IWV in the News: The First Lady President

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Posted by Philip Klein on 1.11.08 @ 12:08AM

This feature article appears in the December 2007/January 2008 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.

“I-O-W-A: Hillary Clinton all the way!”

A group of volunteers drummed on empty plastic buckets and chanted outside a converted barn at the Johnson County Fairgrounds in Iowa City, where nearly 2,000 Democrats gathered on an atypically muggy day in early October to feast on barbeque sandwiches and homemade desserts and hear several leading Democratic candidates speak.

As the night set in, one energetic young male volunteer with bushy brown hair held a white poster board with “Hillary-McGovern” painted in blue and red, in honor of the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate and antiwar icon who moments ago had endorsed the former first lady.

Introducing her, George McGovern recalled when Hillary helped organize in Texas for his failed campaign, joining her then-boyfriend Bill, whose long slovenly hair made him resemble a buffalo. As great a president as her brilliant husband made, McGovern predicted, Hillary would be even greater.

“I hope to live long enough to see a black president in the White House,” McGovern said in reference to Clinton’s Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama. “But we have an old rule and courtesy in the United States: ‘ladies first.’”

The message resonated with the audience. “I supported Hillary long before there were any candidates,” explained Iowa City Democrat Dana McMahon, after McGovern and Clinton spoke. “The very first reason, years ago, was because she is a woman. I think it’s time.”

Going into the presidential race, political observers had predicted that Hillary Clinton would have to portray herself as a female politician in the mold of “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher if she were to convince voters that she could be commander in chief during a time of war.

However, as the campaign has progressed, Clinton has become more eager to play up her feminine side. The shift not only tells us how she plans to run for president, but may also provide insight into how she could transform the role of America’s top executive by turning her presidency into a continuation of her time as first lady.

CLINTON RARELY LETS A CAMPAIGN APPEARANCE go by without saying, “Of course, I am thrilled at the prospect that I could be the first woman president elected in the United States of America,” as she phrased it at the barbeque (sometimes she is “very excited” rather than “thrilled”). Lest anybody accuse her of demanding affirmative action for presidential candidates, she offers the addendum: “I’m not running because I’m a woman. I’m running because I think I’m the most qualified to do the job.”

After making such a statement, she typically speaks of “two groups of people” who come to her campaign events. One group is women in their 90s, who approach her after she speaks to say “I was born before women could vote, and I’m going to live long enough to see a woman in the White House.”

When Clinton spoke at the Service Employees International Union Political Action Conference in September, the number of women in their 90s who said this to her was plural, but in stump speeches a few weeks later, the story usually centered around one 95-year-old woman. At a speech in Anamosa, Iowa, during that stretch, however, she claimed to have been approached by three women in their 90s at her previous event that very morning. As of this writing, no actual 95-year-old woman has surfaced in news accounts to buttress Clinton’s tale.

Families also come to see Clinton, and when parents notice her approaching, Clinton claims they point and tell their children, “See honey, you can be anything you want to be.” Lacking Ronald Reagan’s natural sunny disposition, Clinton’s way of exuding optimism about America is to tie the nation’s potential for greatness to her ability to realize her own narcissistic ambitions. “I want us to say about America, ‘See, we can be anything we want to be again,’” she said in Anamosa.

During one week in October celebrating “Women Changing America,” Clinton did an appearance on ABC’s The View, a lunch speech to the Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Committee, and stopped by a daylong fundraising event that attracted more than 1,000 women supporters to Washington, D.C. and pulled in more than $1.5 million, according to the campaign. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) revved up the crowd for Clinton that afternoon inside the Capital Hilton ballroom that was packed with women in “Hillary” baseball caps. “Suit up, because we’ve got the biggest task any of us could find,” Mikulski shouted, referring to Clinton’s chance to become the first female president. “We are about to make history.”

There are several reasons why Clinton’s gender has become a major factor in her campaign’s political calculations. Partially, it is an attempt to motivate women voters, who make up 65 percent of the audience at her campaign events, according to Mark Penn, her chief strategist. “Women are and will be a powerful force in American politics this presidential election,” Penn wrote in an October strategy memo. “They were the critical swing voters in the last three elections, and they promise to again play a pivotal role in this one.” He also claimed that the campaign’s internal polls show that 94 percent of young women would be more likely to turn out if a woman nominee were on the ballot.

Some of this electoral logic may have come into play in Iowa. While the state has proven more difficult terrain for Clinton in the nomination process than other parts of the country, by the fall she started to creep ahead in polls. One explanation for the rise was her support among female voters, who make up 62 percent of Democratic caucus-goers, according to the Des Moines Register.

