The opening of the Clinton Presidential Library on Nov. 18 seemed to mark a turning point, with Bill Clinton fading into the sepia-toned past while Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton solidified her place as the primary face of the political family.
Now Mrs. Clinton is living up to that impression, building a full-fledged political operation and bringing a major figure in national Democratic politics to the hub of Clinton campaign headquarters at K Street and Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C.
In January, former White House communications director Ann Lewis will be taking over at the offices of Mrs. Clinton’s fund-raising committees. Ms. Lewis has been a close advisor to Mrs. Clinton since their White House days. She said her arrival is a mark only of how seriously they’re taking the Senator’s 2006 re-election campaign. That’s a fight which, other former aides said, could prematurely end any hopes of a Presidential nomination two years later.
“What we’re going to do is get ready for 2006,” Ms. Lewis told The Observer in a telephone interview. Mrs. Clinton “put much of her own fund-raising on hold for the last half of 2004 and maybe a little bit longer, and the first job is making that the priority again, for a campaign that we know is going to be hard-fought and where a ton of money is going to be thrown at her.”
The 66-year old Ms. Lewis is a senior Washington player herself, who has held top jobs at Planned Parenthood and served as political director for the Democratic National Committee. She’s a unique figure among former top Clinton administration officials. After Mr. Clinton left office, instead of following most of her peers into lucrative consulting or lobbying jobs, she stayed active in party politics, running the Democratic National Committee’s Women’s Vote Center. (Ms. Lewis prefers to refer to women simply as “the majority of voters.”) It’s hard to think of another local politician with someone of Ms. Lewis’ stature on his or her own private political staff, and her appointment is a reminder that even if Mrs. Clinton renames the occasional Nanuet Post Office, the junior Senator will never be just another Senator from New York.
“That’s preparation for a national race,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant, of Ms. Lewis’ move. “They’re putting the players in place.”
Mrs. Clinton’s own national profile rose in the days surrounding the dedication of the Clinton Library in Little Rock, Ark. With her husband still weak from heart surgery, she emerged from the traditional quiet period after a national election to do the rounds on the softball talk-show circuit, doing the morning shows on Nov. 18, the day after she’d sat down with CNN’s Larry King and Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren and answered the inevitable questions about whether she would seek the Democratic nomination for President in 2008.
“This is a library about the Clinton Presidency, the Bill Clinton Presidency,” she demurred on Fox the day before the library opened, when asked whether there was space in the building for her own future.
With no visible strain, though, Mrs. Clinton has emerged as a star in the party and a force in the Senate, where she has quietly carved out a place well to the right of where her supporters and her critics alike expected to find her. A member of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, she has been a supporter of the war in Iraq, prompting President George W. Bush’s campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, to quip in a post-debate spin room that Senator John Kerry needed Mrs. Clinton “to reassure moderates and conservatives that Kerry’s not so liberal.”
She also quietly turned her personal fund-raising machine-consisting of long lists of mailing addresses, e-mail addresses and the private telephone numbers of major donors-toward the Democrats’ largely futile effort in 2004. HillPac spent $2.1 million in the 2004 cycle, helping to drive the Democratic Party’s finances, according to filings with the Federal Elections Commission. Mrs. Clinton’s top fund-raiser, Patti Solis Doyle, said that Mrs. Clinton’s committees gave $424,000 directly to federal and state candidates, and spent much of the rest on direct-mail appeals that raised “more than $10 million” for Mr. Kerry.
Mrs. Clinton spent $29.9 million on her 2000 race and has $5.3 million in her campaign account. She’s expected to spend at least as much in 2006 as she did in 2000. This time, a combination of increasing campaign costs and motivated Republicans have her backers ready for a battle royal, with the opponent to be named later. And even if Mrs. Clinton wins, a close, acrimonious campaign could leave her weakened.
“They’re going to try very hard to run a very tough race, and it’ll be a very negative race,” Ms. Lewis predicted.
New York Republicans-currently in the familiar, desperate scramble for a credible candidate-said they expect even a relative nonentity to avoid the fate of Assemblyman Howard Mills, who was trounced this year by Senator Charles Schumer after raising a tiny fraction of the Senator’s war chest.
