Can we buy what Hillary’s selling?

Hillary Clinton is humble. She also works well with others, deplores big government and is no liberal ideologue.

At least that’s what Clinton hopes voters will conclude from the rollout of her health care plan, a smart bit of political branding that put her chief Democratic presidential rivals on the defensive and exposed a lack of leadership from the GOP field.

Voters will need to decide whether they buy what she’s selling.

HUMILITY: From her entry on the public stage (she chose to work when she could have “stayed home and baked cookies and had teas)” to the secretive, my-way-or-the-highway manner in which she ran the 1993 health care reform team, the former first lady struck many voters as arrogant.

Now, she’s purported to be humbled by hard experience. “If you don’t learn from your mistakes,” the New York senator told The Associated Press, “you stop growing.”

CONGENIALITY: Other than her husband and President Bush, there may be no more polarizing figure in politics. She battled with Republicans and the “vast right-wing conspiracy” over the Whitewater inquiry, her husband’s impeachment and her past legal work and investments.

Now, with a bipartisan record in the Senate, she promises to build consensus toward health care reform.

“I wish it were possible just to wave a magic wand and to say from the White House, `Here’s what I want.’ But that’s not the way it works,” she told the AP.

NEW ERA: Her husband declared “the era of big government is over,” but only after the couple fumbled a big-government approach to solving the health care crisis.

Now, she says there are limits to what government can do. “We’re not creating any new bureaucracies,” she told the AP. “We are building on what already works.”

PRAGMATISM: Despite a relatively moderate record during her 30 years in public life, many voters considered Clinton a liberal.

Now, she underscores the pragmatism of her plan. For example, Clinton considered scrapping the employer-based system for health insurance, but concluded that employers and employees like it.

“It may be because it’s the only thing they know, it is something that has always been done, so they don’t want to give up,” Clinton told the Wall Street Journal. “But that came as something of a surprise to us.”

In purely political terms, the well-oiled Clinton campaign had a good week.

While less ambitious and no more innovative than other Democratic plans, her health care policy received an inordinate amount of attention.

The lopsided coverage is due in part to the memory of the 1993 fiasco and curiosity about Hillary 2.0, but it was also a matter of pent-up demand: After dodging national media interviews for months, Clinton made herself available to scores of media outlets.

The attention overshadowed her chief rival, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who made two important economic speeches — one chastising Wall Street and another outlining tax cuts for the middle class.

In a new television ad, Obama takes an implicit slap at Clinton for bowing to health care industry opposition in the 1990s.

“I’ve taken on the drug and insurance companies and won,” he says in a one-minute ad airing in Iowa, adding a vow to “bring real change in Washington.”

Sen. John Edwards’ campaign tried to seize the spotlight by denouncing a fundraising luncheon that included sessions for Clinton donors with members of Congress who have expertise in homeland security.

“Today’s Clinton fundraising event is a ‘poster child’ for what is wrong with Washington and what should never happen again with a candidate running for the highest office in the land,” Edwards’ senior adviser Joe Trippi said in a letter to supporters.

He was right. The event conjured memories of the fundraising scandal during the Clinton administration, when donors were rewarded with Lincoln Bedroom stays.

But the Trippi letter received nowhere near the attention as Clinton’s rollout.

The Republicans? They were virtually absent from the debate, dredging up talking points from the 1990s that accuse Clinton of pushing socialized medicine.

There is much to criticize about her plan, but it doesn’t fit any reasonable definition of socialized medicine.

Even Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor whose crowning achievement is a state health care plan that resembles Clinton’s in key ways, said the New York senator “doesn’t believe in the American people.”

Doesn’t believe in the American people? That’s an outrageous thing to say — even if you don’t buy the humble, pragmatic, get-along product peddled by the Clinton campaign this week.


Ron Fournier has covered politics for the Associated Press for nearly 20 years. The On Deadline column runs at least once per week.