A Lesson from the Past: When Newt Gingrich’s GOP Revolution Came to Washington in 1994, They All Blamed Hillary
Appearing on Wall Street Week just a few days after the midterm elections, Mort Zuckerman, editor-in-chief of U.S. News & World Report, could scarcely contain his glee: “It’s the first time a First Lady has ever had a negative net rating,” he told a stone-faced Louis Rukeyser.
A poll for U.S. News showed Hillary with a 48% negative approval rating.
Zuckerman raised an eyebrow: “I think she’s been very badly wounded politically. It’s not so much that she got involved as an advocate for health care. It’s when she crossed over the line and got involved in real partisan politics, attacking drug companies and insurance companies.”
According to Zuckerman, owner of the third (out of three) most popular weekly news magazine, such behavior was “out of line” for a First Lady who was “sort of” pursuing her own career, and who was “sort of” an independent woman.
Although Hillary’s supporters might argue that calling the First Lady “sort of” an independent woman is like calling Vietnam “sort of a war,” Zuckerman seemed confident in his belief that a woman like Hillary — who is married and who does not control a publishing empire of her very own — can only be described as “sort of” an independent woman.
If the “Year of the Woman” seemed a distant memory given Zuckerman’s report on Wall Street Week, viewers could nevertheless thank him for verbalizing the White Male/Old Boy Network version of why Americans so unceremoniously dumped Hillary: She crossed the line, and therefore was out of line.
For linear-minded conservatives, Zuckerman had said it all. That damnable Hillary had some nerve criticizing all those underpaid drug and insurance company executives, who no doubt were hunkered down in their mobile homes, guzzling beer, watching Wall Street Week on portable black and white TV sets, cheering on Zuckerman as he defended them against the foul-mouthed First Lady.
It was easy to forget, listening to Zuckerman’s version of political events, that barely a year ago the First Lady had complained about “too many people making too much money providing health care and health insurance.” Not so coincidentally, the Associated Press reported shortly after her comments that the CEOs of major drug companies and health care chains typically make $2.5 million a year, “192 times what their janitors are paid.”
Yeah, reality bites, Mort. Just don’t let the First Lady be the one to tell us.
If Zuckerman was wetting his pants with joy over Hillary’s comeuppance, Chris Matthews, a new-Democrat type who writes for the San Francisco Examiner and appears regularly on Good Morning America, was doubled over in pain. It’s true: Matthews often looks like he’s about to pass a kidney stone, but the day after the election his anguish was unusually intense.
Matthews regularly faces off against former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett on Good Morning America. On this particular good morning, we thought we heard Matthews proclaiming Hillary the Guilty One during his post-election tete-a-tete with Bennett, so we got Matthews on the phone.
“Are you blaming Hillary?” we wondered, eager not to misquote him.
There was silence on the other end. Then he sighed. “I’m not saying it. I’m trying to be careful. I’m not giving you new material to exploit. The Clintons hate me enough as it is. You gotta give me a break here. I erupt some times and I say certain things. If you catch me, you catch me. But I’m not saying it.”
“We’re not trying to ‘catch’ you, Mr. Matthews. We’re just trying to check out the story. Were you saying that Hillary Clinton was at fault for getting Bill Clinton to drift away from his more centrist positions?”
“That’s not what I said.”
“Fine. OK. You didn’t say it. But what is your opinion? Did she play a role?”
Long pause. Then Matthews erupted, angrily squeezing out every word.
“Bill Clinton is a grown up. He’s the President, and if he wants a left-wing, socialized-sounding health care plan, he did that. If he wants to let his wife do that, he did that. It’s still him. How are we to interpret this? Is Bill Clinton just a caboose on her train? The whole health care thing was too far to the left. In substance and in selling. Both. The old Eleanor Roosevelt approach, the paternalistic ‘we know better, we’re gonna do this for the little people’ stuff is gone. It’s gone!”
Matthews took a breath.
“I am absolutely convinced that the reason the Administration lost every close race, the reason the Democrats were lambasted, the reason every Republican was reelected is because if the election had been held last year, this would not have happened. I know that, you know that. The economy’s gotten better this year, so what’s changed? The year-long push for a socialistic health care program, which was the showcase of this Administration, which gave it its definition as a left-wing Administration.”