“Fund-raising is going to be less of a challenge against Hillary than, for example, against Schumer,” said Michael McKeon, a Republican consultant. “A letter that says, ‘I’m running against Hillary. Please help,’ generates a broad response.”
Ms. Solis Doyle, the fund-raiser and Clinton advisor, recently departed from Mrs. Clinton’s political staff for a perch at the Glover Park Group, where she joined two advisors to the 2000 campaign, Howard Wolfson and Gigi Georges, in what some interpreted as an attempt to run a political operation “under the radar.”
But instead, Ms. Lewis’ arrival could sharply raise the profile of Mrs. Clinton’s political committees, HillPac and Friends of Hillary. (Mrs. Clinton uses the former to raise money for other candidates, the latter for her own campaign.) Ms. Solis Doyle is a discreet, behind-the-scenes political player whose name appears very rarely in print. Ms. Lewis is a seasoned public figure, familiar from cable television during the 2004 election and, above all, from the bitter fights of Mr. Clinton’s second term in the White House.
Then, Ms. Lewis was the sweetly smiling, pearl-draped and-what’s the female version of “avuncular”? Oh, yes-materteral front-line warrior in the bitterest political combat of the 1990’s. A native of Bayonne, N.J., who arrived in Washington by way of Radcliffe College and Americans for Democratic Action, she was the chief spokeswoman for the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1996 before assuming the senior role in the crucible of the second term. By 1996, she had become a conservative target, with a Washington Times op-ed titled “Ann Lewis’ Problem With the Truth” accusing her of being (gasp) “the Clintons’ chief Whitewater propagandist.”
That was just a taste of things to come: Soon, she’d be defending her boss against charges that he had groped Kathleen Willey. By January of 1998, backed by Mr. Clinton’s strenuous private denials, she would be leading a strategy session aimed at turning the Monica Lewinsky scandal into a war with Kenneth Starr and the Republican right, according to The Washington Post.
“We’re in for a protracted struggle,” she predicted, accurately, at the time. “It has all the elements of a long-term battle.”
When the scandal expanded with Mr. Clinton’s admission that he had lied, Ms. Lewis and her brother, Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank, emerged as two of Mr. Clinton’s staunchest defenders in the brutal, ultimately successful fight to keep the President in office.
Ms. Lewis left the White House to work on Mrs. Clinton’s first campaign after becoming part of the First Lady’s inner circle of advisors, a group that has remained in place.
“The network that she’s had in the White House and on the campaign is still there, and it’s still very tight,” said a former aide to Mrs. Clinton.
It’s a heavily female group; while Mrs. Clinton lost some of her feminist edge in the White House, she’s kept it behind the scenes, and the women around her, like Ms. Lewis, remain sharply aware that men continue to dominate much of politics.
“If you think of politics as a sport, it is likely to be male-dominated,” she told a reporter who’d used that metaphor. “Politics is: Can you get the job done? Do you understand how important this is to people’s lives? It’s not running across an end zone and doing a little victory dance.”
Former campaign aides said they expect Mrs. Clinton to repeat her “listening-tour” campaign of 2000, with which she effectively defused many voters’ suspicions. The open question, though, is whether a low-key, personal appeal that has worked inside the Beltway and in the state can spill out into the country at large and make Mrs. Clinton President.
The wars of the 1990’s leave Ms. Lewis as well-positioned as anyone to evaluate Mrs. Clinton’s potential to win over old enemies.
“There are some people, and I use the word ‘some’-I just do not want to confuse their volume, which tends to be intense and shrill, with their depth, because it tends to be a very narrow segment of people-who cannot be convinced,” she said. But Ms. Lewis held out hope that Mrs. Clinton could do on a national level what she has done in New York and the Senate: lose her demonic sheen in the eyes of moderates and even some conservatives.
“Most Americans are more pragmatic than that,” said Ms. Lewis. “They take their political decisions more seriously than that.”
In the meantime, Ms. Lewis is practicing her answers to the inevitable questions about 2008.
“Those decisions are a long way away; let’s just do it this way,” she told The Observer. “I can do the jobs I set out to do, but trying to manage other people’s expectations is way beyond me.”