Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton pushed back against criticism from fellow Democrats that she is too polarizing to unite the country as president, arguing that the political battles she has been through make her uniquely equipped to bring the nation together and build a centrist governing coalition.
In an interview aboard her campaign bus, Clinton (N.Y.) acknowledged that she has contributed to the divisive politics of the past decade but said she has learned from those experiences. She said that if she becomes president, she will attempt to assemble a broad, centrist coalition on such key issues as health care, energy independence and national security.
The former first lady called President Bush's political and governing strategy of concentrating primarily on his party's base for support "a tragedy" for the country's politics.
"I actually think that in a way, the fact that I've been through so much incoming fire all these years is an advantage," she said, adding: "It's been my observation that when you're attacked continually in American politics, you either give up or get disoriented or you either lose or leave, or you persevere and show your resilience."
Clinton offered insights into the governing priorities she would bring to the White House, speaking cautiously about extricating the nation from Iraq and urgently about health-care reform. She also said she will take no position on how to fix Social Security and made it clear she does not regard it as a front-burner issue.
"I do not believe it is in a crisis," she said of the retirement program. On Iraq, Clinton continued to avoid being pinned down on how quickly she would withdraw U.S. troops, saying she would begin moving the military out if elected but refusing to give what she described as "the satisfying answer" -- a date when those forces would be gone entirely.
Clinton was similarly vague about how she would handle special interrogation methods used by the CIA. She said that while she does not condone torture, so much has been kept secret that she would not know unlesselected what other extreme measures interrogators are using, and therefore could not say whether she would change or continue existing policies.
"It is not clear yet exactly what this administration is or isn't doing. We're getting all kinds of mixed messages," Clinton said. "I don't think we'll know the truth until we have a new president. I think [until] you can get in there and actually bore into what's been going on, you're not going to know."
The interview, held as her bus sat parked outside an event site in Cedar Rapids on Monday, came in the middle of an important campaign swing for Clinton. She is in a tight battle for Iowa with both Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and former senator John Edwards (N.C.).
On a tour dubbed the "Middle Class Express," Clinton rolled out her economic overview, and Tuesday in Webster City she unveiled a proposal that would provide tax cuts of up to $1,000 to help Americans start a 401(k) retirement plan. She is to travel to New Hampshire on Wednesday and plans to propose a new education funding formula there on Thursday.
Her economic proposals included what she said would be a renewed commitment to fiscal discipline, higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans and programs aimed at easing economic uncertainties among middle-class families. They include housing assistance, making college more affordable and the universal health-care plan she outlined last month.
Clinton spoke at some length about her rivals' criticism that she carries too much political baggage from the conflicts of her husband's administration to be an effective and unifying president.
"I really think my experience uniquely equips me to be president at this time, both having gone through it, having been on the receiving end of it and, in campaigns that were hard-fought, maybe on the giving end of it . . .," she said.
"The overall assessment, given all of the mistakes that I made and all of the lessons that I've learned, is that we've got to put an end to it, but you can't just hope it goes away," she said. "You can't just wake up and say, 'Let's all just hold hands and be together.' You've got to demonstrate that you're not going to be cowed or intimidated or deterred by it, and then you can reach out and bring people who are of good faith together."
She said she has begun to attract support from contributors and voters who may have been skeptical of her in the past. Criticizing Bush, she said he has pursued a "50-plus-one" strategy "instead of saying, 'You know what -- there may be some people we will lose if we reach out' " to create a broader coalition.
"That's what I intend to do," she said. "I intend to win in November 2008, and then I intend to build a centrist coalition in this country that is like what I remember when I was growing up."
While acknowledging that she may have contributed to polarization, she did not specify how or when. Pressed to explain, she said: "I've talked about it a lot, and I think I will continue to talk about it in a lot of different ways."
On Social Security, Clinton declined to say whether she would support reduced benefits or increased taxes to ensure the system's long-term solvency.
"Let me tell you where I stand on Social Security, and maybe that will explain where I stand on all the particulars," she said. "First of all, I reject the conventional wisdom and the Republican talking points that Social Security is in a crisis. I do not agree with that."
She said she would follow President Ronald Reagan's example by appointing a bipartisan commission to study the issue and avoid making her own recommendations until it reports back.
"I'm not advocating any of it as a presidential candidate or as a president," she said. "But I am strongly advocating a bipartisan process, similar to what we had in '83, and when that gets set up, as I hope it will be when I'm president, then I'm going to see what the bipartisan members are going to come up with."
Clinton's position on Iraq continues to draw criticism from some rivals, who say she is prepared to keep troops in combat there longer than they would. She said she has been clear that calling for a withdrawal plan if she is sworn in as president would be a priority, but acknowledged that she is not ready to offer hard deadlines.
"It's one of these questions that I know what the satisfying answer would be, saying, 'Oh, my gosh, they'll be out tomorrow,' or 'They'll be out in three months' or 'They'll be out in a year,' whatever," she said.
She added: "I'm saying that, once you're president and the weight of this responsibility is on your shoulders, I want to be as committed to getting out as quickly as I can, but as clear that I have to look at all of these problems we're going to face."
"I've known him for 30-plus years, and he is one of many people who offers ideas, but he has no official role in the campaign," she said.
© 2007 The Washington Post Company