Is Hillary the Republican-slayer she claims to be?

November 21, 2007|By THOMAS F. SCHALLER

"For 15 years I have stood up against the right-wing machine, and I've come out stronger," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said at a Democratic presidential debate this year. "So if you want a winner who knows how to take them on, I'm your girl."

Again and again, Mrs. Clinton tells Democratic primary voters she can win the 2008 general election because she knows how to fight the Republicans. And it's true that probably no contemporary public figure outside her marriage has more experience fighting Republicans.

But fighting is not the same as winning. The truth is that Hillary Clinton's win-loss record in political conflicts with the Republicans isn't so great.

Yes, she handily won both of her Senate contests in New York. But her adopted home state isn't exactly unfavorable partisan terrain, and her opponents were none too impressive.

Of course, Mrs. Clinton's boasts are less about this decade than the last. So, how well did the Clintons fare against Republicans, the conservative movement and what Mrs. Clinton called the "vast, right-wing conspiracy"?

After the eight-year Clinton reign, the Republicans were in better shape. In January 1993, the Republicans were in the minority in Congress, among governors and even in state legislative chambers. By January 2001, they boasted majorities in all three. Plenty of Democrats who lost races during the 1994 "Republican Revolution" have painful memories of the Clintons' early-term political blunders on gays in the military and health care reform.

Nor was much progress made in the 1990s closing the ideological infrastructure gap. After Al Gore's defeat in 2000, the Clintons raised millions of dollars for organizations like David Brock's Media Matters for America and the John Podesta-led Center for American Progress. But the failure to build these institutions when the Clintons held the White House must have tickled congressional Republicans already giddily constructing their formidable K Street Project.

To be fair, the Clintons faced some rather inconvenient distractions, like Ken Starr and those pesky House impeachment managers. But, given the impunity with which the Bush-Cheney administration has sanctioned torture and warrantless wiretapping, the inability of two Yale-educated lawyers and their hired heavies to avoid a perjury trap over a personal indiscretion doesn't exactly testify to the Clintons' political dexterity - his vaunted political skills notwithstanding.

Bush operatives Karl Rove and Andy Card understood better than Clinton aides George Stephanopolous or Mack McLarty how best to wield White House power for political or partisan gain.

Despite major policy achievements - the 1993 budget package, the 1995 Dayton Accords, the 1997 minimum wage increase - the Clintons had few political knockouts. Victories in the wake of the 1995 government shutdown and the failed impeachment attempt resulted more from GOP overreach than strategic, proactive haymakers thrown by Bill and Hillary.

But enough about the Clintons, plural: After all, we're talking about her candidacy, not his administration. So which political victories, exactly, is Hillary Clinton touting? Has 15 years of fending off Republican attacks made her a powerful, partisan heavyweight or a beleaguered punching bag? John Edwards and Sen. Barack Obama dare only to flirt with such questions.

"Part of the reason that Republicans, I think, are obsessed with you, Hillary, is because that's a fight they're very comfortable having," Mr. Obama said during the recent debate in Philadelphia. "I mean, another perspective on why the Republicans keep talking about Senator Clinton is, Senator, they may actually want to run against you," echoed Mr. Edwards.

Maybe Mr. Edwards and Mr. Obama fear attacking Mrs. Clinton's political record would be viewed as criticizing her husband, who remains wildly popular among Democrats. And maybe they can't claim any Republican scalps of their own.

Hillary Clinton is tough, but she's no Republican-slayer. On the other hand, if Mrs. Clinton's Democratic rivals won't challenge her claims about roughing up the Republicans, it proves she's tougher than they are.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is schaller67@gmail.com.

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