Hillary and the neutered opposition



The most striking aspect of Hillary Clinton's confirmation hearing yesterday was the neutered timidity of the Republican opposition. My, how the wheel has turned.

There once was a time when the mere presence of a Clinton would trigger serious GOP bloodlust; indeed, on this very week 10 years ago, the Senate Republican majority was invoking "the rule of law" in its impeachment trial, seeking to boot Bill from office for lying under oath about sex with an intern. And conservatives spent much of that year raising money for a "Stop Hillary" movement, in the hopes of barring her path to the U.S. Senate.

Clearly, however, the defeats of '06 and '08 have defanged the GOP. There's no better proof of the shifting political zeitgeist than Hillary's smooth ascent to the State Department helm.

Yesterday, there was barely a ripple about Hillary in the conservative blogosphere. And the Republican senators on the Foreign Relations Committee, entrusted with the job of closely quizzing the prospective Secretary of State, seemed barely awake.

Dick Lugar, the ranking Republican, did mention at one point that it might be nice if the William J. Clinton Foundation practiced greater transparency, perhaps by disclosing huge foundation donations on a regular basis - as opposed to disclosing those donations just once a year, as Bill intends to do. Lugar suggested that, with greater transparency, Hillary would avoid "potential perception problems" - namely, any lingering suspicion that she might use her office to help reward Bill's foreign donors.

And a bit later, Republican Sen. David Vitter put up some charts and suggested that Bill might want to consider disclosing donations on a quarterly basis, in order to avoid "a lot of real and perceived conflict issues." (It's a testament to how far the GOP has fallen that the task of confronting Hillary was handed to a "family values" senator who only recently was saddled with real and perceived conflict issues, stemming from his patronization of hookers in Washington and New Orleans.)

Anyway, Hillary's response was that Bill and the Obama transition team had already worked out an agreement for annual disclosures, that this agreement "was probably as close as we can get," and that no such conflicts would be in the "atmosphere" at State. Basically, she swatted away the gentle GOP inquiries as if they were mere winged insects.

...To which the Republican response was, essentially, "You won't do what we ask? OK, never mind." Or, as Lugar officially put it, "You're qualifications are remarkable." Or, as GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson officially put it in a subsequent TV interview, "She's a very confident, very qualified individual."

Whatever happened to the old pugnacity? Ideally, the Senate Republicans, and the stop-Hillary commentators, could have hit her yesterday on the issue of inexperience, by pointing out certain facts: "During those two (Bill Clinton) terms in the White House, Mrs. Clinton did not hold a security clearance. She did not attend National Security Council meetings. She was not given a copy of the president's daily intelligence briefing. She did not assert herself on the crises in Somalia, Haiti, and Rwanda. She made no aggressive independent effort to shape policy or gather information about the threat of terrorism."

That's all verbatim from a New York Times story, dated Dec. 26, 2007.

Or the Republicans could have hit her with tough rhetorical questions, such as this: "What exactly is this foreign policy expertise? Was she negotiating treaties? Was she handling crises? The answer is no."

That's all verbatim from Barack Obama, speaking to reporters last March.

Nor did any Republican show up to brandish a copy of yesterday's Associated Press story, which reported that Hillary as a senator has intervened at least six times in government issues directly affecting companies and others that later contributed to Bill's foundation kitty. If the AP story was even mentioned, I didn't hear it.

But this is what happens when a party is declawed. Politically speaking, a frontal assault on Hillary would hardly be productive at this time. The majority of voters, by their actions in the last two elections, have signaled their weariness with Republican policy and tactics; a frontal assault on Hillary, before she has even taken the job, would risk being perceived - particularly in other nations - as disrespectful, as an attempt to undercut America's new commitment to "smart power" diplomacy. She is now moving to a nonpartisan role, and that further limits the opportunity for partisan attack.

Domestically, meanwhile, Hillary is drawing a 65 percent favorability rating in the latest Gallup poll - by far her best showing since becoming a public official eight years ago. By contrast, the congressional Republicans are polling roughly 40 points lower. Hence yesterday's display of GOP timidity. At least for the foreseeable future, it doesn't take Bob Dylan to know which way the wind blows.


Speaking of belly-up behavior, the Senate Democrats will officially cave to Blago tomorrow, when they swear in Roland Burris as the new senator from Illinois. Score one for Rod Blagojevich. It's a special politician who can outplay the U.S. Senate while being impeached in his own state by a vote of 114 to 1.

And it's a rare pol who can allegedly engage in criminal corruption while flaunting a love of British poetry. Twice in recent weeks, in the midst of his crisis, Blago has entertained us in that manner, reciting poems by Rudyard Kipling and Alfred Tennyson.

The next time he is so moved, I would suggest instead that he quote George Washington Plunkitt, the Democratic pol from Tammany Hall who flourished at the turn of the last century. Plunkitt is more relevent to his current predicament. Here's a Plunkitt excerpt from 1905, presented here in free verse:

There's an honest graft,
And I'm an example of how it works.
I might sum up the whole thing by sayin'
"I seen my opportunities,
And I took 'em."

And Plunkitt would have advised Blago to dump the British bards. Here he is again, in 1905: "Talk the language the people talk. Don't try to show how the situation is by quotin' Shakespeare. Shakespeare was all right in his way, but he didn't know anything about Fifteenth District politics...I know it's an awful temptation, the hankerin' to show off your learnin'. I've felt it myself, but I always resist it. I know the awful consequences."