Frame Game

Hillary vs. Bill

Is she the faithful Clinton or the radical?

If Hillary Clinton runs for the U.S. Senate in New York next year, she’ll have two crucial advantages. One is that her last name is Clinton. The other is that her first name isn’t Bill. The emerging spin behind her candidacy is that she’s her husband’s moral opposite: She’s been his victim, she’s been faithful, and now it’s “her turn.” But that’s only one dimension in which the Clintons differ. Republicans who oppose Hillary Clinton’s candidacy are gearing up to exploit another difference: her comparative liberalism on matters of policy.

A year ago, Republican attacks on Hillary Clinton’s involvement in Whitewater and Filegate might have hurt her. But nowadays talking about those scandals reminds people less of the Clintons’ suspicious behavior than of the GOP’s impeachment jihad. Indeed, part of the logic behind her candidacy is to ride the anti-impeachment backlash. “Mrs. Clinton would serve as a constant reminder of the GOP effort to oust her husband,” observes the Wall Street Journal. She “could help drive Democratic voters to the polls,” sweeping several of New York’s congressional Republicans out of office. A scandal-based Republican attack would only make things worse. “If their campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton is to simply be an extension of the Starr investigation,” Sen. Bob Torricelli, D-N.J., the Democrats’ Senate campaign chairman, warned on Meet the Press, “they’re going to take a sizable Hillary lead and make it into a rout.”

It’s true that the public remains angry at Mrs. Clinton’s husband. But the genius of her candidacy is that she gets to ride that backlash, too. Her “advisers” told the New York Times that she’s “very enticed by the idea of at last having an independent voice, particularly after her husband … publicly humiliated her” last year. This story line plays to moralists as well as to feminists. If you’re mad at the president, the argument goes, support the woman he cheated on.

The media have fallen head over heels for this spin. “Her Turn,” says Newsweek’s cover. “A Race of Her Own,” agrees Time. A New York Times editorial says her candidacy “could allow her to untangle herself from the political side of her marriage and compete for a power base that is all her own. Many women might ante up a campaign contribution just in the hopes of seeing Mrs. Clinton sworn in on the day that her husband becomes unemployed. … If the President announces that it is now Hillary’s turn to shine, and his to take on the jobs of campaign cheerleader and family breadwinner, even many of the couple’s critics would agree it is about time.”

The pose of the wronged but ever-faithful wife also helps Hillary Clinton in two other ways. It raises her to an even higher pedestal, prompting the media to ask not whether she’s up to the job of senator but whether she’s too good for it. Meanwhile, the pedestal lifts her above the charge of carpetbagging. Torricelli says she “would be part of a great tradition” of icons who have used New York’s Senate seats as a “platform” from which to “enlighten the whole nation.”

Hillary Clinton’s likely Republican opponent, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, understands the peril of the impeachment mess and is wisely steering clear of it. “I was one who didn’t believe that [President Clinton] should have been impeached, so no, I would not bring it up,” the mayor declared on This Week. Instead, he vowed to confront his likely foe on “issues” such as taxes, welfare reform, national health insurance, and her advocacy of a Palestinian state. Superficially, Giuliani’s argument is that she’s too liberal. But he has added a clever twist to the argument, turning Hillary Clinton’s strategy on its head. She’s different from her husband, all right, says the mayor. The difference is that she’s out of the mainstream.

On This Week, Giuliani twice likened his own views to those of President Clinton and contrasted them with Hillary’s more radical views. On the Middle East, said Giuliani, “I’m in the same position as the White House, and Mrs. Clinton is out there much more heavily favoring the Palestinians.” Later, when asked about his initiative to require homeless people to get jobs or leave their homeless shelters, Giuliani said the initiative “emerges from the mandates of the welfare reform bill that was signed by President Clinton. And what it says is that when you seek shelter … we will engage you in a process of trying to find work for you as opposed to letting you become dependent.” As for Hillary Clinton, the mayor allowed, “She may be in a different position.”

Mrs. Clinton’s strategists worry openly about this line of attack. “Let’s say she disagrees with her husband on trade policy,” one member of her team told the Times. “It will be trumpeted as a big deal.” In a mock strategy memo published in Newsweek, former Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos asked her, “What if the president undercuts your most effective campaign issue by making a deal with Republicans on partial privatization of Social Security and tax cuts? Will you take a stand or stand by your man?”

Therein lies her dilemma. On Meet the Press, former Nixon strategist Bill Safire explained how she could beat the extremism rap. “She can do what her husband has done over the years, and that is reassess things. … She can make a visit to Israel, be embraced, get a lot of pictures over there, and move from the left [toward] the center,” talking more “about getting people off welfare and balancing budgets.” Torricelli is already working on this script, saying Clinton “would make very clear that she supports this peace process … from the perspective of an administration that has probably been more helpful to Israel and its security than any president in American history.” One step to the left, two steps to the right. That’s what people love about her husband’s politics–and what they hate about his character.