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Don't Push It, Hillary

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Posted Monday, February 28, 2000

        Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton has expanded on her earlier claims of support for the controversial (and, so far, successful) 1996 welfare reform bill. Last weekend she told Joel Siegel of the New York Daily News:

I worked very hard to make sure the bill that came to the President after he vetoed it was one that could be signed and would actually move people from welfare to work. ... I was a strong voice inside the White House and was a strong voice with many of the interest groups on the outside, who were not in favor of welfare reform, of going ahead and [supporting] the bill. [Emphasis added.]
As readers of this column know, I think Mrs. Clinton is probably telling the truth when she says she was a voice "inside the White House" for signing the welfare bill--although nobody on the outside knows for sure what she told her husband when they were alone. Hillary's also telling the truth when she says her opponent, mayor Rudolph Giuliani, opposed President Clinton's signing of the bill. (Click here and here and here for earlier items on these issues.) And it may even be true that before the bill was passed, Hillary worked to ensure it was one that could be signed--although if so she worked quietly, and her logical ally in the West Wing, Harold Ickes, actively opposed the bill.

        But Mrs. Clinton is almost certainly not telling the truth when she says was a "strong voice" with "many" of the outside interest groups opposing the bill. I've talked with key opponents of the bill, and none of them remembers anything like this. "No way," said one. "She never did that." What did she do, then? After all, many of these outside groups arrayed against the bill, such as the Children's Defense Fund, were close to Mrs. Clinton (who had served on CDFs board.) This put the First Lady in a bind. "What she did," my source remembered, "was she avoided these people." This impression--that Hillary simply went AWOL, ducking meetings with her old friends on the left who were desperate to get her to intervene against the bill--jibes with what I was told at the time, and with what I've been told in the intervening years.

        There's a larger point here. As Tish Durkin of the New York Observer has noted repeatedly, the problem with Mrs. Clinton is not that she publicly promotes any sort of sharp left agenda, or flip-flops from left to right. It's rather that "she simply fails to fill in." She's congenitally, banally vague, routinely getting standing ovations for speeches so contentless they'd make Orrin Hatch blush. The secret, hidden nature of her influence inside the White House--which first she denied, and now she brags about--didn't make it any easier to figure out what she really thought.

        I always figured her speeches were vague, and her influence hidden, largely because people might react harshly against an outspoken, publicly influential political wife. But of course being enigmatic has another obvious advantage, which is that it lets you decide later what and how much to reveal about your role. If the 1996 bill had been a disaster, do you think Hillary would be boasting to the Daily News about her "strong voice" in its support? Or would she even now be telling us how she'd tried to stop it? All the vagueness and secrecy lets her keep her options open. And, if her current welfare tale is any guide, one of those options is dissembling.

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