What becomes now of Hillary Clinton? Will she run again for President? Make a bid for Senate majority leader? Go home to New York and run for governor? Does she covet a job in Barack Obama's Cabinet or maybe an appointment to the Supreme Court? No, no, no and no, come the answers. As she told me recently, "I'm going to be focused, as I always have been, on what we're going to get done. I'm not interested in just enhancing my visibility. I'm interested in standing on the South Lawn of the White House and seeing President Obama signing into law quality, affordable health care for everybody, and voting in a big majority for clean, renewable energy and smarter economic policies. That's what I'm all about, and I'm going to use every tool at my disposal to bring it about."
But it's hard to imagine Hillary Clinton ever playing just a supporting role. She is now both a smaller and a larger figure than when she set out on her first presidential-campaign swing through frigid Iowa nearly two years ago. And that puts her at something of a crossroads. "She's not who she was before she ran, when everyone deferred to her as a former First Lady and a President-in-waiting," says a prominent Democratic strategist. While she didn't achieve the Clinton Restoration, Hillary emerged from that race as the symbol of a movement that has come to represent the hopes and frustrations of millions of working-class Democrats.
Looking back on what she accomplished in the primaries, Clinton said, "I really felt like people were responding to my campaign in large measure because they feel invisible, that they have just been overlooked and marginalized in ways that undermine their hopes for the future and their capacity to realize their own dreams." And, her advisers note, there is another constituency for whom there is no more obvious leader. Female voters, says a close ally, are an "awakened group of women who have no logical leader. It's hers for the asking."
Clinton put that star power to full use this fall, campaigning at more than 200 rallies and fund raisers for upwards of 80 candidates across the country. I caught up with her four days before the election, between stops in Ohio, where she was stumping for Obama in precincts that she won decisively during the Democratic primary. She also continued to work at the unfinished business left over from her presidential bid, starting with a $25.2 million campaign debt. She has whittled it down to about $2.6 million, depending on how you count. That figure does not include the $13 million that she loaned the campaign out of personal funds and will not get back. Nor does it account for the $5.2 million that she owes her former chief strategist Mark Penn--who is a flash point with some of her donors and whose bill, therefore, is not likely to be paid off anytime soon.
Friends and allies say Clinton is still trying to figure out what her role will be. Though some imagine she can become a champion of liberal causes in the Senate, much as Edward Kennedy did after his defeat in the 1980 Democratic primary, that model may not fit. Kennedy by 1981 had nearly 20 years of seniority in the Senate, and he had an ideal foil in Ronald Reagan. Clinton, on the other hand, is a relatively junior Senator and ranks no higher than fifth in seniority on any of her committees. On Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, the panel that oversees the issue about which she has the most expertise and passion--health care--she ranks eighth. The chairman, Kennedy, has brain cancer but vows to play the lead role himself.
Clinton may be constrained from stepping out by the fact that her party is in power at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Taking on her party in the manner that John McCain so often did in the early years of George W. Bush's first term is not, friends say, her way of doing business. "In retrospect, [McCain's] 2000-2002 persona was the result of personal pique, positioning himself as the Democrats' favorite Republican," says a Clinton adviser. "That's not the role she wants to play. That's the last thing she wants to do."
Meanwhile, her relationship with Obama is still a work in progress. Perhaps it would be best to describe it as a recovery in progress. Though Clinton's aides boast of the many campaign events she did on his behalf, "this is not a friendly relationship," says an ally. And yet a closer working relationship would be in the interests of both. Clinton knows from experience how much his health-care-reform effort will ride on having effective allies on Capitol Hill. And when his presidency hits its inevitable bumps--whether those come from disappointing his liberal allies or enraging his conservative opponents--it would be handy to have a formidable spear catcher nearby.
She will continue to be a big draw on the fund-raising circuit--a good way to accumulate chits with other politicians--and can turn the spotlight that follows her everywhere as she chooses. And it surely means something that Clinton, whose steam-powered campaign was left in the dust technologically by Obama's, also seems to be studying up on the President-elect's playbook for turning a campaign into a movement. "The Internet has enhanced the leverage that any single member of Congress has," Clinton said. "The voices and votes of millions of people, strategically placed around the country, are a great asset."
And her voice may be the most strategically important of all. Already it appears that Clinton may use her own experience in the White House to try to nudge Obama to keep his many promises. A larger-than-expected deficit forced her husband to delay some of his priorities in 1993, a decision that greatly upset Hillary Clinton and her allies at the time. While there are already those who are arguing that Obama's ambitious and expensive health-care-reform effort will have to wait until the economy is in better shape, Clinton disagrees. "I'm going to make the case that it's important to move simultaneously on several fronts. I know how difficult that is. But a new President has a honeymoon period," she said. "I hope that we're going to really make progress on health care right off the bat with a new Congress. There are a lot of different ways of doing that." One campaign is over for Clinton, but another has just begun.
6 months ago