WASHINGTON – One Clinton jets to Alaska and Iraq with Republicans and enthusiastically sponsors legislation with GOP lawmakers who impeached her husband. The other plays golf with former President Bush and accepts assignments from the current one.
All this bipartisan snuggling by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former President Bill Clinton has some Democrats and Republicans questioning their motives.
Is this calculated politics designed to get the former first lady ready for a presidential bid in 2008?
Or is it a pragmatic concession to the fact that Republicans control Washington, and working with them is the only way to get anything done? Do the Clintons have a bipartisan streak? Would they put their own political interests ahead of the Democratic Party? Could there be an element of this polarizing couple that simply likes to get along?
The answer is all the above. Throughout nearly 30 years in public service, the Clintons have been driven by a complicated set of motives, never as pure as their supporters hope nor as pernicious as their detractors insist.
The art of reading the Clintons is in fashion again. Sen. Clinton is gearing up for re-election in New York, a trial run for what many expect will be a White House bid. Her husband is a globe-trotting ex-president pushing AIDS and obesity initiatives, searching for ways to burnish a legacy tarnished by impeachment.
Everything they do must be viewed through those two prisms.
Sen. Clinton flew to Alaska last week with a Senate delegation that included Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who as a member of the House in 1998 helped present the case for impeachment.
She also traveled with both Republicans – all are on the Senate Armed Services Committee – to Iraq seven months ago, a trip that aides hoped would establish her as a terrorism hawk.
A leading voice on a number of liberal causes, Sen. Clinton also has joined with Republican senators on issues ranging from health care technology to safe drinking water and religious freedom.
Meanwhile, the former president went to East Timor in 2002 at the request of President Bush. He toured tsunami-ravaged Asia this year with Bush’s father and is fighting childhood obesity with Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.
Clinton and the elder Bush have forged an almost familial relationship, according to some Clinton associates who say he has long sought a father figure. Others say the bond is due more to their rarified status as ex-presidents.
What else is driving the Clintons? They understand that voters are tired of gridlock and partisanship, so reaching out to the GOP can help their causes and further their ambitions. For the ex-president there is also the part of his personality that hungers to convert enemies into friends, critics into colleagues.
Favorable opinion of Hillary Clinton bounced back to 57 percent in March 2005 and her husband stood at 64 percent after their December 2002 ratings had hit the forties.
“The two things she’s been doing since she got to the Senate is work hard and work with Republicans,” said the senator’s spokesman, Philippe Reines. “She has always said she’ll work with anyone to accomplish what needs to get done for the people of New York.”
Liberal leaders fault the Clinton strategy, arguing that voters need to see stark differences between Democrats and Republicans, particularly on Iraq. Some say voters are more skeptical about Sen. Clinton’s authenticity than her ideology.
“I don’t want to bash Bill and Hillary because they’re friends of mine, but I do have a difference of opinion about how to take back the House and the Senate,” said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio.
Still, among nearly two dozen liberal Democrats who were interviewed, several acknowledged almost sheepishly that they had grown as pragmatic as the Clintons.
“Normally, my first impression would have been this is not good,” Rep. Elijah Cummings. “But I’ve come around.”
Like many other liberals, the Maryland Democrat said he had opposed President Clinton on welfare reform, crime and other centrist policies. He said he was wary of Sen. Clinton’s moves to the middle.
But in the past few weeks, Cummings said, he had reached two conclusions. First, Sen. Clinton would stay true to her record of supporting blacks and the poor. Second, he wouldn’t stand in the way of anybody who might throw Republicans out of the White House.