For a woman who claims there are ”no do-overs in life” when pressed to explain her pro-war vote on Iraq, Sen. Hillary Clinton seems eager to press the reset button on the rest of her public life.
One of the most scrutinized women in American history, the former first lady has concluded that to be president she must persuade Americans to forget much of what they learned – or think they learned – about her in the partisan-charged 1990s, and look at her anew.
The problem is that most people think they already know her, for better or worse. She’s a walking case study of stereotypes – some fabricated by critics; others warranted and self-inflicted; and many in that shadowy gray area of politics that can only be viewed in the eyes of her beholders.
Fair or not, Clinton needs a few “do-overs.”
Do-over #1: The New York senator made a bad first impression during her husband’s first presidential campaign when she frostily defended her active public life by saying she could have “stayed home and baked cookies and had teas.” It was an uphill struggle from there, especially for a precedent-breaking first lady who fiercely guarded her privacy, didn’t like or trust the media and lacked the political instincts of her husband.
And so, she became viewed as the cold and conniving power behind the throne. When then-President Clinton’s affair with a White House intern became public, some voters – especially women – saw a chilly calculation behind the first lady’s decision to stay with him.
Hoping to soften her image, the Clinton juggernaut has unleashed a charm offensive, starting with an online announcement video shot while the senator relaxed in an overstuffed couch. Putting the spin in homespun, she gushes, “Let’s chat.”
Clinton has held syrupy sweet “Webchats” and has let her sense of humor show on the campaign trail, even at the risk of raising eyebrows. One questioner in Iowa asked the senator if her track record showed she could stand up to “evil men” around the world. “The question is …what in my background equips me to deal with evil and bad men” Clinton said.
It wasn’t clear whether she was talking about Republicans or her philandering husband, but the answer sparked 30 seconds of laughter and applause.
In private, Clinton is actually funnier, warmer and more interesting than her husband. She listens and asks questions while the former president tends to pontificate. She has an infectious laugh and a quick wit; her husband is more of a joke-teller than a roll-with-the-punches jokester. She can also be brutally frank, and is not someone you would ever want to cross, as former White House advisers can attest.
Do-over #2: The Clinton camp wants you to think of her as a centrist, despite a long and broad public record that includes lurches to the left: To name a few examples: Her early writings on children’s advocacy, firm support of abortion rights and a failed push for universal health care.
Just last month, she bragged about being “very much committed to progressive political policies” – a wink to Democratic audience members who recognize “progressive” as a poll-tested synonym for “liberal.”
But she also has centrist credentials. A flaming liberal does not take on teachers’ union in Arkansas, acquiesce to welfare cuts in her husband’s White House, co-sponsor bills with Senate conservatives, or vote to give Bush authorization to wage war in Iraq.
Do-over #3: Her eclectic, elastic public record fueled the perception that Clinton is overly calculated – a politician who will say or do anything to get ahead. Indeed, those who have watched both Clintons the longest tend to believe that the senator’s main problem with voters won’t be her ideology; it will be questions about her authenticity.
Clinton is fighting this perception with a rhetoric that is unambiguously firm and resolute. “I’m in,” she announced last month. “And I’m in to win.” Or this promise to fight Republicans: “When you’re attacked, you have to deck your opponents. You can count on me to stand my ground and fight back.”
The line drew applause in Iowa, where Democratic activists were left wondering whether Clinton was suggesting that rival Sen. Barack Obama didn’t have the experience or the stomach to fight the GOP.
Fear of being labeled a waffler may be one reason why Clinton refuses to bow to critics and call her Iraq vote a mistake. “I’ve taken responsibility for my vote. But there are no do-overs in life,” she said. “I wish there were.”
Her opponents hope there are no do-overs for Clinton. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, who is challenging Clinton for the Democratic nomination, said “everyone in the world knows her” yet less than 40 percent of Democrats back her. “They’ve looked at you for the last three years, and four out of 10 is the max you can get?” Biden said, explaining why she can’t win.
But her loyalists say voters don’t yet know the “real” Hillary Clinton. “She is famous,” says Clinton pollster Mark Penn, “but really unknown.”
Famous and unknown – how can she be both? How can she turn the clock back 15 years and re-introduce herself to the American people? The answer is she can’t – not unless Clinton is wrong and there are do-overs in public life.
Join the conversation at www.hotsoup.com.