Beyond voter demographics, the effort to play up her femininity is part of a broader strategy to soften her image as shrill, cold, and overly calculating — an impression that is a driver of her high negative ratings and a reminder of her involvement in Clinton-era scandals. When she isn’t being the woman who would break the highest of glass ceilings, she often plays into the role of the girly-girl next door, accentuated by her growing pink wardrobe.

ON A CHILLY FALL NIGHT in Ames, Iowa, a crowd surrounded the intersection of Main Street and Kellogg, and a seventh-grade girl helped introduce Hillary by recounting the moment she observed there weren’t any women presidents in her sticker book. In her speech that evening, Clinton railed against President Bush for not demanding sacrifice of Americans after Sept. 11, but instead urging them to shop. “Now I got to tell you, I like to shop,” she interjected. At a stop in Webster City, Iowa, when a questioner asked about the long nature of the campaign, Clinton responded, “My husband did not announce for president until October of 1991. I could have had a baby in the time I’ve been campaigning.”

No matter how disciplined Clinton is as a candidate, over the course of a long campaign, it will be difficult for her to contain her worst personality traits. “Give me a fair reading as to who I am, not who somebody says I am,” Clinton pleaded with a room full of voters in New Hampton, Iowa, as she wrapped up remarks, conscious that her reputation preceded her. Moments later, the crowd would have the opportunity to get a reading on her, though not the type her staff wanted.

During the question and answer period, Randall Rolph, a retired Democratic voter from Nashua, Iowa, confronted Clinton on her vote in favor of a U.S. Senate resolution calling on the Bush administration to declare Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. The measure has been greeted with suspicion by war critics who view it as a possible pretext for President Bush to launch an attack on Iran. In answering Rolph, Clinton implied he was a plant from another campaign, and referring to the text of the legislation he had read from, she said, “obviously somebody sent [it] to you.” He snapped back that he was offended by her suggestion, and she was forced to apologize.

Following the event, he explained to TAS that he was livid when Clinton insinuated he was a patsy for one of her rivals, because he had spent the morning doing his own research on government websites. “It was an insult,” he fumed. “It was basically calling me stupid. That I can’t think on my own. That I don’t have the ability to research or come up with a coherent or concrete thought on my own. How dare she!” He continued, “She never did answer the question. She just, what I say is, bitch-slapped me.”

Though the incident made headlines, it did not alter the larger media narrative that Clinton is running a flawless campaign.

HILLARY CLINTON’S NOTORIOUS ARROGANCE was one of the causes of the collapse of her health-care plan (which, with great chutzpah, she now cites as evidence she is battle-scarred). It is also central to her view of the role of government, in which the mommy state always knows best.

On May 5, 1994, Hillary Clinton went on CNN’s Larry King Live to take questions from callers during the battle over her health-care proposal. A college student from Austin, Texas, said he was uninsured by personal choice, and expressed concern over her plan’s requirement that he purchase health insurance. Always the charmer, Clinton told him that he could get into a car accident or wake up with a lump on his body the next week.

“You should be paying your fair share now, in your 20s, so that you will be taken care of,” she lectured him. “You will help bear the entire social cost of those hospitals that are there for you if you get picked up off the side of the road some night and need emergency care, because then, as you get older, as you reach the apparently very far goal of 30 or 40, and you maybe have your own family, then you will need this healthcare…”

Clinton was careful to avoid such displays of arrogance when she rolled out her new $110 billion a year health-care proposal in September. She set the stage by offering interviews to hand-picked columnists (including E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times) and presenting herself as a dedicated reformer who learned a lot from the failure of her first plan.

The media ate up the narrative of the new, humbler, Hillary. “She mixes self-deprecating laughter with meticulous analysis of interest-group politics to send one clear message: The Hillary Clinton of 2007 is a wiser, shrewder and more realistic politician than the first lady who tried and failed to pass her husband’s health plan in 1993 and 1994,” Dionne wrote. Brooks, who is supposed to be the conservative voice on the Times op-ed page, hailed the plan as “a huge step forward from 1993.”

Cleverly, Clinton’s plan co-opted the language of conservatives by emphasizing choice — it is even called the “American Heath Choices Plan.” But for all of the supposedly major accommodations in her new plan, it still rests on the same underlying assumptions about the role of government in controlling people’s lives.

When describing her plan, she tells audiences, “If you have health insurance, and you like it, you keep it, no questions asked,” as if she is being magnanimous by allowing individuals in a free society to maintain their own medical insurance. To insurers, she says, “You’re going to be able to stay in business, but here are the new rules,” as if it’s a major concession on her part to allow private enterprises to remain open in a free market economic system.

