On the Race to the White House,
Clinton Talks More 'When' Than 'If'
My colleague Anne Kornblut and I spent about 20 minutes with the New York senator on her campaign bus in Cedar Rapids as she was getting ready to set off on a two-day tour of small-town Iowa. That was hardly enough time for a comprehensive interview but it was more than enough time to see how a strategy for governing has helped shape her campaign for the White House.
When we raised the issue of Social Security, for example, we got nowhere trying to pin her down on the specifics of what she might support to deal with the retirement program's long-term solvency. Instead we got an answer that suggested she begun to calculate which battles she wants to take on in her first term and which she doesn't.
As she knows, there will be considerable pressure on the next president to move swiftly to confront the consequences of the Baby Boomers' retirement on both Medicare and Social Security. But Clinton also has watched other presidents founder -- and in her husband's case, contribute directly to the problems -- by trying to do too much at once, or by not have a smart strategy for dealing with Congress. She seems determined not to repeat those mistakes if she can help it.
The result is that Clinton is determined to stay as vague as she can for as long as she can on Social Security, rather than risk getting that issue tangled up in others about which she cares more and believes have greater urgency. Her own words were illuminating.
"There are many things we're going to be negotiating about with the Congress," she said. "To me Social Security is not a front-burner issue. It is a long-term challenge we have got to address. I don't want to get into negotiating over Social Security while I'm trying to do health care, change our energy policy, and move back to fiscal responsibility and get us out of Iraq."
She even cited Ronald Reagan as a model for what she would do. She said Reagan had repeatedly "beat up" on Social Security as candidate and early in his presidency. "He ran into a total stonewall from the Congress," she said. "So then he regrouped and he and Tip O'Neill set up the bipartisan commission. And basically at the time Reagan said, 'And I'm not saying anything else. We're all going to hold hands and jump together.' So I think that's a pretty good model."
Clinton continues to seek the nomination in a way that will not compromise her for the general election. But the interview underscored that preserving her options as president is equally important to her.
Take the issue of Iraq. She spent months this year trying to make herself more acceptable to Democrats who oppose the Iraq war, all with the goal of preventing Barack Obama, John Edwards or any other rival from getting around her on the left.
Having made considerable progress on that objective -- a number of polls show that Democrats believe she is best equipped to end the war -- she has softened her language. Her pledge to end the war now always carries the qualifying words "as quickly and as responsibly as I can." When she first made the pledge, she told the Democratic National Committee, "If we in Congress end this war before January 2009, I will."
When we asked her what she would do as president, she said, "I think that I've been very clear that I want to start withdrawing troops as soon as I responsibly can, once I become president. I along with everyone who is serving in the Congress now, other than Rep. [Dennis] Kucinich, has voted to both withdraw and for continuing missions -- the length of which is not determined in anything that we have set forth yet."
Speaking about both changing course on the war and on U.S. interrogation policy of enemy combatants, she stressed that she is not prepared to make promises now that she might not be able to keep once she sees the issues from inside the White House. So when confronted by her rivals or by reporters to be more specific about the size of the force she would keep in Iraq or the pace of a potential draw down, she declines to answer.
"It's one of these questions that I know what the satisfying answer would be -- saying, oh my gosh, they'll be out tomorrow or they'll be out in three months or they'll be out in a year, whatever," she said.
"I have tried to be as clear as I possibly can -- voting and speaking -- about my intention to do everything I can to end this war in a responsible and expeditious manner," she added. "But I think I've also been honest in saying I've got to get in there. I want to be as committed to getting out as quickly as I can but as clear that I have to look at all of these problems we're going to face"
When we asked about her capacity to unite the country, it was apparent again how much she is thinking beyond the campaign itself. "I think that it will be one of my biggest jobs as president because if we don't become united we will not be able to meet the challenges we faced here at home and around the world."
She argued to us that she is uniquely equipped to unite a country divided along ideological lines, and she expressed her belief that her own perseverance in the face of attacks creates a combination of toughness and resilience that eventually may earn the admiration and possibly the cooperation of at least some of her political opponents.
Her analysis of why she thinks she can move the country beyond the polarizing politics that have defined both her husband's presidency and Bush's will be challenged by many, including Democrats who want to deny her the nomination. They will argue that she has been through too much ever to truly become a uniter.
They will also say that she is too combative in her own right to play the role of uniter. She flashed that combativeness on Sunday in Iowa when she was challenged by a voter over her support for an amendment urging the Bush administration to label the Iranian Revolution Guard as a terrorist organization. Clinton accused her questioner of being part of an organized effort to embarrass her with incorrect information. He denied the charge and she apologized -- but a testy exchange ensued nonetheless.
So some big questions remain about her possible presidency. But there is no doubt that Clinton is someone who, as she battles to win the nomination, and if successful, the general election, is thinking hard about what it takes to build a successful presidency. She may turn out to be wrong in her assumptions and conclusions, but if elected, she won't be asking her advisers, "Now what?"
Listen to excerpts of the interview with Clinton here.
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