The Trouble With Hillary

Hillary Clinton near the U.S. Capitol earlier this month.Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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.

Competing against Hillary in the primaries is a delicate matter. “The conventional wisdom says that to beat Hillary Clinton, you’ve got to beat her up,” says Jarding, co-author of the just-published Foxes in the Henhouse: How the Republicans Stole the South and the Heartland and What the Democrats Must Do to Run ’Em Out. “But I don’t believe that. You have to show that you can beat her by beating everyone else. You’ve got to separate yourself from the pack, and you have to beat these second-tier guys, if you want to get to Hillary.”

Then, if needed, there will be an alternative. “If there are enough Democratic leaders who fear Hillary Clinton as a candidate, then they better step up to the plate and say, ‘We love Hillary, we love the Clintons, we just don’t think she can win, and we’ve collectively gotten behind candidate X.’ ”

The vast right-wing conspiracy Hillary spoke of is not currently much of a conspiracy—it’s more like a lucrative cottage industry. In addition to the Websites and the novelty items like T-shirts, bumper stickers, and playing cards, there are huge consulting fees, expensive direct-mail campaigns, and an endless stream of serious, slanderous, humorous, and ponderous books.

Just published is I’ve Always Been a Yankees Fan: Hillary Clinton in Her Own Words, by Tom Kuiper. Coming in the next few months are books by John Podhoretz (Can She Be Stopped?: Hillary Clinton Will Be the Next President of the United States, Unless …) and David Horowitz and Richard Poe (The Shadow Party: How Hillary Clinton, George Soros, and the Sixties Left Took Over the Democratic Party).

There are a few dedicated Websites like and, a couple of blogs, and the odd event here and there like last summer’s publication of The Truth About Hillary, Ed Klein’s embarrassingly lame, sleazy attempt to eviscerate her. (Throughout the book, he refers to her as “the Big Girl” and tries to portray her as a lesbian based on the fact that she’s had close friends and aides who were gay.)

And there is a steady, low hum of harsh, thinly sourced anti-Hillary stories that serve almost as background music on right-wing Websites like,, and Though there is no formal structure to the anti-Hillary movement, no vast right-wing conspiracy, what gives it cohesion is that many of the key characters pop up again and again. NewsMax, for example, is funded by conservative donor Richard Mellon Scaife, a veteran of the Clinton wars.

Her self-discipline, a political asset in many ways, carries a cost. She can seem inhuman.

The site is run by Chris Ruddy, who worked for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, which is owned by Scaife. Ruddy, a longtime Clinton antagonist who wrote The Strange Death of Vince Foster, has for years promoted bizarre conspiracy theories claiming, among other things, that Foster and Clinton administration Commerce secretary Ron Brown were murdered., essentially a fund-raising vehicle that has so far failed to raise any real money, was the brainchild of the hermitlike Republican political consultant Arthur Finkelstein.

The Clintons are among the most vilified and investigated politicians in American history. Having withstood every conceivable attack, Hillary can’t be Swift-Boated. She is the indestructible political equivalent of one of those horror-movie villains like Freddy or Jason—she gets hacked, stabbed, shot, and set on fire, and she still keeps coming.

Most surprisingly, many leading conservative activists—politically muscular, testosterone-laden tough guys—are afraid of her. They seem to be more convinced of her viability as a national candidate than are some members of her own party.

“She’s an articulate socialist who’ll go to great lengths to get power, to hold power, and to destroy those who stand in her way,” says conservative activist Richard Viguerie. “A lot of us remember the conservative organizations that were audited by the IRS during their eight years in the White House. She scares the dickens out of us.”

But it goes even further. There is a commonly held belief that for eight years, Hillary was the wizard standing behind the curtain pushing all the buttons. “During his presidency,” Keene says, “she was seen as the evil genius. The attack dogs, the Sidney Blumenthals, were Hillary’s friends, not his. She’s the tough, no-holds-barred ideological fighter who has demonstrated over time she’ll stop at nothing to get her enemies.”

The Republicans’ fear of Hillary is a testament to how successful she’s been in softening her sharp edges and moving to the center. As a senator, Clinton has been collegial and conciliatory, working respectfully even with politicians who tried to run her husband out of town. And polls now show that the more exposure people have to her, the more positive their view. She has made joint appearances with Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Bill Frist, and Lindsey Graham. Clinton has been an outspoken supporter of the war in Iraq, has talked about the evils of illegal immigration, and has even lowered the volume on her normally high-decibel pro-choice advocacy, calling abortion a “tragic choice to many, many women.”

“I think she’s nailed it beautifully,” says Dick Morris, Post columnist, Fox News analyst, and the hardest-working man in the Clinton-bashing business (the latest of his one-a-year anti-Clinton books is called Condi vs. Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race). “Her strategy at the moment is just what it should be: move to the middle and be tough on terror.”

Many on the right are not buying it. “What was her epiphany? What eye-opening experience did she have?” Viguerie asks. “It’s all so calculating, so Machiavellian.”

Clinton’s rebranding is working so well that she has been getting criticized by the left for her support of the war and other centrist positions. Any rocks thrown at her by the left, however, only serve to bolster her sought-after credentials as a moderate. Most Republicans believe, however, that when it counts, her claim on the left wing of the Democratic Party is unimpeachable.

The freedom to take your base of support for granted is so important because of the way the numbers add up in a national race. Current conventional wisdom is that American voters are more or less evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans: 43 to 45 percent are firmly committed, no matter who’s running. The real battle is for the undecided 10 to 15 percent in the middle.

It’s this simple math that has begun to make the right crazy. “She doesn’t have to fool conservatives with this new, more reasonable posture,” says Keene. “She only has to convince 7 percent of those undecided voters that she’s sincere.”

Estrich, for one, thinks the right should be concerned. “I was followed around on my book tour by people who’d hold up signs and scream at me, ‘What about Juanita Broaddrick?’ And all the younger people would look at me and say, ‘Who’s that?’ That’s part of the problem with dredging up all that old Clinton stuff. More and more people have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Hillary’s candidacy would be a real test of whether people are ready to vote for a woman. “Opinion data show that Americans want to believe they’re ready,” says Ruth Mandel, head of the Eagleton Institute. “Most people, when asked, tell pollsters they would vote for a woman. But when asked if they think their neighbor would, the number drops dramatically. The first answer is the socially acceptable one.”

But finally, there is the matter of Hillary herself. It’s true that the scandals of the nineties no longer have the power to hurt her. It’s people’s perception of her as a calculating, triangulating political android—supporting the war, speaking against abortion, sidling up to Gingrich and Murdoch, smiling that smile. We’ve known her a long time—but who is she now? That we still don’t know makes everybody nuts. Al Gore: The Come-Back Kid

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