“Now I know my Republican opponents will try to equate health care for all Americans with government run health care,” she said in the speech announcing her plan. “Well, don’t let them fool us again. This is not government run.” The comment conjured up memories of Groucho Marx’s one-time admonition about an associate: “Chicolini here may talk like an idiot, and look like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.”

While it is technically true that her proposal would not create a socialized single-payer system, it is fair to say that it is a government-managed plan that, over time, would inevitably lead to a socialized system. Not only would it impose health insurance mandates on individuals and larger employers, but it would put so many restrictions on private insurers, that it is hard to see how they would remain in business for the long haul.

The plan would require insurers to provide coverage to everybody who applies, regardless of pre-existing conditions or risk factors, at a price the government deems “affordable.” But insurance companies exist to manage and price risk. If car insurers were required to provide low-cost auto coverage to motorists who have had licenses suspended multiple times for reckless driving, they would not remain in business for long. Similarly, the Clinton plan would eventually lead to the collapse of the private medical insurance market, even if she left it “intact” in the meantime for the purposes of selling the plan. Her proposal would also create a new government-run health-care program modeled after Medicare. This would set the stage for future liberal politicians to argue that with the private market in shambles, the only choice is to go to a fully socialized system.

HEALTH CARE IS JUST ONE AREA where Clinton promises to foster a maternal role for government in which the state exists to take care of its citizens. Her indictment of President Bush is centered on the idea that the Americans who are struggling in this country are “invisible” to him. “He doesn’t see what I see,” she brags. In her speeches, she promises to “reclaim the future for our children.” She blasts the President for not taking care of the victims of Hurricane Katrina and for vetoing an expansion of S-CHIP. In a bus tour through Iowa in October, she traveled aboard “The Middle Class Express,” which boasted the slogan “Rebuilding the Road to the Middle Class,” a metaphor right up there with her husband’s “Bridge to the 21st Century” in terms of its literary merit.

One way in which Clinton attempts to appear pro-military without alienating the antiwar left is to emphasize the need to provide proper care for soldiers returning home, a cause nobody would disagree with. In a possible preview of the general election, Clinton took out the first television ad to evoke imagery from September 11. While Rudy Giuliani won national praise for his mix of toughness, resolve, and compassion in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center, in the ad, it is Clinton portrayed in a surgical mask, along with dramatic black and white images of rescue workers, as the narrator says, “She stood by Ground Zero workers who sacrificed their health after so many sacrificed their lives.”

As the campaign progresses, Clinton has been rolling out plans to expand government one program after the other: a $50 billion energy fund; $25 billion a year for a retirement savings plan; $8 billion a year for college financial aid; a $1 billion a year expansion in family leave. All of these programs are “paid for” by repealing different aspects of the Bush tax cuts, and plucking branches from the Giving Tree embodied by wealthy Americans.

LIKE HER HEALTH-CARE PROPOSAL, Clinton’s other plans borrow some of the rhetoric of conservatives to make them seem less coercive. Ironically, her 401k-type retirement plan would provide up to $1,000 in matching tax credits to lower-income individuals who choose to invest, even though she still denounces the idea of voluntary Social Security personal accounts as a risky conservative scheme in which Americans would gamble their retirement on the stock market.

“That’s clearly one of the more schizophrenic aspects of the Clinton campaign, ” said Carrie Lukas, vice president for policy at the Independent Women’s Forum, of the contradiction. “But very few people seem to connect those dots. She seems to get away with it because nobody is playing close enough attention to the policy aspects.”

Despite Clinton’s best attempts to disguise her lust for augmenting the role of the government, when in front of liberal audiences it is sometimes hard for her to contain herself. Speaking at the Congressional Black Caucus’s Annual Legislative Conference, with Jesse Jackson in the audience, Clinton casually announced, “I like the idea of giving every baby born in America a $5,000 account that will grow over time so that when that young person turns 18, if they have finished high school they will be able to access it to go to college, or maybe they will be able to put a down payment on their first home, or go into business.”

The now infamous “baby bonds” concept, which would have created a new entitlement of more than $20 billion a year, was widely mocked, and a Rasmussen poll showed that by a 60 percent to 27 percent margin, Americans opposed it. Clinton quickly backed off, saying it was never an official policy proposal. “I have a million ideas,” she later told the Boston Globe. “The country can’t afford them all.”

In a fiery address to the Service Employees International Union last September, her collectivist impulses were on full display.

“They call their vision of government, ‘The Ownership Society,’” she snarled about conservatives. “And you know what that means, don’t you? They own it and everybody else works for it.”

“I call it the ‘You’re On Your Own Society,’” she remarked, and, showing herself to be a wordsmith on par with the Bard himself, noted “Take the first letter of ‘You’re On Your Own’ and it spells YoYo. That’s how they treat us. It’s like they’ve got the string and it’s just pulling you up and down.”

