Clinton vs. Clinton
"Even a president has to get 60 votes in the Senate to pass a new law and that is a painstaking roll-up-your-sleeves process that involves a lot of preparation and just plain perspiration."
Hillary Clinton offered those words of wisdom in the new campaign stump speech she unveiled on Labor Day weekend. With Senate Democratic leaders now indicating they are receptive to a change in strategy to win over enough Republican votes to pass legislation calling for a major course change in Iraq, will Clinton follow her own advice?
The New York senator used her new stump speech to draw a distinction between those who talk about change and those who actually bring about change. Under attack from rivals John Edwards and Barack Obama for defending the political system and taking money from lobbyists -- they are people too, she has reminded audiences -- Clinton sought to shift the focus to results rather than hopes and dreams.
"From my time in the White House and in the Senate, I have learned that you bring change by working in the system established in our Constitution," she said. "You cannot pretend that the system doesn't exist."
The congressional "system" has been singularly unsuccessful this year in forcing President Bush to change policy in Iraq. Democrats control both houses of Congress but not with majorities large enough to send veto-proof legislation to the president's desk without the help of a dozen and a half Republicans. Nothing Democratic leaders have offered in the Iraq debate has come close.
Tonight Bush will go on national television to announce his willingness to start withdrawing some troops from Iraq -- but not at a pace that will satisfy critics of his policy. Opposition to his handling of the war has eased marginally since July, according to newly released polls, though it remains extremely high.
This week's testimony by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker may not change many minds but might give Republicans in the Senate pause before they break with Bush's policy. That means that, even with a shift in strategy by Senate Democrats toward compromise and accommodation, winning over enough Republicans to send a bipartisan signal of dissatisfaction with the president's policy could require the kind of painstaking work Clinton described.
What role Clinton will play in all this isn't yet clear, but the coming debate could pit Candidate Clinton, her eyes clearly fixed on the powerful antiwar sentiment among the Democratic base, against Senator-and-Would-Be-President Clinton, who has prided herself on working across party lines during her six-plus years as an elected official.
As the candidate who has emerged as the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination, Clinton has begun to talk more about the importance of bipartisan cooperation. Explaining why she has reached out to Republicans, she said "You can't be content with consensus and compromise alone or you'll lose what you're fighting for. But you can't always demand everything your own way, or you'll never get anything done."
Arguing there are neither Republican nor Democratic answers to the big problems facing the country, she noted, "I think it's time for us to start acting like Americans again and working together, rolling up our sleeves, to get where we know we need to go."
Her Democratic rivals have a different view -- at least on Iraq. Edwards, who has purchased time on MSNBC to deliver a rebuttal to Bush tonight, calls for Democrats to stand firm and resist. In that ad, he will say: "Congress must answer to the American people. Tell Congress you know the truth -- they have the power to end this war and you expect them to use it. When the president asks for more money and more time, Congress needs to tell him he only gets one choice: a firm timeline for withdrawal."
Before she officially became a candidate, Clinton worked within the system, working closely with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R-I.) on the language of amendments designed to force Bush in a new direction.
Those were days when she lagged behind other Democrats in opposing a timetable for withdrawal. Then came a period of convergence, when her political needs as a candidate forced her to catch up with the timetable advocates. She became a leading critic of the president's policy and an advocate for ever-tougher measures aimed at changing that policy.
Then came the moment when she found herself to the left of, and in a minority within, her own party (but in the same place as rivals Obama and Chris Dodd). That was on May 24, when she voted against the funding bill because the timetable for withdrawal had been stripped out after Bush had vetoed it.
Eighty senators voted in favor of it, so her opposition carried no practical consequence. What she would have done had her vote meant the difference between passage or defeat isn't known. What is known is that Candidate Clinton protected her political interests in the campaign for the Democratic nomination.
There may be another moment later this fall when she is asked to make a similar choice on a measure of disapproval when her vote might actually count. She may, at that moment, argue that nothing Congress says to the president legislatively -- short of enacting a timetable for withdrawal -- will bring about a change and therefore it is far more important to register her dissent.
That would certainly bring approval from many rank-and-file Democrats who will be voting in Iowa and New Hampshire next winter. But that is different than the kind of painstaking work she held up as the example of what a leader should be prepared to do.
If Majority Leader Harry Reid manages to find consensus on an Iraq measure in the Senate, will Clinton heed her own advice and act like the kind of president she said she would be -- and risk the wrath of the left and some of her rivals -- or will she put her needs as a candidate first?
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