Hillary's Next Move

This column was written by Greg Sargent.
So what to make of Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro's decision to drop her bid to unseat Hillary?

Instant pundit wisdom has it that Pirro's campaign fell apart because of her gaffes on the stump and her failure to raise money. There's some truth to that, of course. But the real reason Pirro collapsed was that it immediately became apparent that her rationale for why Hillary should be removed was not compelling enough — not by a long shot. And that in turn suggests that Hillary has reached something of a milestone: Her public transformation is largely complete.

Pirro's disastrous campaign showed just how successful Hillary has been in overhauling her image, but for Hillary this success also comes with a burden and a challenge. It suggests that the time has come for her to stop with all the clever (and in some cases not so clever) forays into controversial but meaningless cultural skirmishes and start making the bold and serious moves that we deserve to see from her after patiently enduring five years of her ultra-caution. Yes, she still has re-election to worry about, but still, many of her supporters would be right to feel a bit like they've been jilted at the altar.

The chief argument Pirro made against Hillary was that she's, well, ambitious. Pirro tried to get traction by arguing that New Yorkers deserved to know whether Hillary would serve a full second term or would instead run for president in 2008. This general argument, that Hillary was too ambitious to be trusted, was also tried against her last time around by the hapless Rick Lazio — and even though she handily beat him, the argument did help a little-known lightweight Congressman win nearly 45 percent of the vote against her in a state where the Clintons remained extremely popular. Suspicions about Hillary's true motives ran deep. People forget it today, but when Hillary ascended the steps of the Capitol for the first time as senator five years ago, there was a widespread sense, not only on the far right, but also among moderate Republicans, and even some traditional Democrats, that she'd use her national notoriety to become a kind of high-profile liberal harridan — Ted Kennedy meets Madam Defarge. Not only that, many believed she was secretly plotting to use the Senate as a tool in service of her real plot: recapturing the White House.

Pirro tried this attack line again — and this time, it was a total non-starter. This stands as testament to the extraordinary transformation Hillary has managed in the public consciousness — a transformation that grew out of five years of hard work. Her earnest approach to learning the ins and outs of the Senate, her careful deference to GOP colleagues and willingness to collaborate with them, her clear mastery of (and interest in) the most arcane local issues, and of course her efforts to showcase her cultural centrism, which is actually more genuine than many suspect, slowly but painstakingly altered public perceptions of her to the point where her approval rating in New York soared and Republicans came on record offering high praise.

To be sure, if recent polls are to be believed, a significant chunk of the electorate remain unpersuaded, or perhaps unaware, that Hillary is no longer the First Lady voters remember from their nightmares. Nonetheless, Pirro's capitulation shows that Hillary has largely accomplished the heavy political lift she set out to accomplish. And now comes the hard part. With this work all but complete, the time has come to demand, as have more and more observers including Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein on this site, that she show an appetite for risk, a willingness to take a stand, and an awareness that she has let down her followers by refusing to show serious leadership on some of the major debates and issues facing the country.

Although Hillary has taken a fair amount of heat in some quarters for her cautious, incremental approach, the general attitude of liberals up to now has been to see their relationship with Hillary as a kind of tacit bargain, in which liberals granted her the room to maneuver she needed in order to transform herself from lightening-rod first lady into serious legislator. What did liberals get in return? For all the talk of her "centrism," her voting record, as it happens, has been more liberal than is generally recognized. Hillary has accomplished a great deal for constituencies as diverse as upstate farmers, veterans and first responders sick from Ground Zero. But arguably the main prize for big-dreaming liberals has been the pleasure of watching the figure most hated by the right in decades defy her enemies and succeed.

This has indeed had its pleasurable moments, but it's not enough. Hillary's completed phase one. Now it's time to see whether her transformation was worth waiting for.

Greg Sargent, a contributing editor for New York Magazine, writes bi-weekly for The American Prospect Online.
By Greg Sargent
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved