President George W. Bush stood in Times Square the other day carrying a sign. It read: “Hillary 2008.”
Granted, George W. Bush was made of wax. “He” was on hand for the Feb. 16 unveiling of a Hillary Clinton figure at Madame Tussaud’s, where photographers tramped the red, white and blue balloons while volunteers assembled by a public-relations agency chanted Mrs. Clinton’s name.
But amid all the mock enthusiasm, the waxwork Bush’s endorsement of “Hillary 2008” may have contained an unintentional kernel of truth. What one Republican strategist called “a marriage of convenience” has developed between Mrs. Clinton and the Bush White House. Republicans, flailing for a handhold as they approach this year’s Congressional elections, would like to make Mrs. Clinton the face of the Democratic Party. And Mrs. Clinton, who has eagerly engaged the Republican attacks, would apparently like that, too.
“It’s a rare confluence where both sides think it’s in their interest to pump up Hillary,” said U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner of Brooklyn. “Politics in 2006 is the politics of personification …. They need their bogeywoman.”
Under this theory, the Republicans need Mrs. Clinton to distract and scare conservatives disappointed by rising federal spending and disillusioned by the Iraq war. And Democrats—at least those who want Mrs. Clinton to be President—get to see their candidate rise above the messy intramural battles and go toe-to-toe with the President of the United States.
“Both sides get something out of it,” said Republican strategist Nelson Warfield, who was the spokesman for Bob Dole’s 1996 Presidential campaign. “Hillary gets to elevate her stature, and we [Republicans] get a more contemporary devil-figure than Teddy Kennedy.”
So the attempt to make Mrs. Clinton a symbol of the Democratic Party works for everyone. Everyone, that is, except some of the Democrats running for Congress. From the Hudson Valley to New Mexico, Democratic Congressional candidates—particularly women lawyers—say their opponents see in Mrs. Clinton a line of attack. A Senate candidate in Missouri, Claire McCaskill, found her spokesman forcefully denying a report that Mrs. Clinton would help her raise money in the face of Republican criticism. In upstate New York, the campaign of Republican incumbent John Sweeney has attacked challenger Kirsten Gillibrand for her ties to Mrs. Clinton, and a similar pattern has emerged in a closely watched House race in New Mexico.
“In her stump speeches, she does attempt to partner me up with Hillary Clinton,” said New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid, speaking of the Republican incumbent, U.S. Representative Heather Wilson. “They are always going to attack Hillary Clinton. They throw in Hillary gratuitously. They have always tried to paint her as an out-of-the-mainstream liberal …. I think they are trying to say that I am liberal just like Hillary Clinton.”
Ms. Madrid said she admires Mrs. Clinton and doubts that comparisons to the New York Senator will hurt her. But Republican strategists say that linking their opponents to Mrs. Clinton is a tried-and-true strategy, though perhaps a tactic of last resort.
“There’s not much about what the Republicans have done that excites anyone, so I guess they’ll have to go with Hillary. You’ll see more and more of it,” said Richard Viguerie, the father of conservative direct-mail campaigning, who has criticized President Bush from the right. “If they can demonize the Democrats, that may cause people not to focus on their own shortcomings.”
The attempt—both by the White House and by the Senator herself—to make Mrs. Clinton the face of the Democratic Party isn’t such a stretch. To many Americans, she already is.
An NBC/ Wall Street Journal poll taken in late January found that 31 percent of Americans, and 34 percent of Democrats, see Mrs. Clinton as “the voice of the Democratic Party.” And perhaps sensing her rising national stature, Mrs. Clinton began the year on a combative note. She has moved from critical support for the war in Iraq to a fuzzy sort of opposition. She hammered the administration’s handling of policy matters from Medicaid to the Hurricane Katrina response. Speaking on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Harlem, she called the Bush administration “one of the worst that has ever governed our country” and compared Republican leaders in Congress to plantation owners.
It “sounds like the political season may be starting early,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan responded, just before his side launched the most openly political assault of the 2008 campaign season.
On the first Sunday in February, after another round of Katrina recriminations and before Vice President Dick Cheney’s hunting accident, Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman took issue with Mrs. Clinton on ABC’s This Week. “I don’t think the American people, if you look historically, elect angry candidates,” he said. “And whether it’s the comments about the plantations or the worst administration in history, Hillary Clinton seems to have a lot of anger.”
On Feb. 13, First Lady Laura Bush got in on the act, casting Mrs. Clinton more in the light of a betrayed First Lady than an ambitious Senator and suggesting that she lacks “empathy.”
“Laura Bush does not jump out in front of television cameras and just say things off the top of her head,” said conservative strategist Grover Norquist, who is close to the administration. He speculated that “raising Hillary’s visibility” would make electoral sense. “The Republicans need you to be voting against the alternative as much as for the incumbents.”
Mrs. Clinton has, in any case, taken up the gauntlet. To Mrs. Bush, she answered, “I would not be doing my job if I were not asking some of these tough questions and raising some of these criticisms …. I profoundly disagree with the direction that the administration is taking the country.”
Mrs. Clinton’s aides and other Democrats saw a danger in the attack on her as “angry” and assume that it’s the beginning of a long, repetitive character assault of the kind that branded her husband a liar, Al Gore a serial exaggerator and John Kerry a flip-flopper—a tactic that Democratic media consultant David Axelrod called “long-term character assassination.”
“They’re road-testing a message,” said Harold Ickes, an advisor to Mrs. Clinton. He declined to speculate on whether it would work, or to assess the analysis of his old rival, Clinton apostate Dick Morris, that the attack could limit her ability to campaign. (“Dick Morris is a lying cocksucker,” he offered.)
But the attacks also represent an opportunity. They mute the internal criticism from Hollywood Democrats and online liberals who see Mrs. Clinton as ideologically impure. Despite some enthusiasm on liberal Web sites like the Huffington Post, Mrs. Clinton’s would-be challenger in a Democratic primary, Jonathan Tasini, reported just 22 donors to his campaign in his first filing in January.
With her own re-election practically assured, then, Mrs. Clinton’s electoral test this fall could be the Congressional races in which Republicans try to tie her to their opponents. And while some Democratic Congressional candidates worry about Mrs. Clinton’s high profile, others see the Senator as an unalloyed asset in a year when Democrats are hoping to sweep to power on national disaffection with Republican leadership.
“The fact that she stepped it up and really present[s] the Democrats with a strong alternative is a good thing for the party and all of us running out there,” said Joe Courtney, a Democrat running for Congress in Connecticut. “The more Democrats are seen as presenting a strong national message, the better.”
Republicans, increasingly resigned to fighting a national election, see benefits in Mrs. Clinton delivering that national message. But it could be a dangerous strategy, warned Congressman Weiner.
“I would say to [the Republicans], ‘Be careful what you wish for,’” Mr. Weiner said. “Because she is formidable.”