She has also taken on the role of the plan's chief sales agent. Once the plan is formally released in the next few weeks, Clinton expects to hit the road again, rallying supporters, debating opponents and testing public opinion. And nearly all her public appearances to date have been designed to highlight one aspect or another of the unfolding program. That was her task at the University of Nebraska, warning the standing-room-only crowd at the auditorium there of the dangers facing the nation's economy if the health-care system is not radically changed and, not incidentally, wooing the state's junior senator--Bob Kerrey, an influential Democrat on health-care issues--by devoting a day to his constituents.
The stakes could not be higher. If health-care reform succeeds, Democratic strategists dream of cementing the loyalty of an entire generation of middle-class and working-class voters, much as the advent of Social Security helped lock in Democratic voters from the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt to those of Lyndon B. Johnson. Should that happen, few will have the temerity to continue questioning Hillary's role. If it fails, however, most Clinton advisers believe that it will bring not just the First Lady, but also the whole Administration, down with it.
LAST SUMMER, AT THE REPUBLICAN CONVENTION, CONSERVATIVE PATRICK J. Buchanan tried to create a campaign issue of the question, "What does Hillary believe?"
His unsubtle attack attracted a flurry of attention to a few articles Clinton had written early in her career, particularly one arguing for a broader legal recognition of the rights of children in cases where their futures were endangered by indifferent families. Beyond that, however, the media have made little attempt to seriously grapple with Buchanan's question. Given her undisputed power within the Administration, what she stands for is worth examining more closely.
Her own answer might surprise people. "I view myself as very conservative," she says, "which is why it's always so amazing to me to be characterized by other people." Yet what she call her conservatism is far different from the usual definition--it is neither the aggressively individualistic, pro-market, anti-government ideology of the Reagan years nor the patriarchal, theologically based, somewhat authoritarian ideology of the Religious Right.
As a 17-year-old, in 1964--the eldest in a family of three--Clinton was a "Goldwater Girl," backing the favored candidate of her father, an Illinois small-business man. But as happened with many other college students during the turbulent late '60s, by the time she graduated five years later from Wellesley College, Clinton's views had changed.
At her graduation, chosen to speak by her classmates, she lauded campus protests as "an attempt (by students) to find an identity" that would be consistent with the "original ideas" of America while freeing students from "the prevailing acquisitive and competitive corporate life." Later, in law school at Yale, she began to research the legal rights of children. She was an idealistic and dedicated--some friends say humorless--social activist, journeying to Texas to help register Latino voters, working for George McGovern's presidential campaign, and beginning an affiliation with the Children's Defense Fund that continued until this past January.
Not that she ever strayed far from the mainstream. While in college, for example, she worked for Eugene McCarthy's anti-war presidential bid and also for the candidacy of moderate Republican Nelson A. Rockefeller. "The most radical thing I did in the '60s was to become a Democrat," she has joked to friends. Looking back, Clinton still lays claim to her activist credentials, but she says she has mellowed. "I think I have understood much more about my own limits and the limits of human endeavor," she says. "I'm more patient. But I work hard not to become so patient that it slips into complacency in the face of injustice or unfairness. I think my commitment to that is as strong as it's ever been, but my understanding of the difficulties that confront the human experience are probably much deeper then they (were) when I was younger."
Now Clinton talks about the need for a complex, rather than a purely ideological view of the issues. And it is that complexity that allows her to call herself conservative.
During the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, liberal thought often de-emphasized the importance of families and absolved individuals of responsibility for their actions under the banner of "not blaming the victim." That position removed most liberals from the debate about the way broken families and a distorted culture can foster, say, urban violence. Clinton rejects that approach.