Say what you will about these stances as matters of ideology or principle, in practice they’ve produced a litany of nightmares—with Iraq and now New Orleans right atop the list. In the international arena, the two disasters are widely seen as being of a piece. “People don’t fully understand yet that New Orleans is a global event, not a national one,” says David Dreyer, a former aide to Clinton and Robert Rubin who now spends a considerable amount of his time consulting abroad. “The reason that Hugo Chávez can organize across Latin America in ways contrary to U.S. interests is that the sheen has come off American exceptionalism. We are no longer seen as being able to order our own universe.”
“People don’t fully understand yet that New Orleans is a global event, not a national one,” says a former Clinton aide.
For Clinton, a Davos Man to the depths of his southern-fried soul, and one for whom disaster relief was always a point of pride, the humiliation of America in the eyes of the world over New Orleans must be acutely painful. Straining hard against his desire to remain above the fray, he said last week, “Our government failed those people in the beginning, and I take it now that there is no dispute about it . . . I have my own ideas about what caused it.” And that was as far as he went.
Yet Clinton knows that the looming battle over who lost New Orleans may prove to be a pivot point in the larger contest between Democrats and Republicans, providing his party a chance to make a set of arguments not only about sheer competence but about the role of government. We know he knows because he did that very thing himself in 1995, in the aftermath of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. With breathtaking subtlety and nimbleness, Clinton used that act of terrorism to illustrate the dangers of the wild-eyed anti-government rhetoric then in vogue among the Gingrichian GOP—a move that set him on the road to political redemption.
Which brings us to Hillary. For all her husband’s apparently sincere desire to erect a depoliticized aura around the CGI, it’s worth noting that he felt not the slightest hesitation to bequeath her a speaking slot at the conference. (She is slated to appear on a panel titled “Promoting Prosperity With Climate Change Policy.”) When I asked Jay Carson about this, he seemed startled by the query. “It would almost be crazy for her not to be there,” he said. “She’s a senator from New York State, she’s incredibly smart, and she’s his wife.”
The interesting question, however, is whether her posture on Katrina during the conference will be as restrained as her husband’s. And judging from the past few days, I wouldn’t bet on it.
Indeed, even by the rapidly escalating standards of her fellow Democrats, Mrs. Clinton’s criticisms of the administration have been especially adamant. She has called for FEMA to be separated from the Department of Homeland Security. She has demanded an independent investigation on the model of the 9/11 Commission. Hammering the Bush approach to state and local governments as a “recipe for disaster,” she has said, “There was nobody in charge in the federal-government level, and there was nobody willing to take responsibility to work with state and local officials.”
That Hillary has jumped so lustily into the Katrina fray isn’t terribly surprising—even apart from what must be the counsel of her husband. With an eye toward 2008, she has spent much of the past few years staking out positions—on Iraq, on abortion—that would allow her to cast herself as a moderate. Against this backdrop, Katrina presents her with a nearly irresistible opportunity to full-throatedly champion an issue sure to resonate with the party’s true-believing left.
But Katrina affords the senator another, more intriguing opportunity: to make an unvarnished appeal to Clinton nostalgia. In “eight years of the Clinton administration,” she said last week, FEMA was run by “qualified” officials who knew what they were doing. “During the Clinton administration,” she went on, as if chanting a mantra, “the government took the lead in handling disasters of significance . . . and that is as it should be.”
If George W. Bush has figured out the advantages of having the ex-president on his team (however instrumental and temporary that alliance may be), you can bet that lesson isn’t lost for a minute on Hillary Clinton. Back in 1992, the buy-one-get-one-free concept was, if anything, a net loser for her husband. How ironic that in 2008, the very same bargain might prove to be Hillary’s best chance to wind up in the White House.