Cool on the Hill

Photo: AP Photos

I’m walking down a hallway of the Russell Senate Office Building, ticking off the numbers until I get to Hillary Clinton’s office, and I see that the suite immediately before hers belongs to Trent Lott. I think back: Just after Hillary was elected, Lott snapped that she’d better not count on being some sort of star in the Senate—or that, better yet, “maybe lightning will strike and she won’t” show up at all. If God decides to take him up on it, Lott had better pray She’s got precise aim.

For Lott, the last couple months have been as disastrous as possible. When he pined for segregation and then Campanised himself through five successive apologies, each more bungling than the last, he lost what no politician can afford to lose: the right to be taken seriously. When—ever—will his party make him a spokesman for anything?

The past two months of Clinton’s career, by contrast, have been a model of cred building. The extension of unemployment insurance she got passed may not be the issue that will ignite the next New Deal, but it’s solid Democratic stimulus politics; it’s also the kind of unglamorous Senate thing that takes a ridiculous amount of work—you have to talk and talk and talk about it, for months, to everyone—for little in the way of political return. She snagged a leadership position as head of the party’s Steering and Coordination Committee. Then she plucked a seat on the Armed Services Committee. In between are the hundreds of lower-frequency matters—snaring federal money for those firehouses Mayor Bloomberg might close, delivering a major speech on domestic preparedness last week at John Jay College—with which the media are kept abreast through an efficient torrent of e-mailed press releases for which no matter is too small-bore.

Hillary is the un-Lott: Lott took victory—his party’s smashing wins in last year’s election—and turned it into humiliation. Clinton took defeat and began converting it into a platform.

Right-wing Websites are still replete with dozens of EXCLUSIVE!’s on Hillary’s “plot” to “take over” the Senate, the country, the Elks Club. But as far as Capitol Hill goes, she’s got it knocked. The orgy of tea-leaf reading and motive-hunting that once accompanied her every move, from committee selection to coiffure, has subsided. Her initial two years were about two things. First, just becoming a normal presence around the place. Second, September 11, on which she’s quietly done lots of effective work: Everybody knows she got booed at that 9/11 concert, but few know that the head of the international firefighters’ union, Harold Schaitberger, has become a major fan, or that the fire unions are solidly behind a bill she’s trying to pass to spend $3.5 billion on direct assistance to local police and fire departments. So—phase one, total success. Now it’s time for phase two. It’s time to pick some fights.

I’m led through a door, and there she stands, black pantsuit, natch, hand outstretched, relaxed smile. She didn’t often look relaxed as a candidate. I notice that she has framed on the wall of her reception area the Times’ endorsement of her candidacy. She got the nod, all right, but in truth the editorial was rather parsimonious (“Mrs. Clinton is capable of growing beyond the ethical legacies of Arkansas … “). Candidate Clinton, and First Lady Clinton, would not have invited that kind of ambivalence into her space.

What hasn’t changed is the caution with which she chooses her words. I’d like to hear her on what happened to the Democrats, why they let themselves be pushed around so. But it’s not going to happen. She operates on the assumption (correct) that one word of criticism of the Democratic leadership coming from her would be fodder for days’ worth of cable shows.

She loves talking about the New York things. But she has plenty of fire for Bush too: “The fraud of this education act is just outrageous. It is an unfunded mandate that will fall exactly on the backs of the people who can’t afford it.” On the tax cut: “This is not a stimulus package that they’re proposing. I’m going to fight hard against it. We have enormous deficits in the city and in the state. This will only make them worse. There is no willingness on the part of the administration to help us out. We’re in a tougher position because we’re bigger and we try to do more—our Medicaid plan actually does try to help people—so we’re going to feel it even more acutely … We’re trying to make good things happen in New York while having to fight a shortsighted and irresponsible agenda.”

Democratic Senate-leadership aides will tell you they treasure her. She understands what the party needs, and her colleagues increasingly look to her for guidance.

Lott turned victory into humiliation. Clinton took the Democrats’ defeat and began converting it into a platform.

This is why the winter of this party’s discontent is made glorious summer by the lady from New York. The Democrats need generals right now. One thing you have to say about Hillary—she’s been through the wars. She understands the way the other side plays. They can’t possibly say anything about her they haven’t already said. Nothing they do can intimidate her.

There are many Democrats, of course, of whom that cannot be said.

One often hears from liberal democrats in New York that they don’t really have a handle on what Clinton is up to; that she plays it too safe and they wish she’d really … do something. This drives her people nuts, and with justification—virtually every day the Senate is in session, she and a few colleagues are hitting the administration on some issue or another, and she actually hits harder than many others.

But a lot of that criticism doesn’t get up here as easily as the shuttle, and it doesn’t because it’s not wrapped in something larger, visionary, offensive (in the good sense of playing offense, not defense). Few Democrats have the smarts and the guts to do that. But Clinton does (both New York senators do, actually), and she now has the platforms to make the larger case for the party.

The Armed Services Committee, for example, seems a good perch from which to hammer home the relationship between national security and U.S. dependence on foreign oil. This strikes plenty of people as something that can be tied around the neck of this president with oil rags. His declining numbers—mid-fifties now, about fifteen points lower than Bill Clinton’s approval rating on the day of his impeachment (true, look it up)—are softening him up. Many Washington experts assume Hillary joined the Armed Services Committee so she could have a pedestal from which to criticize Bush on the war. Well … maybe. But she’s more likely to be for the war. She was for regime change when it became Clinton-administration policy in 1998, and she’s for it now.

I started to ask: Suppose January 27 comes and goes, Hans Blix and the inspectors in Iraq haven’t really found a smoking gun, and the administration has to go back to the United Nations. She stopped me: “Oh, I wouldn’t say they haven’t found anything,” she said, ticking off four or five suspicious items the inspectors have turned up. “So I think we should wait and see what the inspectors report.”

Liberals were steamed about her pro-war vote last fall. But the fact is this. A no vote by Pat Leahy is one thing. A no vote by Hillary Clinton hands the right wing ammunition for a fund-raising letter that could literally haul in millions—millions that will later be used to defeat Democratic candidates by opening with the line “Hillary Clinton and other Democrats against our troops want to … “

Of course, this does invite the thought that someday, on some controversial mega-issue, with Tom Daschle counseling patience and Joe Lieberman agreeing with Dr. Frist, she’ll have to step up, assume the leadership, and just take the right-wing hits. She’ll never shoot from the hip or satisfy the blood lust of liberals who want to see Bush pummeled all the time over every matter. She’s more like a strong closer, in racetrack lingo, biding her time, doing the constituent-upstate-economy-firefighters thing, and waiting for the clubhouse turn. It works well for her. But as her party heads toward 2004, with a so-far underwhelming presidential flock and nineteen Democratic senators up for reelection, many from “red” states, it needs national leaders who have plenty of brains, and no fear. That clubhouse turn is getting closer.

HOUSEKEEPING NOTE: This is my last column for a while. I’m taking a leave to be a Shorenstein fellow at the Kennedy School at Harvard for the spring semester. I’ll pop up in these pages from time to time, unexpected as the Pimpernel, and I’ll be back in June.

Cool on the Hill