Hillary at the Gate

Illustration by Darrow

Those pesky, petty reporters. After fifteen minutes of listening to a city councilman, a congressman, a congresswoman, and Senator Hillary Clinton flay the right-wing Republican proposals for immigration reform, a TV reporter wants to change the subject.

“This is about immigration!” says one of Senator Clinton’s press aides.

“But we’ve asked six or seven immigration questions!” replies the TV guy. “We have to do other topics!”

“Well, this is pretty important,” Clinton says sternly.

Indeed it is. Millions of hardworking immigrants, thousands of small businesses, and the country’s economic prospects are going to be affected by the outcome of the nasty debate taking place in Congress. Which is what makes the substance of what Clinton has been saying, and the circumstances of today’s press conference, all the more puzzling. She fires off one truly excellent line, about how the Sensenbrenner bill would criminalize Jesus, ensuring headlines the next day and deftly summarizing her staunch opposition to the most reactionary proposal. She’s in favor of “a path to earned citizenship.” But then she goes back to playing the role she’s had for most of this debate: cautious bystander. “I support several of the bills,” she says. “I’m trying to create a compromise for a bipartisan bill … We need comprehensive reform … A harsh position doesn’t end the problems.”

Today’s event doesn’t end her local problems on immigration, either. The mood is weirdly tense, and not simply because the press conference is held two stories below street level, in a bunkerlike auditorium beneath the senator’s midtown office. An ethnic buffet of two dozen New York immigration advocates has been crammed onto and in front of the small stage. They’d been invited to meet with Clinton six days after a front-page story in the Times described how Clinton and Chuck Schumer chose to declare their support for a new route to citizenship at a rally of Irish groups that are hardly at the center of the current debate but are politically well wired. Yet the attempt to make up with other immigrant leaders ended up leaving many frustrated. After a short private session during which Clinton did most of the talking, the group was marched in front of the cameras. Many of them, it turns out, had no idea they were going to be used as props.

“This was too little, too late,” Monami Maulik says afterward. She’s the head of a Queens group that represents Pakistani, Indian, and Bangladeshi immigrants. “Unfortunately, Senators Schumer and Clinton haven’t played a more courageous leadership role. The most alarming thing is that during the private meeting she seemed to understand that enforcement laws need to protect civil rights—but then in the press conference, her public position was very, very strong on the national-security issue.”

“There’s quite a war going on among the advisers to Camp Hillary,” says an economic-policy expert.

She can’t win. Even when Hillary Clinton is basically right—the wildly complex, demagogic immigration debate was badly in need of a centrist compromise—she’s criticized for being cravenly calculating, or for not doing even more. It’s one price of her celebrity. Another is that she often has to avoid handing the fractured Republicans a convenient distraction. The passion in Clinton’s voice when talking about immigration is an indication of her deep feelings on the issue, but the politics cramp her instincts.

Clinton’s supporting role in two major recent dramas—immigration and the Dubai Ports World deal—also reflects a core Democratic confusion over the defining issue of the moment: how America is going to deal with the rest of the world—whether it’s crossing our borders, propping up our currency, or blowing up our troops. The Republicans have bungled their chance. Unfortunately, the Democrats aren’t exactly a model of decisiveness and clarity.

Invoking national-security concerns provided an easy rationale for politicians of every persuasion to oppose leasing shipping terminals to a company controlled by the United Arab Emirates. Yet the trade issue underlying the Dubai debacle is only going to grow more contentious, and more knotty, as globalization makes countries ever more interdependent. “There’s two camps within the Democratic Party right now: the declinist wing and the optimistic-future wing,” says Marshall Wittmann of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which became famous as Bill Clinton’s presidential launching pad. “The declinist wing is suggesting that we should reject globalization and free trade. The Clinton tradition is the optimistic-future wing, which says you can’t put up these barriers and that free trade is ultimately key to economic growth. But the party has veered dramatically in the other direction in the past few years. It’s a deep divide.”

So where is Hillary? Is she a free-trader? A protectionist? There’s enough in her record to give comfort and aggravation to both sides of the Democratic personality. As First Lady, she backed Bill on NAFTA; as senator, she voted against CAFTA. “There’s quite a war going on among the advisers to Camp Hillary,” says a Washington economic-policy expert. “She talks to sensible Democrats on trade policy—people like Martin Baily at the Institute for International Economics—but then she has people like Jeff Faux of the Economic Policy Institute. They’re quite protectionist, quite nationalist. They think free trade not only hurts America, it hurts the countries we’re trading with, that the only winners are corporations. She has both sets of advisers in her camp, and they’re contesting for her ear.” (A Clinton spokeswoman says that the senator seeks a wide range of opinions on many issues, but dismisses the notion that there’s any group of outside advisers on globalization.)

“The trade issue is crippling the Democrats,” says Jagdish Bhagwati, the Columbia economist who wrote In Defense of Globalization. “The unions are terrified by trade, and they’re still a major Democratic constituency. Hillary Clinton will be caught in this dilemma unless the party faces up to it and says, ‘Look, we really can’t be against trade with poor countries.’ ”

Bill Clinton had the rhetorical gifts to sell roiling change as our friend. Hillary won’t ever have that talent, and, thanks to 9/11, she’s operating in an America that’s far more anxious about the world than it was when she and Bill left the White House. It’s unlikely that she or any of the Democrats is going to concoct a reassuring solution for the mess in Iraq. But there are opportunities for reducing the stress created by other parts of the globe. If Hillary Clinton can find a coherent way to ease the social dislocations emanating from India, China, and Mexico—perhaps in part by reviving her old interest in universal health care—she’ll have done her country a great service. It probably wouldn’t hurt her presidential prospects, either. First, though, she needs to decide whether she cares more about economic security or economic freedom.

E-mail: Chris_Smith@nymag.com.

Hillary at the Gate