Bridge To the Center

By David Ignatius (THE WASHINGTON POST, 01/11/06):

A tinny band strikes up «Happy Days Are Here Again» as Sen. Hillary Clinton makes her way to the podium at a campaign rally. And here in Upstate New York, where Democrats not so long ago were an endangered species, it looks like happy days are indeed ahead.

A week before Election Day, the Democrats are in a dominant position across the Empire State. Clinton is leading her Republican challenger, John Spencer, by nearly 30 percentage points. The Democratic candidate for governor, Eliot Spitzer, is up nearly 50 points over his GOP rival, John Faso. Perhaps most important, Democrats Eric Massa and Jack Davis are making strong races in Upstate congressional districts that have been solidly Republican for years.

A day spent with Clinton on the campaign trail Monday illustrates the broad, bipartisan themes that have helped rebuild the party in Upstate New York. Her comments also signal the legislative strategy that Clinton hopes to pursue next year, when her party is likely to have control of at least one house of Congress and Clinton herself will be the instant front-runner in the 2008 presidential race.

Rochester on a clear fall day seems like an idyllic version of Clinton’s own girlhood home in the prosperous Chicago suburbs. It’s a sturdy, Rust Belt industrial city — a place that sees itself in the middle of the political landscape. The mayor, Robert Duffy, is a former police chief who was recruited to run by both parties but opted for the Democrats and now has an 89 percent approval rating. In national politics, it sometimes seems the country is ripped at the seams by extremists on both sides, but it doesn’t feel that way in Rochester.

The issues Clinton stresses through the day are classic «bridge to the future» themes articulated by Bill Clinton when he was president, but with a Hillary twist. She starts the morning brainstorming with local leaders on how to make Rochester a hub for «green» alternative-energy technologies, building around a plant that makes fuel cells. Next, she meets with a health-care network and pitches a revival of her failed 1993 campaign to lower health costs and insure the uninsured. Then it’s a tour of a poor urban neighborhood being redeveloped with public-private partnerships of the sort the Clintons have long championed. Her last stop is a steel company where she talks about reviving American manufacturing.

Clinton can’t match her husband’s raw political energy — his ebullient way of blurring the edges and seeming to be all things to all people — but she’s getting closer. She feels the pain of the doctors and nurses: «We are just skating along, and the ice is cracking, and we’re in danger of falling through.» At the political rally that ends the day, she turns her version of centrist politics into a war cry, shouting to the crowd that even conservative Republicans are deciding that «there is nothing conservative or Republican» about Bush policies. She leaves the boisterous rally with a Hillaryesque: «Oh my goodness. This is so exciting.»

What will happen to this Democratic energy after Nov. 7? Will it coalesce into strategies for effective governing, or will it simply elevate Bush-bashing to a wider stage? The rage among Democratic activists may undermine the party’s effectiveness, but you don’t see that negativism here. The Democrats are mounting a surprisingly effective challenge in the bedrock GOP 29th District south of here thanks to Massa, a Navy veteran who has bonded with the activists’ «Net roots» Internet campaign. Massa’s pro-military, anti-Iraq-war stance defines the high ground this year for Democrats.

Clinton says her priorities in the new Congress will be the same issues she discussed here: creating an energy research agency to speed development of alternative technologies; building a nationwide health-information system as a first step toward broader health reform; restoring the budget rules of the 1990s to slow runaway federal spending; and shaping a bipartisan foreign policy that can salvage what’s possible in Iraq. She gave a powerful speech Tuesday at the Council on Foreign Relations, staking out this center ground.

I asked Clinton at the end of this long campaign day to sum up where she will be going in 2007 and beyond, and her answer sounded like a version of America as Upstate New York: «Americans are primarily pragmatic,» she said. «We are both conservative and progressive. In the pragmatic center, you get people together; you listen, you learn; you don’t draw lines in the sand.»

Her updated version of the Clinton gospel is obviously working here in Rochester. But for Hillary, the hard part begins the morning after Election Day.