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Hillary--NY Progressive | The Nation

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Hillary--NY Progressive

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About the Author

Ellen Chesler
Ellen Chesler is Distinguished Lecturer at Hunter College/CUNY. Woman of Valor, her biography of Margaret Sanger, has...

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Hillary Rodham Clinton's all-but-declared campaign to become the next senator from New York has elicited strong--and in some cases strongly opposed--reactions in the Nation community. This week we present two views (click here for the other one).   --The Editors

Let's get beyond the psychobabble that so often passes for informed political analysis these days and take Hillary Rodham Clinton at her word. Perhaps there is no agenda to her Senate candidacy deeper than the challenge she first set for herself and her generation thirty years ago in a Wellesley commencement address that made national headlines: To practice politics as the art of making possible what appears to be impossible.

From this point of view, Hillary Clinton can lay claim to the effective blend of idealism and tenacity that has characterized generations of progressive reformers in New York. And surely these ties should qualify her as a native as much as a lifetime of rooting for the Yankees.

Like Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom she likes to identify, Hillary Clinton has spent the better part of her years as First Lady schlepping around the country and the globe, meeting as often with the powerless as with the powerful. There is nothing really new about her much-publicized listening tour of New York except the several hundred reporters who are now part of her entourage. She has visited more schools, daycare centers, hospitals, family planning clinics, model factories, housing projects, parks, micro-enterprises, agricultural cooperatives and the like than her staff can tally. She has boundless energy and enthusiasm for this sort of thing, born of her understanding that what works, and what's therefore to be taken most seriously, is rarely the product of elegant social or economic planning but rather the less predictable outcome of the often messy process of democratic politics, where policy-makers are obligated to respond to myriad interests.

These encounters are reminiscent of those instigated by New York's most fabled progressive reformers, many of them women, who placed great emphasis on the value of individual case management of social welfare by competent, caring professionals. They too traveled extensively, pioneering the kind of firsthand observation and methodical survey research in factories and tenements that we now take for granted as the basis of informed public policy and yet do not always manage to achieve. They built voluntary civic institutions like settlement houses that in turn modeled innovative ways to provide public healthcare, safe water, food and drugs, more accountable institutions of criminal justice, decent housing, parks and recreation, and wage and hour protections, all of which they saw as necessary conditions for nurturing responsible citizenship.

As the tale is often told, these worthy arrangements created widespread public demand for activism by the federal government and helped to spawn the modern social welfare state with its more secure, if still inadequate, sources of funding and more exacting professional standards for dealing with the poor. But lost in modern efforts to create formal distance between the state and its clients in order to protect their rights was the idea of providing assistance aimed at building personal capacity and self-reliance. This shortcoming fueled the disenchantment that resulted in the compromised welfare reforms of the Clinton era.

Redressing those compromises, without going back to failed policies, is the challenge that must animate Hillary Clinton's bid to remain in public life. That she has a good chance at winning on such a platform is clear from election outcomes since 1996, which have suggested that women especially remain convinced of the need for federal interventions to help them in their own lives and to assist those less fortunate.

It will be important for Hillary Clinton to challenge the view that she is complicit in the abandonment by her husband's Administration of the welfare safety net that New Yorkers first wrote into the New Deal. She can point to the many ways she has worked in private and public to replace what had become a deeply flawed system of pitifully inadequate handouts with better integrated programs of economic subsidy and social support--programs that aim to help lift families out of poverty and to restore hope and opportunity where there was once dependency and despair.

Many of these initiatives are already in place, if not yet adequate to the challenges before them. The Clinton Administration has had success in increasing the minimum wage, rewarding work through the earned-income tax credit and passing the Family and Medical Leave Act; widening opportunities for education and job training; expanding access to Head Start and daycare; and protecting reproductive choice. Incremental changes in healthcare provision have resulted in a substantial broadening of the population of working families eligible for insurance (though they are not necessarily yet enrolled). Among these advances is CHIP, the Children's Health Insurance Program, which covers young people through the age of 18. The Administration has also made low-income working families, not just welfare recipients, eligible for Medicaid, and it has enacted portability legislation that allows workers to hold on to healthcare when they lose their jobs.

Such measures are valuable, but they must be expanded and rigorously enforced. Given her demonstrated interests and commitments, it's easy to imagine that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton would place such expansion and enforcement at the center of her policy agenda, advocating massive public education and outreach and an effective system of penalties for states and localities that do not enroll a higher percentage of eligible clients into programs like Medicaid. Her extensive knowledge of these issues will assure her a leadership opportunity when Congress reauthorizes the welfare bill in 2001 and 2002, as will her mastery of the minutiae of healthcare policy, now that her idea of building consumer protections into managed care is on the table again.

Legislative service is the logical culmination of Hillary Clinton's lifelong devotion to civic life. Voters should reward her for years of experience at trying, if not always succeeding, to address the widely acknowledged flaws of even the most well-intended of our public policies. And we should help sustain her conviction, in the face of so much evidence to the contrary, that political office is still a respectable platform for this commitment.

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