SYRACUSE, N.Y. — There’s an unmistakable Groundhog Day quality to this spring campaign swing by Hillary Clinton: the chain-chugged Diet Dr Peppers, the pained rasp and crisp pantsuits — and the once-commanding lead undercut by an underdog near enough to nip at her sensible heels.
Seventeen years ago, the underdog was Rick Lazio, a forgettable Long Island Republican with a paperboy’s face and a war chest brimming with anti-Hillary millions who gave Clinton a brief scare in a triumphant Senate race that inaugurated her electoral career. This year, the foil is independent democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, a stubborn Brooklynite with a nearly nonexistent path to the nomination and a nearly unquenchable thirst for humiliating the Democratic front-runner in her home state’s April 19 primary.
Clinton didn’t much care for Lazio and she’s clearly arrived at the enough-already stage with Bernie.
Sanders was very much on Clinton’s mind — more than Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, the whole lot of them — when I sat with her for a far-ranging and unvarnished discussion for Politico’s “Off Message” podcast last Friday inside an empty warehouse at an upstate New York farmer’s market.
It was the first time in about a decade I had been granted a one-on-one interview with a woman I’d covered more or less constantly since she was elected to the Senate; as a reporter for Long Island’s Newsday, I had a local scribe’s regular, if intermittent, access to Clinton and found her to be funny, friendly and occasionally candid, if fundamentally guarded. She became far, far less accessible when she embarked on her presidential campaign in early 2007 — and the spigot shut off completely in mid-2008 when I jumped to Politico to join a national press pack Clinton avoids out of personal preference (and, as she’d explain to me, as a strategic choice).
This time around, Clinton has managed her press interactions with extreme care, often rebuffing her staff’s suggestions that she schmooze with reporters in off-the-record sessions, as she did during her Senate and Foggy Bottom days. Yet within two minutes of sitting in front of the microphone, Clinton’s icy reserve began to melt, especially when I brought up the issue of Sanders’ fealty (or lack thereof) to the Democratic Party establishment Clinton proudly champions against the anti-establishment tide.
Sanders had just told an interviewer that he was iffy about raising money for down-ballot Democrats, so I asked Clinton the obvious question: Did she think Sanders is a real Democrat?
“Well, I can’t answer that,” she said with a smile. Then she proceeded to answer the question. “He’s a relatively new Democrat, and, in fact, I’m not even sure he is one. He’s running as one. So I don’t know quite how to characterize him.”
Clinton’s stock line as she has watched Trump & Co. savage one another for months has been some version of don’t-speak-too-ill-of-any-Democrat. But things have changed over the past couple of weeks, with Sanders’ team ratcheting up its attacks and speaking openly about a contested convention, GOP style.
She was ticked off — already factoring in an inevitable loss in Wisconsin on Tuesday — and was in a rare mood of public introspection, so a sit-down that was supposed to last a half-hour ran nearly 20 minutes over so she could more fully explain herself to a public that often views her with suspicion.
Clinton offered the dimmest possible assessment of Trump, comparing him to European neo-fascists and to the “bully” she had expected to face in 2000, then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. (Realizing that Cruz had his own shot at toppling Trump, she blasted the Texas tea party senator as equally “mean-spirited.”) Hillary and Bill Clinton are of two minds about Trump, people close to the candidate told me. They believe he can’t actually win a general election — but fear his recklessness and his association with longtime adviser Roger Stone, who is on a one-man mission to dredge up anything scurrilous or unflattering about the Clintons, especially Bill.
Still, it is Sanders who poses the most immediate threat. He is running hard — and hitting her hard — in New York, and she is clearly frustrated with his easy appeal to voters under 35. She even suggested for the first time (in public, anyway) that the septuagenarian from Vermont was feeding a simplistic, cynical line of argument to turn young voters against her.
“There is a persistent, organized effort to misrepresent my record, and I don’t appreciate that, and I feel sorry for a lot of the young people who are fed this list of misrepresentations,” Clinton said, a few minutes after talking herself hoarse at a rally here. “I know that Sen. Sanders spends a lot of time attacking my husband, attacking President Obama. I rarely hear him say anything negative about George W. Bush, who I think wrecked our economy.”
