Trying To Craft a Winning Message for Hillary Clinton

By E.J. Kessler

Published March 18, 2005, issue of March 18, 2005.
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WASHINGTON — These days Senator Hillary Clinton has been sounding more like a Bush administration hawk than like the first lady who drew flak for kissing Yasser Arafat’s wife and endorsing a Palestinian state before the White House did.

The Palestinian Authority must “act with dispatch to dismantle the terror operations,” Clinton declared in a March 6 speech to the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. Sounding like President Bush, she also told the assembled Jewish communal leaders that “there is no more important task before the United States than to support the spread of freedom and democracy, and to do so with a unified voice.”

The previous week, at a gathering of Jewish activists in Washington, Clinton, a New York Democrat, blasted “the continuing support of terrorism that comes out of Syria and Iran” and insisted that stronger sanctions were needed to deal with the “aggressive posture” in Damascus.

Such hawkish positions might alienate Clinton’s old fans on the anti-war left, as she prepares for a re-election campaign in 2006 and a possible presidential run in 2008. But Ann Lewis, Clinton’s new message-meister in Washington, has a different view: This sort of tough foreign-policy talk is the medicine that’s going to save the Democratic Party.

“The first and crucial step for the Democrats to regain the public trust and confidence is to make clear that people can have confidence in us that we will keep them safe,” Lewis said in a recent interview in her Washington office. Lewis, communications director of Clinton’s political action committee, Hillpac, chastised Democrats for being “slow and ungainly” in adapting to this “very basic and not unreasonable criteria for choosing leaders.”

Clinton not only understands the requirement, Lewis said, “but has a coherent approach to national security that can serve as a model.”

Lewis’s arrival at Hillpac this past December was seen widely as an indication that Clinton intends to run a national race. The sister of Rep. Barney Frank, the sharp-tongued Massachusetts Democrat, Lewis knows a thing or two about presidential communications. She worked to re-elect President Bill Clinton in 1996, before serving in the White House from 1997 to 2000 as communications director and then as an adviser. She left the White House to help Hillary Clinton run for Senate in 2000.

As the chairwoman of the Women’s Vote Center of the Democratic National Committee, she led the party’s efforts to reach out to female voters in the 2002 and 2004 elections. She also knows something about recruiting Jewish support.

A member of the Chairman’s Council of the National Jewish Democratic Council, she was among the strategists asked to deliver a postmortem of the Jewish vote in the 2004 election.

The Jewish vote — which went 75% for Kerry — turned out much better from the Democratic point of view than the women’s vote, especially the married women’s vote. While Kerry won women overall 51% to 48%, he lost married women by 11 points, according to a Women’s Vote Center analysis.

For Lewis, Jews are the original “values voters” — having voted their consciences, not their pocketbooks, for “200 years,” she said. Even so, she added, Republicans “have successfully yoked our fight against terrorism with our stand with Israel,” having “understood early on that was a smart way to talk to the Jewish community.”

“I think some elected Democrats were a little slower to recognize that this could even be an issue, because they’ve had such good, strong relationships with Jewish communities in their states,” said Lewis, a thin, bespectacled woman who wears her brown hair in a chin-length bob. “They were a little bit surprised.”

Lewis railed against what she called the “double standard” that some Jewish organizations apply to Democrats. For example, she said, since Bush took office, Jewish groups have quieted their calls for the American government to move its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem.

“There were demands that were made on Democratic presidents and Democratic candidates that are not made against George Bush,” she said. “And I will add that his literal hand-in-hand friendship with the Saudis should be a real subject of concern. We have a Saudi prince who is still attacking ‘Zionists,’ and there is never a public word of criticism from this government. And most recently, when Vice President Cheney gets on the air and says about Iran that maybe Israel can take out [Tehran’s nuclear program] — I was horrified. What an act of irresponsibility to set Israel up.”

Howard Wolfson, a top Clinton adviser, praises Lewis as “a total pro” who’s “always on message” and has “wonderful strategic judgment.” Stacie Spector, an associate vice chancellor at University of California, San Diego, who worked under Lewis at the White House, said Lewis always has exhibited “grace under pressure” and never forgets to communicate with her friends in the liberal institutions of the Democratic base. But Lewis, who had the unenviable task of spinning such Clinton scandals as the flap about the overnights for campaign donors in the Lincoln bedroom, has her detractors among the White House press corps.

“Her style was blatant denial of the totally obvious, and changing the subject,” said Jacob Weisberg, the political columnist and editor of Slate. Republican strategist Kellyanne Conway once sneered that Lewis is “one of the Clinton apologists.”

As for Hillary Clinton, Lewis said that the senator will not have much trouble talking to New York’s Jewish voters, whom she won narrowly — 55% to 45% — in 2000, owing to unease over several Middle East-related flaps during her time as first lady. This time around, Lewis said, in addition to brandishing popular liberal positions on a host of domestic issues, Clinton has established herself as an unquestioned supporter of Israel and bolstered her security credentials with a stint on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

According to Lewis, Clinton’s approach works for two reasons: “because she believes it,” and “because she’s consistent.” By contrast, she said, the Democratic standard bearer in 2004, Senator John Kerry, “ran what was basically an inconsistent campaign… [with] a different message frame every two or three weeks.”

The Kerry team also “kept trying to rationally convince, to put a presidency together, line by line, plan by plan.” But, she said, people “don’t vote for plans, they vote for presidents.”






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