If there’s a certain schizophrenia in the rhetoric of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton these days it’s intentional. There she was last week, at a predominantly black congregation, lambasting Republicans. She lamented that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has been “run like a plantation . . . And you know what I am talking about”. Republicans as slave holders? Now that’s inflammatory.
Then only days later we saw the other side of Hillary’s split political personality — a neoconservative one: “I believe that we lost critical time in dealing with Iran because the White House chose to downplay the threats and to outsource the negotiations. I don’t believe you face threats like Iran or North Korea by outsourcing it and standing on the sidelines.”
She went on: “Let’s be clear about the threat we face. A nuclear Iran is a danger to Israel, to its neighbours and beyond. We cannot and should not — must not — permit Iran to build or acquire nuclear weapons.”
Running to the left of President George W Bush and to the right of him as well is not a feat most politicians are able to pull off. But Hillary has no alternative. And in that lies her dilemma. She has too liberal a past (and reputation) to be the Democratic right’s favoured candidate; and she’s become far too conservative in the Senate to win over the Democratic left.
Senator Clinton’s straddle between two political identities, of course, is temporarily shrewd. She knows full well that the Democrats’ key weakness is the war on terror. They have yet to persuade the public that they can defend the West more effectively than the Republicans. And so they have to do two things at once: oppose the president’s conduct of the war, while explaining how they’d do better. So far: not so good. But at least Hillary is trying. It’s complicated. Saying that you’re in favour of wiretaps to spy on Al-Qaeda but want to have court warrants to monitor them, is very sane. But it’s not a soundbite. Compared with the Bush-Cheney Big Daddy act, it’s not terribly convincing.
Hillary’s strategy, in response, has been not just to deploy hawkish words but to back them with a hawkish voting record. She’s now evaluated as one of the more conservative Democrats in Congress. She has visited the troops and she says she won’t revoke her vote in favour of the war to depose Saddam. She’s following her husband’s old gamble: triangulate, triangulate. But Bill triangulated once he’d become president. Hillary is triangulating while trying to win over her party’s left-wing base and more moderate voters. That is proving the tough part.
The left loathes the war in Iraq, believes it was started in bad faith, and that it is counterproductive in the war on terror. It has gained traction from the internet as left-wing collective websites such as the Daily Kos ramp up the anti-war and anti-Bush rhetoric. Their favourite candidate is Senator Russ Feingold, an independent liberal, who is unrepentant in his anti-war stance, and a big campaigner against Washington sleaze. If Feingold falters, there’s even Al Gore, now well to the left of Hillary and incensed by what he argues is systematic abuse of executive power.
Hillary’s response has not been to co-opt the left’s rhetoric. She knows it would kill her in a presidential race with a centrist Republican in 2008. So she has tried to win over the base by raising oodles of money for local candidates, travelling the country to win points and curry favours.
Her celebrity can guarantee a big crowd at any fundraising event. So she just had a big shindig for the New Hampshire governor. She raised a cool half a million bucks for Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan last month, raked in another $600,000 for the Dems in Kentucky and is scheduled to do the same in Washington state.
In all this she has been lucky to have lacklustre Republican opposition in New York state where she faces re-election as senator this November. Secure at home, she’s pursuing Bush’s 2000 strategy of amassing so much campaign money and so many favours that she becomes the “inevitable” nominee for 2008, regardless of her ideological blur.
Two men, however, stand in her way. The first is Mark Warner, a telegenic, youthful retiring governor of Virginia, who turned one of the redder Republican states blue with smart governance and fiscal responsibility. Governors almost always have the advantage over senators in presidential contests because they have had to make decisions rather than simply debate them in Congress.
Warner is also — how to put this nicely? — fresher than Senator Clinton. Yes, there’s nostalgia for the 1990s, but not that much.
Which brings us to Hillary’s other problem male: her husband. It’s impossible to imagine him in the White House as a “first lady” figure, arranging state dinners and redecorating the Lincoln bedroom. Electing Hillary means re-re-electing Bill.
When Bush Jr was elected no one believed his dad would actually be running the show (although a few chastened conservatives might have appreciated some old-school moderation at the helm these past few years). Electing Hillary will be the same two-for-one deal it was in 1992 and 1996. Americans like moving forward, not backwards.
At some point, Hillary’s positioning will also hit a wall of opposition. That wall will either be the Democratic left-wing base of activists, a base that rallied to her in the White House largely because of her rabid right-wing opponents, and certainly not because of her centrist policies.
Or it will be centrist independents who’d pick John McCain over another Clinton.
My own hope is that she doesn’t run. She doesn’t have the instinctive connection with people to be an effective national politician: she’s too cold, too calculating, too distant.
Her speeches have been getting better but still make Gore seem like a good performer. And a repeat of the acrimonious culture wars of the 1990s is about the last thing America needs.
Besides, there is a perfect position for her in American public life — and it’s not in the Senate, despite her eminently respectable record there. She belongs on the Supreme Court. She’s a lawyer who wants to change the world. That’s almost a job description for a liberal justice. But she’ll need a Democratic president to put her there. Maybe some of the cash she has been raising will help bring that about.
It could fund far worse causes — Hillary’s own presidential ambition, for one.
Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.