While Matthews didn’t have the stomach to say it outright, he clearly believes that Hillary Clinton — directly or indirectly — was responsible for the gang bang of the Democratic Party. The equation, if we follow his logic, is this: Hillary = Health Care Reform = Left Wing Big Government = Crushing Defeat for the Democrats.
Next witness for the prosecution.
On the Today show, a rather Dole-like Elizabeth Drew was out promoting her new book, On the Edge. A down-and-dirty summary of what she said to Katie Couric goes something like this —
Bill and Hillary Clinton are very very bright people who are nevertheless dumb enough to think they’re smart enough to run biggest most important country in the universe on their very own without any help from people in Washington, which is where people like Elizabeth Drew make their living. And because they’re so smart (i.e. stupid), they’ve screwed up the same way Jimmy Carter did, who was also very very smart but nevertheless very dumb because he didn’t get any help from the good folks in Washington. See?
As for Hillary, specifically, Drew said, “the big problem was the disaster over the health care plan, both the humongousness (sic) of the plan itself and the unwillingness to compromise in time, and her own attacking of members of Congress both on the Democratic and Republican sides. She can come off a bit shrill when she does that. People felt this was not the role of a First Lady.”
If Drew’s wooden performance on Today is any indication, she’d consider anyone with a pulse over fifty “shrill.”
Suzanne Fields has graciously represented the conservative point of view in this publication on numerous occasions. Along with that distinguished honor, she also writes for the Washington Times, the newspaper of record for the Ging-reichians. Strangely enough, on the day we called, getting her to say something nasty about Hillary was like pulling teeth. The best she could do was to call the First Lady “Slick Hillary,” as in this choice comment: “She looks manipulating and manipulative, rather than authentic, and so she becomes Slick Hillary just as he is Slick Willie.” That perception, said Fields, has hurt the First Lady “enormously.”
While accusations of slickness do not bode well for “multi-faceted” first ladies — or anyone with a personality more complex than a pet rock — our friend Fields kept her juicier anti-Hillary comments for her own newspaper column. She used our telephone interview as the basis for her story, headlined, “One more time: Who’s the real Hillary?”
As expressed in her column, it is Fields’ opinion that Hillary has “lived through more reincarnations than Shirley MacLaine. That’s why, it seems to me, she’s lost the trust that the American public usually places in a first lady. She was a significant part and parcel of what the voters were voting against. Both man and wife in the west wing of the White House, and wife no less than man, were out of touch with the American people.”
Comeback Kid, Part Deux
No doubt Suzanne Fields and other conservative columnists, by comparing the First Lady to Shirley MacLaine, are in fact complaining about Hillary’s unwillingness to play dead after they’ve shot her. In fact, if recent comments from the First Lady are any indication, she may indeed end up being the Clinton most deserving of the title, “Comeback Kid.”
Just three weeks after the disastrous midterm elections, Hillary told an audience at the National Women’s Law Center, “Our best days are ahead of us. There’s nothing like a good fight to get advocates energized.” No longer sounding like the sour-tongued Hillary Clinton who snapped at a reporter in Indonesia that she had “no idea” what the midterm elections meant, the First Lady was striking back. “I don’t think the American people have voted in any way to turn the clock back,” she said. “Most Americans will want to move forward if we give them the reason to do so and help them to have the confidence to do so.”
Earlier the same week, at a seminar at George Washington University, the First Lady spoke out again, this time vowing to stay closely involved in health care and other social issues. “I have spoken out on social issues for 25 years. Some kind of ‘first lady amnesia’ would not be credible,” she said. She admitted that the public had gotten the impression that her health care plan represented a big-government boon-doggle, but added, “that was neither the intention nor, from our perspective, what would have been the ultimate outcome.”
Then, in another speech given at the end of November, this time in New York, the First Lady threw a knock-down punch and labeled Newt Gingrich’s idea of putting welfare kids in orphanages “absurd.”