President Bush, she said, “turned back the clock on the entire 20th century.” She explained that he wants to return to the time of the Robber Barons “when employers could do whatever they wanted with employees, no questions asked. When government wasn’t even involved.”

“After the excesses of 100 years ago,” she said, “the modern progressive movement was born” and it “transformed our social welfare system and so much else.”

Likening herself to a modern-day Teddy Roosevelt, she observed, “The welfare of each of us is dependent fundamentally on the welfare of all of us.” And she promised, as president: “We will discard this so-called ‘Ownership, Yo-Yo Society’ and substitute a world made up together.”

ALTHOUGH SHE DESERVES CREDIT for running a strong campaign for the Democratic nomination, there is no doubt that if her name were merely Hillary Rodham, she would not even be a part of the conversation. As obvious as this is, it is important not to underestimate the importance of Bill Clinton to her campaign, especially among the Democratic electorate.

Not only does Hillary strategically deploy Bill for fundraising events and campaign videos, but she subtly integrates him into her appearances on the stump. The connection between her and Bill is so strong in voters’ minds, it doesn’t take much to drive the point home. “When this president came into office, we had a balanced budget and a surplus,” she said in Maquoketa, Iowa, “and I was proud of my husband for working those eight years to make that happen.”

In Webster City, she said, “When my husband left office, we were number one in the world in access to high-speed Internet, we’re now down to about 25th.” Interestingly, in New Hampton, Hillary off-handedly referred to “the prior Clinton Administration” as if in her mind it is already a foregone conclusion that there will be a second one.

At campaign stops, vendors sell buttons with slogans such as: “Miss Bill? Vote Hill”; “Bring Back Peace, Prosperity, and the Clintons”; “Bill Clinton for First Gentleman”; and the more casual “Bill Clinton for First Dude.” Democrats feel chummy with Bill, and they will often refer to him by his first name, or even by a nickname.

“I think she’d get some good information from her husband,” speculated Wayne Heiar of Charlotte, Iowa, who came to the Maquoketa event. “I thought right away that Billy Boy might help her out.”

In a sense, these two desires — to extend the Clinton dynasty and to elect a woman president — go hand in hand, as if the prospect of Bill Clinton being around to offer advice if needed provides an added layer of reassurance. It’s the political equivalent of Michael Corleone calming nerves when he took over the family business by saying, “Besides, if I ever need help, who’s a better consiglieri than my father?”

Keene Pickrel, who came to a Hillary Clinton rally in Marshalltown, Iowa, from a nearby home for veterans, wants to see a woman in the White House.

“I’m for women’s rights, and this is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Pickrel said. “If she could win this, if she could pull this baby off, it’d be great.” As if it were an added bonus, he predicted: “If Hillary goes in there and she has any trouble, Bill will help her out.”

While the affection for Bill may be providing a boost for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, it is unclear how the prospect of extending a two-family dynasty would play among the general electorate.

Hillary not only performed policy functions in her husband’s administration, but she was also a major player in many of the scandals that dominated the era, including Whitewater and Travelgate. If she decides to run on her husband’s record during the general election, “then that means she has to answer for his entire administration,” said Republican strategist Cheri Jacobus. “And why don’t we start with the fundraising scandals, since she seems to have a problem in that area in this campaign.”

In August, when major Clinton donor Norman Hsu was revealed to be a fugitive who had run an elaborate ponzi scheme, it brought back memories of the Clinton fundraising scandals of 1996. Further questions were raised in October when the Los Angeles Times reported that dishwashers and waiters living in Chinatown tenements had become a source of Clinton campaign cash. “It’s a double-edged sword for Hillary Clinton,” Jacobus said of Bill’s involvement in the campaign. “On the one hand, she wants to look strong and presidential, but every time she stands on the stage with her husband, she doesn’t look presidential, she looks more like a first lady. And I’m not sure that’s going to cut it on Election Day when people have to pull a lever for a commander in chief during wartime.”

Oddly, a casual exchange she had with Barbara Walters on The View could be quite revealing about how Hillary Clinton would approach the job of president. During a discussion of Bill’s role in a second Clinton administration, Walters asked, “Who’s gonna be first lady?” and joked, “You’ll have to do both.” Hillary responded, “You know, give a busy woman a job, I’ll probably have to do all of that as well.”

Having served just over a term in the Senate, Clinton is drawing on her time as first lady to present herself as more seasoned than her rivals. But just as she was said to have transformed the role of first lady by assuming policy responsibilities, she may transform the role of president by drawing on her ceremonial experiences as first lady. By merging the roles of first lady and president while maintaining her collectivist impulses, she could become the ultimate symbol of the modern caretaker government.

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