08 elections, no matter who runs, it will be a great time to paint a broader vision of where the country should be. People will either vote for it or they won’t. But we can’t do any of that right now.”
Then I asked her about her vote to allow Bush to invade Iraq. Despite all of her success on her small-bore, Senator Pothole issues, it’s liable to be the vote for which she’s best remembered. She’s elaborated her elaborate reasoning many times—that, at its essence, her yes vote was in favor of presidential authority, and that she believed Bush’s promise to allow weapons inspectors to do their job.
What Clinton hasn’t discussed much is how she thinks her vote represented her New York constituents, as consistently and vociferously an antiwar state as exists. “Well, I think if you go back and look, [my vote] was not unpopular,” Clinton says. “It was unpopular among many of my constituents and supporters, which was very painful. But I think I’m hired to make decisions based on the best information I have at the time.”
Bob Kerrey, the Vietnam War vet, former Democratic senator, and current president of the New School, praises Clinton for having learned to play Realpolitik.
“I don’t want martyrs who are constantly going to vote their conscience and become ineffective as a consequence,” Kerrey says. “Sam Rayburn had this wonderful quote: ‘There’s two kinds of people in Washington: Those who can count, and those who lose.’ Hillary is in the group of people who can count.”
Clinton’s war vote, agree with it or not, is the most principled stand she’s taken as senator. But because it was driven as much by calculation as conviction, it’s also the prime example of why many people find it so hard to love her. And why her strongest challenge in 2008 would come from the left.
When Mark Penn did his slide show for donors in March, there was a name missing from his encouraging comparisons between Clinton and other national Democrats: Barack Obama. Of course, back in March Illinois’s junior senator was barely on anyone’s presidential radar.
Obama’s threat to Clinton in 2008 isn’t simply stylistic. He’d be a major tactical headache as well, cutting into her popularity with black voters in particular.
Clinton insiders shrug off the idea that a 45-year-old with two years in the Senate under his belt, a man with no foreign-policy experience who’d be running at a time when the country is fighting a disastrous war, makes them nervous. “It will be another person in the race,” says Patricof, the New York investment banker and veteran FOH who chairs her Senate campaign’s finance committee. “He’s new on the scene, he hasn’t had much experience in the political world, and she’s had a lot more, besides having been in office for six years. We’ll have to see. That’s what primaries are about. If they happen.”
Yet the prospect of an Obama presidential candidacy is one more reason that Clinton ’08 isn’t the sure thing that conventional wisdom, and the Republicans, like to believe. Lately, there’s been increasing Washington talk that what Clinton really should do is stick around and eventually become majority leader. Perhaps the chatter is meant as a compliment. It’s fueled in part by anxious Democrats who think Clinton will win the ’08 presidential nomination and lose the general election. Clinton’s top aides, particularly the women, consider the majority-leader buzz patronizing: You stay here, Mrs. Clinton, and let the men handle the big job.
Clinton smiles thinly. “No, I don’t consider it patronizing,” she says. “I’m always interested in what people think I should do. It’s like watching this movie that I’m in that I had nothing to do with. I’ve got my life, and then I’ve got everybody else’s opinion of my life.” She shakes her head slowly. “But ultimately, I’ll decide what I think is the best thing for me to do.”
It’s Hillary’s choice. Perhaps she will calculate she can’t win the White House. Or maybe Bill will do something egregious that limits her options. But the strongest reason to believe Hillary won’t run for president, or at least hasn’t truly made up her mind, is that she loves being a senator. “It’s going to be a huge factor in her thinking,” says a longtime friend and adviser.