On the evening of Dec. 15, in the Upper East Side apartment of Democratic donor Sally Minard, Hillary Clinton rose to address a crowd of about 50 supporters. Mrs. Clinton began with an anecdote about a meeting earlier that evening with her longtime nemesis, Rush Limbaugh, according to people in attendance.
Mrs. Clinton recounted that she had been at a wedding in Brooklyn, where she was introduced to Mr. Limbaugh by the bride’s father, Jewish activist Malcolm Hoenlein. Mr. Limbaugh informed her that he owed her an apology. Where, she wondered, would he begin?
A laugh arose from the audience, which included media executive John Sykes, political power couple Sarah and Victor Kovner, fund-raiser Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, and long-time friend-of-the-Clintons Susan Thomases. Mr. Limbaugh’s apology, it turned out, was for talking about Mrs. Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, on his show. She accepted.
Then Mrs. Clinton got down to business. She expressed “hope” that she would be named after the New Year as chairman of the Senate Steering Committee-a party-leadership role that will afford her greater involvement in helping to shape the Democratic attack on the G.O.P. leading up to 2004. In reality, Mrs. Clinton is all but certain to get the gig, and her impending appointment is common knowledge. But it has yet to be formally announced, and she has been careful to avoid public discussion of her role.
Here among friends, however, Mrs. Clinton began to demonstrate some of the ways in which she plans to use her new position. Speaking forcefully, she criticized Democrats for their lack of organization and urged them instead to follow the example of conservative strategist Grover Norquist, whose weekly strategy sessions, she said, produced material for right-leaning commentators such as Fox personalities Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly.
“She talked about the need to do something about the fact that the Democrats weren’t getting out a coherent message,” said one attendee. “She said the Democrats needed to improve their research and polling, and used the [outgoing Georgia Senator Max] Cleland race as an example of the Republicans being more effective at it.”
Mrs. Clinton also echoed recent statements by former Vice President Al Gore and her husband, lamenting the lack of an effective Democratic response to what she described as the dissemination of Republican talking points to sympathetic members of the media. “She talked about Grover Norquist having weekly meetings with other conservatives, coming up with talking points, and getting them picked up by Hannity and O’Reilly and others,” said the attendee. “She was almost admiring-she thinks that Democrats should do the same thing.”
Mrs. Clinton also said that she would be able to play a bigger role in producing the Democratic response, and that she hoped a confirmation of the position would come through within the next few days.
Mrs. Clinton’s role in the party leadership will represent something of a departure from her first two years in office, during which time she took pains not to upstage her Senate colleagues, even as she quietly helped candidates across the country with her unparalleled fund-raising ability. As head of the Steering Committee, she’ll take on a greater public role in shaping the Democrats’ message by helping other Senators coordinate press events, formulate legislative strategy and do constituent outreach to core supporters.
“This will definitely give her even more of a platform than she already has,” said Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner of Brooklyn. “She came in as sort of the outside celebrity Senator, but now, as head of Steering, she’s also going to be a spokesman for her colleagues.”
Clinton spokeswoman Karen Dunn declined to comment on any specific aspect of the story, but said: “Senator Clinton has always spoken with her colleagues, supporters and others in the Democratic Party about ways to advance New York State’s interests by promoting progressive policies.” Mr. Limbaugh, through a spokesman, declined to comment on his meeting with Mrs. Clinton. A Fox spokesman declined to comment.
A Logical Choice
In many ways, Mrs. Clinton is a logical choice for the leadership post, which is being relinquished by John Kerry as he prepares for his 2004 Presidential run. She is America’s most recognizable Senator. Thanks to her deferential conduct and financial generosity, she has developed excellent relations with her Democratic colleagues. And she has improved her own communications skills so much since the days of the “listening tour” that she has come to be regarded as one of the Senate’s most effective advocates for Democratic causes.
And, of course, for all her affable displays of bipartisanship since becoming a Senator, Mrs. Clinton is no stranger to ideological battle. Few will forget that it was she who decried a “vast right-wing conspiracy” at the height of impeachment proceedings against her husband, after which she campaigned to great effect across the country against many of Mr. Clinton’s Republican tormentors.
Mr. Weiner predicted that she would play an aggressive role in helping the party do battle for the hearts and minds of the American electorate. “I think she is a practitioner of the recently articulated Bill Clinton doctrine of being strong on defense and supportive of the President on foreign affairs, and hit ’em in the muscle on everything else,” Mr. Weiner said. “I think she learned firsthand the importance of hand-to-hand media combat, and I think she also served in an administration in the 90’s that was masterful in using media to win. We’ve been losing these battles ever since Bill Clinton left the White House.”
The real question is whether Mrs. Clinton will be able to change that losing dynamic. Mr. Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform, said that Mrs. Clinton was right-sort of-about the effectiveness of his organization. “We have a meeting with 115 people each Wednesday,” he said. “It includes conservative journalists, people from government, people from the Republican Party, people from the various active parts of the coalition-and you just want to make sure that everyone knows what everyone else is doing. It’s not quite as formulaic as she would imagine. It’s ‘We’re working on this-I wanted you to know about it,’ and the writers in the room say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting,’ and then they write about it. It’s not some set of talking points; it’s that people internalize the points.”
But Mr. Norquist doubted that Mrs. Clinton-or anyone-would be able to have a comparable impact for the Democrats.
“We are complimented that she would make that observation, but reasonably confident that the left can’t do what we do, because their coalition is structured differently than ours,” he said. “When I put together 115 people at our Wednesday meeting, we have the gun people and the tax people and the home-schoolers and the various communities of faith, and everyone just wants to be left alone. So we can be friends, because as long as the Christians don’t steal anyone’s guns, and the property owners don’t throw condoms at the Christians’ kids, we can all be friends. Our coalition doesn’t want anything at anyone’s expense.
“The left,” Mr. Norquist continued, “is a collection of competing parasites: the labor unions, the trial lawyers, the big-city political machines, the people who are locked into welfare dependency …. They are not friends; they are competitors for divvying up the assets that the state organizes. They’ll never be able to work together as cheerfully as we do.”