Those who expected a chastened Hillary Clinton to finally play dead — and stay dead — are advised to read her biography. The story has often been repeated how little Hillary had been intimidated by a neighborhood bully. Her mother told her to go out and hit the bully back. The four-year-old Hillary did just that, to the amazement of the boys looking on. “I can play with the boys now!” a proud Hillary exclaimed.
That childhood incident formed in the First Lady an almost instinctive, combative response to crises. As her critics are quick to point out, the Rodham temper sometimes works to her detriment, as when she stubbornly refused to answer questions regarding her role in Whitewater and the crisis consequently deepened. Nevertheless, we’re not likely to hear an Act of Contrition from Hillary any time soon. As Neel Lattimore, her spokesman, told us a day after the election, “Mrs. Clinton’s never been gun shy. If people think she’s going to scale back from what she’s been doing for the last two years, that’s incorrect. She knows the issues. She knows the policies. She carries a tremendous responsibility for the people she met across the country and promised that the Administration was going to do something about health care.”
Been There, Done That
What emerges most from our conversations with both liberal and conservative pundits is a portrait of a First Lady that is almost identical to the one we saw nearly two years ago. Hillary is still viewed as a castrating bitch out to emasculate white males, a woman who dares to cross the line — as Mort Zuckerman described it — into a masculine world of “real partisan politics.” Nor is the current demonizing of Hillary as a left-leaning, big government radical anything new. Recall that during the presidential campaign her “leftist” views had to be stifled lest she ruin Bill’s chances of winning the presidency. Now, say her opponents, the 1,342 page Clinton health care plan is living proof that they were right about Hillary all along.
We’ve also had the numerous portraits of the policy-wonk Hillary — coolly aloof, brainy, impersonal. Elizabeth Drew suggested as much during her recent comments on the Today show: some character flaw — a certain smugness or a pride in her own intelligence and competence — has isolated the First Lady and prevented her from seeking help when she’s needed it.
Finally, there’s the infamous Lady Macbeth characterization of Hillary. Although Democrats would argue that it was Nancy Reagan who should have won an Oscar for this role, the Lady Macbeth scenario portrays a power-hungry and manipulative Hillary dooming Bill Clinton’s presidency by persuading him to do exactly what he doesn’t want to do. Chris Matthews would argue that the First Lady has done exactly that, only his version of the story is more politically correct: Hillary is still viewed as the conniving, destructive vixen, but Bill Clinton takes the blame.
No One Ever Said She Could Walk On Water
It seems a truism of political life that the greater your defeat, the more your opponents grow in intelligence and stature. They might be as bright as sandpaper in reality, but under the banner of their victorious headlines, they seem positively brilliant. Conversely, everything you’ve ever touched or done is now the political equivalent of dog do-do. Such seems to be Hillary’s fate.
With the exception of a few fanatical Democrats who wear blinders to bed, those who support the First Lady don’t claim that she hasn’t made mistakes. She has. But over and over, in the analyses of the midterm elections, Hillary Clinton has been blamed for sewing the “Big Government” label on the Clinton Administration. It was specifically the failure of her health care proposal, they say, that doomed the Democrats.
What many people have conveniently forgotten — though we suspect the First Lady hasn’t — is that there was much more going on besides health care reform during the crucial eight months from December, 1993, when both the First Lady and the health care plan were overwhelmingly supported by the American people, and July, 1994, when approval of both the woman and the plan had dropped over 20%, according to polls conducted by ABC News.
The Far-Right SWAT Team
Hillary Clinton’s opponents liked to say that the more Americans found out about her health care plan, the more they rejected it. Full disclosure wasn’t the only reason — or even the main reason — why health care reform failed, however. What killed the Clinton proposal and severely wounded the Clinton Administration were the right-wing commandos who went into action against Bill and Hillary Clinton just in time for Christmas, 1993. They began with Troopergate, then continued the blitzkrieg throughout the winter and spring with Whitewater, the commodities trading issue, the Vince Foster rumors, and the Paula Jones lawsuit. There wasn’t just “a scandal,” but a whole series of scandalous accusations that shook the White House. So, while Bob Dole and Phil Gramm took the “high road” and merely distorted the Clinton legislative agenda in Congress, David Brock, the American Spectator, and others like Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy fought full-time to undermine the Clinton’s moral legitimacy.
