Is McCain copying Hillary?
On Sept. 24, Hillary Rodham Clinton received a surprise phone call from the man she’s often denounced as an economic know-nothing: John McCain.
This was no social call, even though Clinton likes McCain enough to keeps his photo on the wall of her Senate office. The GOP nominee had already chatted with Bill Clinton about the mortgage crisis and wanted to pick the senator’s brain about her new proposal to have the federal government buy up bad mortgages and renegotiate terms more favorable to homeowners on verge of default.
“McCain said he had been motivated by it, he was very complimentary about what she had proposed and wanted to know more,” said a person with knowledge of the call.
Clinton responded coolly: “She didn’t engage him, she just said, ‘Thank you’ and heard him out.”
Three weeks later, at the town hall debate in Nashville, Tenn., McCain rolled out a $300 billion anti-foreclosure plan that’s similar, if not identical, to Clinton’s — and subsequently credited the concept “to a suggestion that Sen. Hillary Clinton made not that long ago.”
Clinton dropped out of the race four months ago, but her presence looms large at tonight’s final McCain-Obama debate being held, appropriately enough, in her adopted state of New York.
Clinton was arguably the first candidate in either party to grasp the transformative political effect of the economic crisis, and her onetime *****s have been borrowing — liberally — from her policy and rhetorical playbooks.
“Everything in this election is being washed away by this stock market and economic stuff ... and she was the one who came out first with specific policies to deal with this, so she’s clearly having an influence on both of them,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
“The reason why she’s so influential is because we never had a primary candidate who won 18 million votes,” said former Bill Clinton adviser Paul Begala, who likened the former first lady’s impact to that of third-party candidate Ross Perot in 1992.
“Bill Clinton had to adjust his message to appeal to Perot’s voters, and [McCain and Obama] have to do the same thing with her,” he added. “The way you get her voters is not to suck up to her but to carry her message and her programs. ... That’s why Obama’s a more natural fit.”
Clinton aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, said she is still smarting over her loss, but is gratified Obama and McCain have carried parts of her agenda. And they say she’s downright tickled that McCain, a lifelong crusader against government spending, is getting in touch with his inner Hillary to woo her white, working-class base and female voters not sold on Obama.
“It’s hilarious. It’s like McCain is trying to copy her, but he’s using a busted Xerox machine,” said one of Clinton’s top campaign advisers. “We were out in front on the economy. She was the first one to really pay attention to people’s anxieties, and both Obama and McCain have been playing catch-up ever since.”
The McCain campaign says the call to Clinton is just further proof that the GOP nominee is a president who can work across party lines.
“The fact the fact that they were talking in the midst of a heated campaign like this, shows it’s not just rhetoric John McCain gives when he talks about working across the aisle,” said spokesman Brian Rogers. “Obviously, Sen. Clinton is going to be a major force in the Senate in the future, and they have had a long friendship.”
An Obama spokesman had no comment.
Presidential nominees have a long history of appropriating ideas from *****s. Bill Clinton’s decision to focus on the middle class and fiscal responsibility sharpened after facing former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas in the primaries. Perot’s candidacy, with its focus on balancing the budget, pushed the former president further in that direction.
For her part, even Hillary Clinton “adopted some of John Edwards’ populist themes” when the former North Carolina senator dropped out of the primaries in early 2008, Begala said.
It’s not surprising that Obama, who shares Clinton’s basic liberal-moderate worldview, would, in turn, adopt her ideas. But the extent to which he’s incorporated specific Clinton policy proposals is striking.
On Monday, Obama told a crowd in hard-hit Toledo, Ohio, that he wanted to impose a 90-day freeze on foreclosures by banks that partake in the $700 billion rescue plan.
When Clinton proposed a package that contained a similar measure in January, Obama nixed it. At the time, his staff posted news stories denouncing the freeze on his campaign Web site, including a Fortune magazine story that tagged it “perhaps the dumbest solution to the current mortgage mess.”
Health care was also a major flashpoint between Clinton and Obama during the primary, but Obama has moved closer to Clinton on this issue, as well.
During the primary debates, Clinton repeatedly hammered the Illinois senator, accusing him of refusing to sign on to her commitment to “universal” coverage, claiming Obama’s plan would deny benefits to 15 million Americans.
In July, Obama reversed course and signed onto Clinton’s proposal to grant health insurance tax credits for small business owners, telling a national Hispanic group that the “idea [was] championed by my friend Hillary Clinton, who has been leading the way in our battle to insure every American.”
The copycat claims are nothing new. During the primaries, Clinton’s staff circulated a memo enumerating what they believed to be Obama rip-offs, including his apparent adoption of her plan to create millions of “green-collar” jobs and Clinton’s proposal for a national infrastructure bank.
“Sen. Obama has clearly followed us on an entire range of issues," Neera Tanden, then Clinton's policy director, told Newsday in April. “It raises a fundamental question: If Sen. Obama can't propose his own major policies during the campaign, how is he going to do it as president?"
Tanden now works for Obama’s policy team in Chicago.
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