Thanks for Listening, Hil, Now What Do You Think?

“I am a victim of Nafta,” Reva Rudy stood up and said into the microphone that had been passed to her during the listening session held on Aug. 4 at the Crawford Furniture factory in Jamestown, N.Y. Pantsuited in peach and impressively briefed on the particulars of upstate economic blight, Hillary Rodham Clinton was also braced to meet the press for the first time after her famous talk with Talk . Sure enough, it was her flawlessly serene sail through another gust of scandal that provided the story of the day.

But as far as subjects that the First Lady cannot stifle on the grounds of good taste, it was Ms. Rudy who posed the question of the campaign. This was true not because of what she asked, but of how she asked it, and of who she was. She was an invited guest, a Democrat from nearby Sinclair who once headed the local of the textile workers union; hardly one of those Hillary haters who get off from work to wave aborted-fetus or “Don’t BlameGrandma” posters at the Secret Service agents waiting for their hot-button boss to come and go. For those open to, but not reflexively ecstatic about, the idea of Senator Clinton, it was the First Lady’s response to this sort of person that would either stir or silence doubts about her candidacy.

Anyway, Ms. Rudy went on to describe how her women friends had been thrown out of work since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement; how this was a doubly bitter blow, given that the steel industry had already spit out many of their husbands; and how, in light of the fact that she was currently employed, she counted herself lucky, but not that lucky. “That’s $1,000 less a month I’m living on,” she said.

And the First Listener said: “Thank you very much.”

Hint to Hillary: Keep empathy pills in pocket so as to pop constantly.

It was probably sexist, but completely automatic, to see this moment as a snapshot of the stylistic contrast between the Clintons; to marvel how the bubba back in D.C. would never have left that stone of sympathy so frankly unturned. (He might have fudged the question, of course, but he would have fudged it caringly.) The more relevant contrast, though, may have been one that involved only the missus: the contrast between the level of substance she emanates and the level of substance she embodies. Having spent her summer listening at top volume, Mrs. Clinton clearly wants New York to know that she is not deaf. She does not seem to mind a bit, however, if we end up assuming that she is mute.

Well, not entirely: Mrs. Clinton is more than willing to give voice on points of obvious political advantage (she is for the dairy compact, for welfare reform; against the manifest lunacies of the trigger-happy, taxophobic Republican Congress …). Beyond that, though, the cat has definitely got her tongue.

And there is a method to her muteness; many methods, actually, and they are now readily recognizable to anyone who has spent much time watching her listen. First and foremost, there is the suppressive merci : The “thank you very much” that ended things with Ms. Rudy in Jamestown has been in constant rotation since Day 1 in Oneonta. On Long Island, she went for the not-my-pay-grade shrug, refusing to comment on the commuter tax on the grounds that the courts had already decided the matter-and stirring some mild misgivings as to what she would do if the courts, say, overturned Roe v. Wade. At a post-listening press availability at a library in Bath, where much of the discussion had involved teen pregnancy, Mrs. Clinton was asked her view of parental notification in the event of minors seeking abortions, and instantly vaporized the question with seemingly, although not actually, relevant observations.

This was the same method applied the day after the Nafta awkwardness in Jamestown: When a reporter asked Mrs. Clinton whether she held any position on the agreement, and if so, why she had not articulated it to Ms. Rudy, she responded to the effect that while she favored much about what we think of as free trade, she was concerned about some of the side effects. (Good point: Why be for or against something when you can be for and against it?)

At an agricultural listening session convened at Cornell University in Ithaca, the dialogue ranged from the overregulation of goat-based tourism to the profitability perils of globalization. One of the only points that came up repeatedly was the inheritance tax, which farmer after farmer derided as a backbreaker. Here Mrs. Clinton opted for intellectual alchemy, recasting the subject into her totally unrelated, but constantly reiterated, theme about New York’s getting its fair share of Federal resources.

Then there was the day after the day-trader shootings in Atlanta, when Mrs. Clinton stopped in at Light’s Bake Shop in Elmira. Afterward, in the parking lot, she gave a statement on the shootings and then gave a reporter the smiling “screw-you.” Asked whether the state flag of Arkansas, which the ever-subtle Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had recently seen fit to fly over City Hall, was racist, the First Lady turned her head, turned on her heel and walked wordlessly away.