Why was this far-right assault on the Clintons so masterful? As any military scholar will tell you, a leader’s strength is also, paradoxically, his greatest weakness. In the Clintons’ case, they had staked out the moral high ground by campaigning against the “decade of greed” during the presidential campaign. They had promised to change the way business was conducted in Washington and to hold themselves and their staffs accountable to a higher level of ethics. That promise was the foundation of their moral leadership and their very ability to govern.
The far-right fusillade on moral and ethical issues undermined the Clintons in three important ways: 1) it destroyed the moral credibility they needed to compensate for the lack of a clear majority in the presidential election, 2) it threw the White House into a state of total disarray, and forced the Clintons to deal with their personal crises rather than the nation’s, and 3) it distracted the media and the public from a substantive debate of health care issues.
By late spring, when the Clintons had finally regenerated and were ready to tackle health care again, it was too late: Hillary’s proposal was dead. There could have been a compromise — both the President, and eventually the First Lady, expressed a willingness to consider other options. It never came to that. Smelling blood in the water, Republican attacks on the health care plan had less and less to do with specifics, and more and more to do with vacuous threats to the American Way of Life. Naturally, toward the end, when Hillary Clinton tried to salvage her health care plan and fought back against the highly personal attacks on her and her husband, she was criticized for crossing the line into partisan politics.
A Little Problem With Bill
Chris Matthews had it right — it’s him. It’s Bill Clinton. Even David Gergen, the political guru who was hired by Clinton to help save the Administration and who left without having had much effect, said of the President, “nobody knows what he stands for.”
If there’s still a battle going on for Bill Clinton’s “soul” two years into his term, the problem very clearly isn’t Hillary. People who surround a chief executive — whether in a corporate setting or in the White House — tend to propose ideas and policies that support the chief executive’s overall strategies and goals. That Hillary and others around the Oval Office are still presenting dramatically conflicting policy ideas to Bill Clinton is evidence that he hasn’t articulated a clear, unambiguous message about his core beliefs. Setting aside for a moment the public’s anal-retentive need for simplistic, autocratic decision-making, Bill Clinton’s orientation toward “process” still doesn’t excuse the lack of leadership.
Polling data suggests that Americans, though turning older and generally more conservative, are supportive of Clinton’s ideas when they are clearly articulated and defended. The characterization most often made of him, however, is that he is not “presidential” enough. Quick translation: he doesn’t seem to believe in anything.
It’s within that kind of leadership vacuum that the First Lady operates. No one would argue that the health care program she proposed wasn’t ripe for those “Big Government” characterizations that eventually killed it. Health care is not a simple problem and Hillary Clinton didn’t propose a simple solution, such as a single payer model. But while many of the specifics could have been modified if ever they had been fully discussed and debated in Congress, all that begs the question of how much Hillary has really helped or hurt the presidency.
According to those who know him best, Bill Clinton is the kind of person whose inner need for acceptance and approval is so strong that he cannot make choices that are likely to disappoint others. If that is true, then Hillary is his antithesis. It’s not that she doesn’t care what others think. She does care. She also happens to care about what she believes in. On her worst days, those beliefs come across as self-righteousness. On her best days, she seems more presidential than most presidents.
In the months ahead, as President Clinton moves toward the political center, he will be acting out a tropic response to a political stimulus, i.e. Newt Gingrich and the “Contract with America.” Oddly enough, there will be enough of the residual, centrist Bill Clinton from the 1992 campaign to make the move seem at least mildly sincere and authentic. While her husband is moving toward the center, it will be up to Hillary to consolidate and “hold hands” with traditional liberal constituencies.
The essential difference between Hillary and her husband in the days ahead will be this: Bill Clinton will say all sorts of conservative things because he has to. Hillary will be speaking out for children, the poor, those without health care, because she means it. To blame her now for hurting the Administration because she believes in something and is willing to fight for it, is to discredit the one authentic voice still speaking for this Administration.