Learning From Hillary


Don't write off the Clinton presidency as a failure yet. The Comeback Kid still has a few more political lives left in him.

In Cleveland on Monday and Chicago yesterday, President Clinton was in his element, extending his arms to adoring crowds and promising to defend middle class values against ravenous Washington lobbyists. That is where he belongs, talking to the people, assuring them that he understands their needs, and reminding them why they voted for him. He should not forget that George Bush's popularity plunge was the product of his seemingly callous remoteness from the populace. ("Message: I care" didn't cut it.)

Until recently, Clinton has shown a brilliant ability to learn from the successes and failures of his predecessors. He used the Dukakis campaign as a how-not-to case study, and after the election he indicated that he would do the same with the Carter presidency. Initially, he seemed to enjoy Lyndon Johnson's rapport with Congress and Ronald Reagan's popularity among the electorate. And the first-hundred-days legislative agenda he proposed promised to rival Franklin Roosevelt's. But there is one person whose playbook he has neglected to borrow: his wife.

While her husband has been holed up in the White House realizing how overwhelming his job actually is, Hillary Rodham Clinton has been burnishing her public image and readying the political ground for the massive health care reform package she will soon present. With two essential constituencies--Congress and the public--her strategy has been almost everything Bill Clinton's should be. (I say almost because she has insisted upon hiding from the public not only her task force's deliberations, but also its innocuous "fact-gathering" sessions--even to the point of resorting to illogical legal arguments.)

With Congress, the president got a good start, but things have not taken long to deteriorate. Soon after the election, he journeyed to Capitol Hill a couple of times for congenial sessions that were typically described in the press as "love-fests." He impressed legislators by knowing their names and speaking in complete sentences, qualities often lacking in Reagan and Bush, respectively. And the goodwill continued through the introduction of his ambitious budget proposal, with Congress congratulating him on making tough choices and then hastening to pass a blueprint of the plan.


But senators and representatives are finicky, self-important and reluctant to make changes that might require the smallest amount of political courage. They need a combination of persistent prodding and frequent flattery or they lose their enthusiasm for action. Lacking the strong Democratic majorities in both houses that LBJ enjoyed, Clinton can't afford to offend many legislators from either party. So his partisan approach to his $16 billion budget stimulus was a stupid political move, and the Republican filibuster that killed it was a predictable slap in the face to a politician who should have known better. Similarly, Clinton should have expected Sam Nunn to turn to immature power games when the president failed to consult with him about ending the military's ban on homosexuals.

Unlike the president, Hillary Clinton has appeared cautiously aware of the consequences of insulting the pompous politicians on the Hill. By the Washington Post's count, she has met at least fifty times with members of Congress in both houses and both parties. With a mix of courtesy ("Yes, Congressman"), warmth (she hugged House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski) and blunt honesty (she warned legislators that sin taxes alone could not finance health care reform), she has generally won high marks and--more important--respect. While the president has made members of Congress feel isolated and ignored, his wife has catered to the fragile congressional egos by making legislators feel included in the process of crafting health care policy.

In her relations with the public as well, the First Lady (or, more appropriately, the Second President) has played Ronald Reagan's game far better than her husband. The Reagan strategy was to "go over the heads" of Congress and directly to the people. He cultivated so much popular support for his agenda that legislators feared they would be punished at the polls if they opposed him. In short, Reagan negotiated with members of Congress in the language they understand best--the selfish and survivalist language of re-election.

Hillary Clinton has shown the same ability to build public empathy for her efforts and gain the people's trust for her intentions. Before even unveiling her health care plan, she has been energetically promoting her goals with numerous speaking appearances and town meetings in several states. It is no coincidence that she appeared on the covers of Time, People and Family Circle just weeks before she is scheduled to announce the health care proposal. Hillary Clinton knows the importance of reassuring the public that she understands their concerns and that she can be trusted to address them.

Her husband, meanwhile, rarely ventured out in public during his first three months in office, and he often disappointed the press with his inaccessibility. As a result, his economic plan--which was greeted with widespread support when he introduced it--has suffered a plunge in popularity, as the sound of Clinton courageously beckoning Americans to sacrifice has stopped ringing in the people's ears.

Nonetheless, anyone who is preparing the last rites for this presidency doesn't know Bill Clinton. The man was declared politically dead after the Gennifer Flowers fiasco, after the Vietnam draft dodging debacle and after mud-wrestling with Jerry Brown in the New York primary--but he kept bouncing back. Most likely, he will do so again.

Only three months into his presidency, Clinton has already begun assessing his style, rearranging his staff and realigning his priorities. He has a tendency to learn lessons well: As late as June 1992, pundits complained that he was unable to concentrate on a single message and thus had little chance of winning widespread support. But by November, the same critics were hailing his brilliant ability to focus on the economy.

So don't start predicting the 1996 election results yet. President Clinton's return to the campaign trail this week may have been long overdue, but it certainly was not too late. He still has time to be another Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In attempting to emulate the strategies of other politicians, President Clinton has overlooked one very successful role model: his wife.