As with all of Clinton’s fights, this one has echoes of an earlier battle — not from the still fresh memories of the 2008 campaign, but from the formative experience of her 2000 Senate run, a race so distant that 2016’s first-time voters were in pull-ups when it happened. That first campaign began with the retirement of the tweedy public intellectual Daniel Patrick Moynihan (who was lukewarm on the Clintons) in mid-1999, debuted with her first-ever listening tour, swerved past an imploding Giuliani and ended up with a 15-percentage-point triumph over a lackluster Lazio.
Clinton sees the 1999-2000 race as a defining, fortifying moment, in many ways more important than her 2008 “glass ceiling” campaign. The year 2000 was her political Year Zero, when she capitalized on her high approval ratings in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and forged a career that has put her on the threshold of being the first woman to win a major-party presidential nomination. It also represented the first step in her ongoing political education, a struggle to overcome a natural reticence (sometimes lapsing into paranoia) she now admits has been an impediment all along.
As 2016 heated up, Clinton’s staff had urged her to admit something that was readily apparent to reporters who covered her: For all her resilience and brains, she’s been an inconsistent and sometimes unlikeable campaigner incapable of inspiring a crowd the way Sanders, Barack Obama or Bill Clinton can. Finally, this spring she began talking about it – and told me that learning to campaign was “a skill” to be acquired, not a gift to be effortlessly deployed, similar to the challenge she faced when learning to litigate in court as a young lawyer in the mid-1970s.
“I hope I’m a better candidate. I feel like I am. I mean … I’m not a natural politician,” she said. “I’m not somebody who, like my husband or Barack Obama, [where it’s] just — it’s music, right? I am someone who loves doing the job that I have. I would love having the job of president because I know how to do it. I know what the country needs. But the campaigning part is hard for me. … Some of this may be personal to me [and] from all the literature I’ve read, [it] may be gender-linked … I’m very comfortable saying, you know, “he,” “she,” “we.” But when I had to stand up in front of people and basically say, ‘I’m asking for your vote,’ I had to really work at that. It absolutely took years. … And, even today, I have to remind myself, you know, I’m asking people to vote for me.”
Before our interview, I spoke to a half-dozen or so current and former Clinton staffers to get a read on her state of mind: Was she frustrated that a victory eight years in the making is being held just beyond arm’s length by someone laughed off as a joke a year ago? In the wake of Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton had been deeply aggravated by her team’s inability to put away Sanders; that eventually gave way to a sense of triumph as she racked up big wins in the South and the industrial Midwest — despite her stunning upset loss in Michigan on March 8.
These days, they told me, her pique is turning outward: She had expected the Vermont senator to fight on but has been aggravated by Sanders’ aggressiveness and how willing his team is to go after her by name (“There is, as you well know, a very negative, intense barrage of attacks on anybody who supports me. I did not see that in ’08,” she said).
But when Clinton complains about Sanders, she’s really just expressing her desire to move him out of the way so she can focus all of her attention on an enemy who poses a far more personal threat — Donald Trump.
And this is where the 2000 campaign becomes relevant to 2016. When Clinton and her staff search for examples of opponents who posed a similar danger, the only one who comes close is Giuliani, who was forced to drop out of the race in November 1999 due to prostate cancer and tabloid marital misery.
“There certainly are similarities,” she says of the comparison. “He [Giuliani] would go into being — from being a tough decision maker into really being a bully.”
When I point out that, in 1999, Clinton compared Giuliani to the late far-right Austrian politician Jorg Haider, she seizes on the idea that Trump’s approach is outside the American norm. “I think it’s fair to say there is a demagogic path that Europeans, South Americans, Asians have pursued, and we know where that leads,” Clinton said. “It’s not something we’ve had in our politics.”
