Our Hillary, Happy at Last

Sometimes all Hillary Clinton has to do is show up.

On a recent Saturday, for example, she dropped into the Broome County Democratic Party’s annual breakfast, as she has for the past three years. She choked down some ham and eggs. She talked a little bit about policy. She recognized some local officials in the crowd. She urged them all to watch the new Crossfire . When she finished, virtually everyone in the room surged around her, asking her for autographs and pictures as an aide desperately tried to maneuver her towards an exit.

But in other settings, her star power alone doesn’t doesn’t count for quite as much. At a question-and-answer forum in the small Southern Tier town of Owego, N.Y., the Senator and an “agricultural advisory board” she had convened were taking questions from a group of farmers from the area. This was not a Hillary crowd. As she listened to their tales of economic hardship, she assumed an exaggerated expression of sympathy, nodding and taking extensive notes. Then she responded, with a litany of soundbite-free detail about her legislative prescriptions for each problem. She talked about the evils of milk-protein concentrate (“the M.P.C. issue,” she termed it), described the difficulty of competing with states that produce “fungible row crops,” and documented what she called “outrageous” violations of agricultural free trade by Canadian provinces. After a while the farmers were nodding back at her, approving of her fluency in their business and her understanding of their day-to-day problems. By the time she finished, they, too, rose to their feet, swarming towards her in hopes of exchanging a quick word with the former First Lady.

With her highest-ever approval rate among New York voters, uncharacteristically positive appraisals from the media and growing popularity among her colleagues on Congress, Hillary Clinton seems to have figured out a winning political formula. She is using her unique status as the nation’s foremost celebrity-politician, accepting the mantle of standard-bearer for the New York Democratic Party and using it to strengthen her political base. At the same time, she has taken the technocratic obsessiveness that characterized her first, unsuccesful forays into national policy-making as First Lady and trained it on New York, immersing herself in a host of ideologically neutral and often mind-numbing issues from cross-border apple policy to gene-mapping. Her past stumbles have been exhaustively documented, and her long-term plans remain the subject of furious (if uninformed) speculation-but for now, Senator Hillary is ascendant.

“She’s in unbelievable shape, politically,” said Republican Congressman Peter King of Long Island. “She’s doing everything right. She’s already a celebrity, and she’s smart enough to know that she doesn’t have to act like one. She can just be the workhorse, the wonk that she’s comfortable being, and she still gets the headlines. She’s getting the best of both worlds.”

Upstate Democrats say that even her improved poll figures-a Quinnipiac poll in mid-April showed her with a 58 percent approval rating, up 20 points from a year earlier-do no justice to the sea change in what had been the heart of Hillary-hating country two years ago. “Most people here are Republicans, and a lot of them had nothing good to say about Hillary when she was running,” said Mike Najerian, chairman of the Broome County Democratic party. “Now they’re either saying nothing at all, or even that maybe she’s doing a good job. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you consider what these people usually say about Democrats, it’s pretty good.”

For her part, Mrs. Clinton predictably demurred on the subject of her popularity, saying that she prefers to leave such ephemeral things to “the pundits.” In an interview conducted in her Ford Explorer en route to a supporters’ dinner in Elmira, she told The Observer that she feels she’s making progress, but still has lot to learn. ” I don’t think there’s an end point to the process,” she said.

She added, however, that she believes that more people are listening these days to what she has to say. “I think people are really aware of a lot of the issues I’m working on, and they’re certainly showing up at events where I appear to talk to me and ask questions,” she said. “A lot of times, it’s the first time people ever get to meet me.”

She also conceded, sort of, that her celebrity helps her when she’s talking about obscure policy initiatives. “I think that’s part of it. I really do try to bring attention to issues I think are important to New York.”

Growing Influence

Of course, Mrs. Clinton’s outwardly solicitous and modest manner belie her growing political influence-not only within the state, but nationally. She already has established herself as one of the most effective Democratic fund-raisers in the country, raising more than $1.3 million, and has won friends by giving away large chunks of it to Democratic candidates across the country. And her national media profile as junior Senator from New York has only grown since the attacks on the World Trade Center. “I wasn’t planning to do too much national press, but once Sept. 11 happened, I thought it was really important for me to be one of those voices telling the country what New York’s needs are,” she said.

Not that the Senator is reluctant to take the opportunity to state her views on matters beyond the borders of New York state. Talking about the situation in the Middle East, for example, she said: “I’m supporting the government and people of Israel who are under assault, and that’s something I would be doing were I not the Senator from New York. But now I have a platform from which I can make my views known. You know, I think that certainly being from New York gives you outlets that maybe other people in elective office elsewhere in the country don’t have. New York City is the global media capital, it’s the global financial capital, so perhaps there’s an amplification or an echo on this and other issues-which is great, because if you feel strongly about something, like I do, you can be heard.”

