As first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton takes the podium tonight at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, her role in the administration is far different than she and others thought it would be four years ago. Then, there was brave talk about "co-presidents." Mrs. Clinton expected, as did others, that she would play a key and visible policymaking role in her husband's administration.
It certainly started out that way. Accompanied by a wave of favorable, sometimes adulatory, press coverage, Mrs. Clinton took the helm of the presidential commission to reform health care, a sector that is one-seventh of the US economy. Almost immediately she ran into trouble for holding the commission's meetings in secret. When she unveiled the new plan, it was so complex and called for a health-care bureaucracy so huge and controlling that both Congress and the public balked.
Mrs. Clinton and the administration miscalculated on several counts. First, they forgot that President Clinton won with only 43 percent of the popular vote, meaning he didn't have a mandate big enough to support such vast change. Second, while the public was worried about health-insurance coverage and the ability to take insurance from one job to another, it was not interested in a huge new government program. Third, the voters did not elect Mrs. Clinton to anything, and many began to resent her influence and power. Within a couple of years, her poll ratings were in the cellar.
These miscalculations were among the worst of the last four years, matched only by those of Newt Gingrich and the House Republicans, who seemed to forget that their victory in 1994 did not take away the president's veto and who found to their chagrin that the president was not about to roll over and play dead.