You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Dull and Duller

Hillary Clinton stays under the radar during her first term as Senator

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The hearing in Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 608 is tedium defined. Four frumpy economists are testifying about federal debt reduction before members of the Senate Budget Committee. Only seven of the committee's 22 members have bothered to show up, two of whom whisper and chuckle through much of the testimony. But one listens with rapt attention. Sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup as the economists drone on about Treasury bond buybacks and the "irreducible minimum" level of federal debt, she alternatively nods, grins, and shakes her head. When it is her turn to speak, Hillary Rodham Clinton admits, "I don't understand half of what they said. But it all sounded very, you know, expert to me." She cheerily pledges to look into a complex proposal to store budget surpluses in an interest-bearing account.

Later that day I accompany Clinton, who is returning from a press conference where senators criticized George W. Bush's decision to repeal regulations limiting arsenic in drinking water, through a Capitol basement corridor. Trailed by Secret Service agents and gawking tourists, she sports her standard-issue black pantsuit, a blue shirt, and a formidable hairdo that has been resuscitated after a brief, well-publicized period of neglect. Referring to the morning's debt hearing, I ask how she survives the torpor. "I think it's so serious that I'm fixated," she explains in her okeydoke, elementary-school-teacher voice. "I think it's fun.... I love talking about a fifty or ten [parts per billion] level of arsenic, or what is the level of irreducible debt. For me these things have real meaning."

Who thought it would come to this? When Hillary Clinton emerged from marital humiliation to become the first First Lady in American history to win a seat in the U.S. Senate, the commentariat predicted she'd take Capitol Hill by storm. The New York Daily News trumpeted her "desire to position herself as the new intellectual and fund-raising leader for the out-of-power Democrats." Crowning her "perhaps the most important Democrat in the country," The New York Times called it a "fantasy" to think she would "blend into the woodwork as just another freshman senator." She topped every list of prospective Democratic presidential nominees for 2004.

But she's not on those lists anymore. In fact, she barely even makes the papers (except when mentioned in the same paragraph as Denise Rich). If Clinton fantasized in her post-health-care days about liberating herself from her gilded prison of White House interior decorating to participate in Serious Policy once again, she's gotten her wish. And it isn't pretty. Crouching low to avoid the pardon scandals battering her husband's ex-presidency, Clinton has submerged herself in policy minutiae that would make a C-Span junkie snore. Far from giving the congressional Democrats star power, she makes Evan Bayh look glamorous and Kent Conrad seem visionary. People expected Hillary Clinton to be a lot of things in the U.S. Senate—except, perhaps, for the one thing she has become: banal.

Clinton's Senate campaign was a case study in the strange art of calculated blandness. But many assumed that, once in office, she would discard the mind-numbing caution that characterized her victory over Rick Lazio. Then came the Clinton exit fiasco: the alleged looting of White House furniture, the Marc Rich and New Square pardons, and the bogus (but still damaging) frenzy over the price of her Manhattan district office. Her unfavorable ratings shot up--one poll showed that more than 60 percent of New York voters thought she "broke the law" or "acted unethically." The New York Observer even demanded that she resign.

She has responded by hunkering down and abandoning any pretense of defining the shape and future of her party. She disappointed party liberals by keeping virtually mum during the fight over John Ashcroft's nomination as attorney general, finally releasing a bloodless statement that Ashcroft's views "are too often at variance with the high principles we seek to embody in the law." She has been a nonentity in the Senate's freewheeling debate over campaign finance reform. She avoids the Sunday morning talk shows and rarely speaks to reporters.

Once upon a time Clinton might have relished a Senate perch from which to offer up grand ideas. "We need a new politics of meaning," she declared to The Washington Post in her heady early days in the White House. The goal, she explained, was nothing short of "redefining who we are as human beings in this postmodern age." But these days Clinton speaks either in vanilla talking points ("I support ... a prudent tax cut that will allow us to pursue our important national values while keeping interest rates down and encouraging economic growth") or grueling wonk-speak ("[W]e can have OSHA initiate rule-making procedures to modify the rule in accordance with the Administrative Procedures Act," she offered on the topic of ergonomics). Gone are the large policy ambitions. When she delivered a brief floor address about health care last month, Clinton could hardly have been more circumspect. She joked that she had once had "an idea or two about how to improve health care in our country" but had learned "the wisdom of taking small steps to get a big job done." So she proposed limited measures like expanding the federal Children's Health Insurance Program.

And rather than associate herself with the large national debates pitting her party against the Bush presidency, Clinton seems almost proud of her newfound parochialism. She tirelessly promotes her eye-glazing economic revitalization plan for upstate New York. (Never mind that the package of tax credits, job-training programs, and Internet-wiring funds for New York has little chance of passing in this Congress.) In the same Senator Pothole vein, there's her bill to name a New York City courthouse after Thurgood Marshall and a burgeoning budget squabble with the Bush administration over historic-preservation funding for Ellis Island. "She clearly knows and understands that she's a freshman," says a top Democratic aide, choosing words carefully.

Clinton's Republican colleagues seem strangely relieved. As a senior GOP aide puts it: "She's really made an effort to [lie] low.... She is acting as a nonentity and a nonplayer at this point, and they haven't had to deal with it." That's the way they like it—because for Republicans nothing good comes of dealing with Hillary Clinton. On one hand, attacking her is dangerous (just ask Rick Lazio). "Hillary Clinton the victim means Republicans lose," a GOP staffer recently told The Washington Post. On the other hand, cooperating can be problematic, too. After right-wing Illinois Senator Peter Fitzgerald dared to lunch with her, the Chicago Tribune reported that "members of [Fitzgerald's] conservative base were sputtering mad." Perhaps that explains why twelve Democrats have co-sponsored parts of her upstate plan but only one Republican has—the moderate Olympia Snowe of Maine. Generally, other senators simply ignore her.

Clinton does allow herself the occasional swipe at Bush. At last week's press conference on the president's arsenic decisions, for instance, she came up with a nice line about his charm offensive turning into "a harm offensive." But she did everything possible to downplay her own words. Following some colleagues who literally yelled in outrage, Clinton smiled placidly and spoke calmly. She even insisted on speaking last, inviting obscure freshman Senator Bill Nelson of Florida to precede her.

Someday, especially if Democrats win back the Senate and Bill Clinton has no more scandalous toilet paper trailing from his shoe, Hillary Clinton may indeed emerge as Ted Kennedy's successor—a champion of social services with a national constituency, media appeal, and political clout. But there's little sign of that so far. "Her career as a senator ultimately begins the day the pardon scandal is closed," says New York Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf. For now, her goals are modest. Take a recent press release from her office excitedly announcing, "Senator Clinton scores victories in Education Committee for NY's students." The hype is about four education-bill amendments so uncontroversial that all were approved unanimously--and only by the Education Committee, not the full Senate. One "helps encourage school districts to undertake new efforts to recruit school principals." Another "guarantees that students and parents will be given the results of `accountability' tests in a prompt and useful manner." Not exactly radical change or high drama. But, then, that's exactly the point.