Giuliani, who was considered a favorite to take the Senate seat before his implosion, spent much of mid-1999 heaping scorn on Clinton. Her attitude for much of it, she recalled was, “I’m just not going to respond to his tantrums.” She says she’ll adopt the same high-road attitude this time with Trump, though that doesn’t necessarily jibe with what her staff and surrogates say (“We are going to slam the shit out of him, early and often,” one top Clinton ally told me, adding that neither Clinton savors facing their one-time friendly acquaintance.)
But then, just as she was warming to the topic of Trump, Clinton broke off to assail the other Republican candidate who still stands a chance of securing the nomination: Cruz. “I don’t think that, you know, Ted Cruz is any better,” she told me, alluding to reports that his staff falsely circulated rumors that Ben Carson had dropped out after the Iowa caucuses. “Oh, I think he is a very, you know, mean-spirited guy. You can see it from how the Republican Party responds to him. It’s, you know, a difficult dilemma that they’re in, trying to figure out what to do. I mean, some of the things he did, even in his primaries, to fellow candidates, who were quite agitated about it.”
Yet for all of her self-deprecation, Clinton — even in during the training-wheels campaign of 2000 — was always tactically savvy. The signal event of the 2000 campaign was Lazio’s ill-fated stroll to Clinton’s side of the stage during the September debate in Buffalo just as he seemed to be gaining momentum.
Sipping her soda in Syracuse, Clinton savors the moment with the relish a fighter might get out of recounting the instant a perfect uppercut connected with an opponent’s jaw.
In the moment, Clinton simply saw it as an awkward, scripted maneuver by a poor man’s Giuliani. What viewers later parsed as her flinch wasn’t fear, she now says, it was her attempt to make Lazio look as stupid as she could. “I was more thinking that it would look artificial, it would look kind of phony, and I didn’t want to in any way interfere with a moment that I hoped would reflect badly on him,” she said.
She vividly remembers how, after she left the stage, the guys on the campaign “thought it was a real moment, where Lazio, you know, kind of overwhelmed me, and made me look like I was on the defense.”
Then she spoke to a couple of her closest friends and counselors, Mandy Grunwald and Ann Lewis, who saw something else — an opportunity to make inroads among middle-aged suburban women, who didn’t like the congressman’s body language.
Clinton is genially unapologetic about her decision not to hold a news conference for most of the winter. “I pay a lot of attention to local press,” she explained, repeating practically point by point a memo prepared for her by adviser Lisa Caputo in 1999. “There is an openness with the local press where, once you get to a national press position, like yours and the others that are traveling with me, you’re really under, in my impression, a kind of pressure to produce a political story.”
But she wants to make a larger point about the degrading of decision making — and points to my January podcast with President Obama, who said that tuning out distractions was one of the hardest parts of the presidency.
A lot of times, “I haven’t thought through what I want to say,” she said, pointing to a leader’s need for structured downtime to make informed decisions. “You know, a lot of the people in history who I really admire lived before the hyper-information age we’re living in. Even if they were governing or solving problems in consequential periods, like the Civil War or the world wars or the Great Depression or the Cold War, they had a period of time and space to actually think, to be private. … I don’t think human nature has changed in the last 50 to 150 years, but the stresses, the demands on those of us in public life have just exploded.”
When we talk about 2008, it’s less in the context of the political lessons learned than in the sheer physical and emotional demands the two-year marathon exacts on everyone involved. Her saving grace, she says, is a capacity to fall asleep in a minute on an airplane – and stay asleep even when it’s being buffeted by severe turbulence that scares the hell out of other passengers.
“I can’t fly the plane; I can’t change the weather — falling asleep, you’ll either wake up and things will be fine or you won’t,” she said. “Early on, back in Arkansas, we would fly on anything. I flew on crop dusters. I flew on planes that were so small you felt like you were putting on a pair of pants. I’ve been on planes where doors have flown off … I think [all that] set me up for just knowing that, once I put myself on the plane, I was just going to have to take a deep breath and hopefully enjoy it. I find that very true for a lot of life.”
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