For proof that you can be registered to vote and still born yesterday, ask a Hillary Clinton enthusiast his take on the senator’s recent jog toward the center. If he’s as practiced as the fans I’ve encountered, he’ll tell you that she’s always been a moderate, that she has historically identified with conservatives on national security and with centrists on abortion, that her 2006 Senate campaign – now being billed as a dress rehearsal for a widely anticipated 2008 presidential bid – is little more than a display of her true colors, a coming of age for Clinton, who the enthusiast will claim has always been aligned with mainstream political culture.
If that doesn’t grab you, he’ll make a point to discuss her formative years, a story with all the humble elements of the customary blue-collar narrative: a religious middle-class home, a father in textiles, a homemaker for a mother. Then he’ll suggest her book, “Living History,” a Bible for the politically gullible, in which Clinton supposedly reconciles her liberal public image with her personal, more traditional meditations as a life-long Methodist. Clinton, he’ll argue, is a victim of typecasting, a middle-of-the-road politician slandered by her opponents and misread by the media.
Of course, if it’s the nonfiction version you want, ask the same question of political operative-turned-pundit Dick Morris, a longtime advisor to the family and an understood authority in Washington on anything and everything Clinton. While I can’t speak for him directly, I would be surprised if Morris, as sharp and cynical as he is, couldn’t see right through the Senator’s recent maneuvers; she is, after all, reading from his playbook.
Morris calls the approach “triangulation,” an aerial navigation technique he turned into political lingo while operating former President Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign. The objective is to raise your candidate above partisan divisions, to distance him from party lines and rigid platforms, from Democrats and Republicans alike. If contrived properly, the candidate can at once broaden his base of popular support and remain accessible enough to lawmakers for a prominent policy agenda.
Examples of Hillary’s efforts abound: The senator is as unrepentant a war proponent as Democrats come these days, never bending on her decision to support the use of force and consistently speaking out against the merits of immediate withdrawal. And having positioned herself to the right of President Bush on Iran, Clinton gets free headlines each time she laces into the White House for being too tame with the uranium thirsty state. Off the foreign-policy tack, Clinton has recently tweaked her position on abortion, now identifying as a pro-choice “anti-abortionist,” a position as politically meaningless at it is ethically courageous.
Exactly who advised Clinton to abandon rank and file is unclear, though I can say with confidence that it wasn’t Morris. In fact, Morris has gone on the record with the opposite advice, warning that by moving toward the center too early, Clinton risks alienating base voters. He may be onto something. Clinton’s new posture reflects rock-hard confidence in her outlook for the primary election. Preliminary polls show her trouncing the field. But at this early stage, when the candidate list is light and tentative, opinion polls can’t be relied on to measure anything more than name recognition. Bill Clinton had room to maneuver with Democrats in 1996 because as incumbent, he was also the presumptive nominee. Add another household name to the 2008 roster – Al Gore, John Edwards, you name it – and Hillary’s critical mass begins to shrink.
But say, for the sake of argument, that Clinton really is a primary shoo-in. There’s still no reason to believe that the next year and a half of image-polishing would do much to make her marketable to the rest of the country. Of all the false pretenses this campaign is built on, the most damaging remains Clinton’s inability to recognize that far from any moral philosophy or policy position, her “electability” problem is one of sincerity.
Clinton’s stint as a born-again centrist, what Los Angeles Times columnist Jonah Goldberg called her “latest reinvention,” is widely recognized as a political stunt – and rightfully so. From her late 1960s romance with the Black Panther Party to her short-lived fight for socialized healthcare, Clinton has spent the better part of her adult life in costume, playing the female protagonist for whichever role has the largest audience, never actually finding herself along the way. Clinton’s is the story of a politician teeter-tottering her way through a career, too terrified of her self-image to let it develop. Dick Morris may have coined the term, but Hillary Clinton has been triangulating her entire life.
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