The Strange Metamorphosis of Senator Clinton

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

“I am, you know, adamantly against illegal immigrants.”

Who recently blurted that out?

Pat Buchanan? Congressman Tom Tancredo? Nope, it was Hillary Clinton.

Which Democratic senator has expressed little public remorse in voting for 23 counts to authorize war against Iraq, and has scoffed, “Saddam Hussein had been a real problem for the international community for more than a decade”?

Yep, Clinton again.

And who frowned on frequent abortion, hoping that it “does not ever have to be exercised or only in very rare circumstances”?

Need I even answer that?

We all know that the New York senator is moving ever rightward, but why so brazenly and all of a sudden?

The depressing answer is clear for any Northern liberal who wishes to be president: No Democratic presidential candidate has been elected without a Southern accent in the half-century since 1960. If the country in the last half-century has grown more conservative, the South is emblematic of that shift.

John F. Kennedy’s long-ago success was by a razor-thin margin. He pulled it off by emphasizing national defense, space exploration and tax cuts that apparently created the necessary patina of conservatism that Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton later found naturally in their drawly good-old-boy personas.

In contrast, given the defeats of Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis and John Kerry, it seems that liberals from above the Mason-Dixon line have little chance anymore of winning sufficient red states to capture the Electoral College. A sort-of-Southern-sounding Al Gore came close and won the popular vote in 2000.

Many on the left, however, feel that the medicine of moving the party to the center is worse than the disease of remaining irrelevant. That said, triangulation for a chameleon Sen. Clinton relies on an emotional base that will still cry Hillary, right or wrong.

Like her husband, Hillary Clinton generates just that diehard loyalty. Bill Clinton signed a welfare reform bill for which George W. Bush would have been demonized. Without a cry from Barbara Boxer or Al Franken, he pre-empted and bombed in the Balkans despite neither U.N. approval nor a vote of the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Clinton also grasps another great truth about America. Populism is never passe. What the old blue-collar middle-class electorate revolted against in the 1960s was not only the Democratic liberal social agenda, but also the hypocrisy of their erstwhile spokesmen in the universities, foundations, media and Hollywood who lived a very different life from what they advocated for less well-off others.

But as the Democratic Party moved leftward and upward, middle-class Americans below and to the right nevertheless remained distrustful of unearned aristocratic privilege. They don’t like, for example, hearing about CEOs finagling multimillion-dollar bonuses from their publicly held companies that have no connection with their own actual performances or the businesses’ health.

So Hillary Clinton is now voicing the old Democratic fair deal, without giving too much rope to her fringe zealots, who could hang her in places like Topeka or Memphis with gay marriage, open borders, partial-birth abortion or skedaddling from Iraq.

Inasmuch as Sen. Clinton’s transformation for now seems cosmetic and is as yet unmatched by a written agenda that spells out reduced entitlements, low taxes and strong national defense, can Hillary pull it off without seeming entirely cynical?

Perhaps. Bill Clinton could possibly behave in the next two years and help her avoid another tabloid marital spat. Sen. Clinton learned the populist ropes in Arkansas and so now represses the boilerplate bombast of a Nancy Pelosi or Ted Kennedy.

All her dirty linen has long ago been aired. A recent sleazy biography by Edward Klein gained her empathy rather than embarrassment. Mostly forgotten are her old putdown of stay-at-home moms and the socialist healthcare plan fiasco of 1993.

Finally, she is being advised by one of the most astute political triangulators in American history — her husband. Bill Clinton didn’t win a majority vote in either successful presidential election and yet navigated an entire agenda through a hostile Republican Congress. If liberal Hillary once held down Bill’s left flank while he moved rightward, expect now that a suddenly more liberal-sounding Bill will do exactly the same for her.

We can already gauge the success of Hillary Clinton’s new odyssey in a variety of ways. For starters, out-of-touch Democrats on the left are already worried how far she will stray.

But Republicans are even more fidgety that she is not just moving laterally in the views she expresses, but up in the polls as well. Like frozen observers watching a train wreck in progress, conservatives are sweating that a winking Hillary might just get elected and then unveil her true liberal agenda.

Fewer on the right are now saying that Rudy Giuliani is too liberal a Republican to be the party’s presidential nominee; instead, many are suggesting he’s perhaps the only candidate who can derail her.

What a strange metamorphosis we are witnessing — a candidate still in the veiled chrysalis stage, whose supporters fear that the eventual new creature may emerge as a centrist butterfly, while detractors are even more convinced that she will turn out to be a liberal moth.


©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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