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Hillary Clinton's Senate Years Provide Insight Into How She Might Govern


On the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton often says she's not a natural politician. She says she doesn't enjoy retail politics like past Democratic candidates or even her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders. But there was a chapter in Clinton's political life where her personal style allowed her to fit in. Here's NPR congressional reporter Susan Davis.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hillary Clinton admits she's not a rock star on the campaign trail. She can't communicate like Bill Clinton. She can't give a speech like Barack Obama, and she doesn't draw thousands of supporters to rallies like her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders. This is how she put it at a recent CNN debate.


HILLARY CLINTON: I am not a natural politician in case you haven't noticed, like my husband or President Obama. So I have a view that I just have to do the best I can, get the results I can, make a difference in people's lives.

DAVIS: While Clinton's particular set of skills has not wowed on the campaign trail, there was a time and place where her personality and governing style were widely praised, even among her political opponents, the United States Congress.

Republicans I interviewed who served with Clinton during her eight years on Capitol Hill say they were often surprised by how easy she was to work with. She had real policy expertise, and she knew how to cut a deal. Former Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner was impressed with her diligence on the Armed Services Committee. He was the chairman when Clinton joined the panel.

JOHN WARNER: When we had issues, she studied. She was well-prepared, almost without exception. She did her homework, and she was well-prepared. When she spoke, she spoke quite intelligently and factually and persuasively.

DAVIS: Others recall Clinton as a generous colleague who was happy to share credit, even if it helped Republicans, like Peter King, the only New York Republican still in Congress who served with her.

PETER KING: I had an excellent working relationship with her. She was on speed dial. Our offices would constantly talk. We never had to worry about Hillary one-upping you or anything. She was very, very good. Even - she would always put your name in her press release, that type thing.

DAVIS: Clinton can be a polarizing and unpopular figure for many Republican voters, but for many Republican lawmakers, she could be a critical partner to get things done. Former New York Republican Congressman Tom Reynolds credits Clinton with helping him bring home federal funds for a Buffalo medical campus and block an effort to close a Niagara Falls military base. These are the kind of things that don't draw national headlines, but it's that kind of work that builds respect in the halls of the U.S. Capitol.

TOM REYNOLDS: I found that when it came to New York and pothole issues, if you had a bona fide issue and you wanted help to get the job done, she was willing to listen and to work on it.

DAVIS: So Clinton was prepared, generous, effective. And these are all Republicans saying that. Perhaps, some of the lawmakers most apprehensive about how she'd be as a colleague when she first won her Senate seat in 2000 were Democrats. Here was the first first lady about to become a senator. Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland says Democrats didn't know what to expect.

BARBARA MIKULSKI: And when she came, there were some initial hesitation on the part of the Senate. Was she was going to be celebrity, diva, entourage?

DAVIS: Now Mikulski's probably Clinton's biggest fan girl in Congress today. She said Clinton thrived in the Senate because where people were expecting a publicity hound, they got a policy wonk.

MIKULSKI: I mean, she always comes with the memos and the binders and, you know, if you ask her for a glass of water, she'll tell you the EPA clean water regs.

DAVIS: But as Clinton herself acknowledges, the skills that make a good senator don't always translate to the rigors of the presidential campaign. It's maybe why she sometimes sounds nostalgic about her years in Congress, as she did in a recent podcast with Politico's Glenn Thrush, who hesitated to address the former secretary of state as senator.


GLENN THRUSH: And I was going to call you Senator Clinton because it's..

CLINTON: (Laughter) That's good. I loved being a senator.

DAVIS: But most of those colleagues that Clinton was able to work with aren't here anymore. More than half of both the House and Senate has turned over since she left Capitol Hill in 2009. So if she wins this November, she'll have to start from scratch with the next Congress. Susan Davis, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.