“You mean she has message discipline?” asked Clinton adviser Mandy Grunwald, whose use of the technical term for addressing only one’s favorite subjects serves as a reminder that for politicians, this insistent vacuity isn’t a flaw, it’s a goal. (Just look at George W. Bush: He is saying almost nothing, and he’s getting treated like Jesus.) Especially at this early point in the proceedings, every candidate has pretty much the same to-do list push-pinned into the brain: stick to the script, keep the TV pictures positive, don’t step in the dog doo of potential controversy. Now that our next Senate race has all but certainly hardened into a clash between two workaday centrists who inspire ironic extremes of love and hate, what either one says or does on the issues may not count for much at all.

And speaking of Mr. Giuliani, it is not without some justification that Mrs. Clinton’s aides are driven to distraction that her every utterance is poked, prodded and parsed as the positions of a declared candidate, while those of Mr. Giuliani are comparatively casually scanned as the ponderings of a guy still making up his mind. Then again, when he does make up his mind, voters will have something, called a record, with which to lance any hypocrisies and hyperboles his campaign may attempt. Not so Mrs. Clinton. For all the curses that her passive-aggressive hermaphrodite of a political life has cast upon her, it has granted her a blessing known to very few famous political figures: Over the years, she has weighed in only when she has wanted to. So, while a shining intellectual clarity is not the stuff of which winning strategies are made, the lack of it may be the stuff of which a fatal cynicism is born.

For starters, the non-answer on parental notification smells funny because the question falls squarely into the women-and-children policy territory where Mrs. Clinton’s supporters-to say nothing of Mrs. Clinton herself-relentlessly depict her as having led for decades. ( The Observer has lost count of how many times the First Lady has responded to some parenting-related query with, “Well, I’ve been thinking about that for 30 years now,” but it is definitely right up there with “Thank you so much for raising that!” and “I agree with you completely.”) It is also exactly the type of thing that motivated her much-remarked legal scholarship on the status of children, which is not nearly as batty as the Republicans depicted it in 1992, but which does posit the fairly significant notion that for purposes of the courts, minors should be presumed competent, as opposed to incompetent, unless proven otherwise. (“Decisions about motherhood and abortion, cosmetic surgery, treatment of V.D. or employment … should not be made unilaterally by parents,” Mrs. Clinton once wrote.) Finally, she has addressed the issue before. “I have supported parental notice so long as there is some kind of bypass provision,” Mrs. Clinton told The New Republic in 1992.

Then there is the selectivity with which she does speak up, raising the question of whether she would locate herself at the brain center of the Clinton Administration or somewhere around the anklebone. Of course, for Mrs. Clinton, as for any other generally loyal but sometimes dissenting Democratic candidate, her level of connection to the White House need not be an all-or-nothing proposition-but doesn’t she have to specify the points of communion and difference?

That’s what was so annoying about the Nafta dodge. Trade may not be one of “her” issues (see parental notification, above), and it may have zero impact on her Senate prospects; but this woman is supposed to be really, really smart, and that legislation was a really, really big deal. How could she have no opinion? Likewise, making her way through New York as the Republican tax and budget plan made its way through Congress, Mrs. Clinton took every possible opportunity to sandblast it. “Bad for Our Children, Bad for New York,” said her Aug. 9 press release, which decried the plan as a threat to teacher hiring and to after-school programs. It would also, of course, abolish the inheritance tax.

Now, unlike many of her fellow Democrats, Mrs. Clinton has not been running around decrying that break as being, in the main, a G.O.P. sop to the rich. But when those cash-strapped farmers at Cornell decried the inheritance tax, had she forgotten her party’s opposition to repealing it? Granted, no candidate is going to stick a big red arrow over her differences with her audience (“Thank you so much for raising that, Joe, but when you factor farmers into the rest of the Democrats I have to deal with, you guys fall right off the map.”) But the fact that she apparently felt not so much as the need to snow them did not overwhelm one with the sense that she found these folks significant.

Not, it is important to add, that these folks always mind. Indeed, if you go by the remarkable lack of offense taken by some whom she has thank-you’d in the face, the First Lady may end up pretty much punting with impunity.

“She’s her own person. It’s about time the country looked at her that way instead of as the First Lady,” Ms. Rudy told The Observer . Having just elaborated on everything that she found wrong with Nafta and wanting in Mrs. Clinton’s response to her concerns about it, she left the Crawford Furniture factory a surprisingly satisfied political customer. “I’d take Hillary over Giuliani any day.” Thanks for Listening, Hil, Now What Do You Think?