Of course, Mrs. Clinton’s rapidly growing political influence raises a couple of questions, one of which is that of the role she intends to play in state politics. Senator Charles Schumer’s victory over Republican incumbent Alfonse D’Amato in 1998 made him something of a gritty hero among much of the state party rank and file, yet Mr. Schumer has taken little interest in the party’s internal politics since winning office. By contrast, some political observers have expected that Mrs. Clinton would assert some leadership over a party that suffered a racially charged Mayoral primary in New York last year-leading to a lost general election-and faces another bitter primary contest in this year’s gubernatorial race. Asked if she envisioned a larger role for herself, she demurred. “We have a vigorous Democratic Party,” she said. “We’ve always had one downstate, now increasingly we’ve got one upstate, and that’s exciting. But it’s also true, that old saw about ‘Are you a member of any organized political party?-No, I’m a Democrat.’ It goes with the territory. It’s sometimes like herding cats, and you just have to work hard for your candidates and stand up for your issues, and it’ll sort itself out.”

But Senator, isn’t that a little optimistic? “Well, I’m an optimistic person.”

If Mrs. Clinton knows better than to get too close to local party intrigue, she is proving to be equally adept at avoiding ideological labels. While she is outspokenly Democratic, it’s difficult to define the sort of Democrat she is. Talking to the farmers, for example, Mrs. Clinton displayed her populist liberal side. “I come from a perspective where you’ve got to find a balance of power, no matter where it is-in the public or the private sector,” she said. “There’s got to be a way to get more of a balance by taking on large, concentrated power centers.”

But this is the same person who spent much of the remainder of the day talking about standing behind our troops abroad, fighting terror at home and even … cutting governmental programs. “I’m not for keeping programs just to keep programs,” she insisted at one public forum later in the day. “If it’s not working, get rid of it and use the money for something else.”

No Hot Buttons

What’s more, most of the issues that she has chosen to focus on are hardly of the hot-button ideological variety, providing little guidance as to any underlying ideological agenda. Most of her energy, for now, is spent on initiatives to improve security around the nation’s power plants, to study the links between environmental pollutants and disease, to monitor compliance with North American Free Trade Agreement, or to ensure funding for states with a heavy Medicare burden, to name a few. These are subjects that require diligence and a grasp of detail more than any boldness or vision.

But maybe that’s the point. It may just be that this sort of quiet, inoffensive efficiency-reminiscent of her winning electoral strategy in 2000-is exactly what New Yorkers are looking for from her. “She’s carried over the low-key approach that worked for her during the campaign,” said Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. “She doesn’t plunge herself into the middle of controversies; she doesn’t try to pre-empt Chuck Schumer. Her approach is really consistent with the mood of New York after 9/11.”

To her supporters, her approach is simplicity itself-no more or less than what she set out to do from the very beginning of her New York adventure. “She’s doing what she said she was going to do,” said Howard Wolfson, the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who worked on her campaign. “She ran on specific policy proposals, and now she’s carrying them to the Senate.”

For her political foes, however, there still is little doubt that Mrs. Clinton is up to something more insidious. “It seems to me that she still has a bigger agenda than just being Senator from New York,” said Brooklyn Conservative Party chairman Gerry Kassar, who worked on the campaign of Mrs. Clinton’s opponent, Representative Rick Lazio. “I notice that she likes to address large, philosophical issues designed to absorb an incredibly large amount of the women’s vote-like children’s issues and health care. I think she’s much more interested in becoming a spokesman for a liberal women’s movement nationwide than on doing what’s best for New York.”

Late in her day on New York’s Southern Tier, Mrs. Clinton found herself talking to a bunch of local educators and parents at a school in Elmira. Again, Mrs. Clinton talked at length, in wonky, detail-laden cadences, about funding for special education, farm policy and links between disease and pollution. Again, after she finished, she got the rock-star treatment, surrounded instantly by a friendly mob of star-struck constituents. She eventually made it out the door, trailed by her ever-present Secret Service detail, piling into her truck to speed to her last event of the day-a dinner with local supporters at Elmira’s Hill Top Inn, home to the world’s largest Christmas-light shamrock.

The truck pulled away from the school. Smiles on the faces of a pair of school employees were still discernible through the tinted rear window. “I think we’re making progress,” said Mrs. Clinton.