For Democrats & Sen. Hillary Clinton, it is necessary that suburban women cancel out the votes of their husbands.
Hillary Clinton is carefully positioning herself as a hawkish centrist. How proving that she is tougher than the boys could work for her in 2008.
By Eleanor Clift
Hillary Clinton wants to be the darling of the left and the candidate of the center, and why not? More than any other Democrat, save one—her husband—she knows what it takes to win, and she fully and completely comprehends the opposition.
Liberals went ballistic this week when Clinton called for a ceasefire among Democrats at a much ballyhooed appearance before the DLC, the centrist Democratic Leadership Council that helped elect her husband president. Clinton’s “Rodney King Moment,” is all about 2008, says a former John Kerry adviser: “What she’s saying is, ‘Why can’t we all get along and support me?’”
Clinton didn’t single out liberals, and her intent might have been more ecumenical in urging all wings of the party to turn their guns on the “hard-right ideology in Washington” instead of each other. But her presence at the DLC convention in Columbus, Ohio, spoke volumes. It said to the left that this is where she is planting her flag for the presidential race. And what she’s doing now is taking care of whatever perceived weaknesses she has, as well as those of the Democratic Party. She shouldn’t trim her principles, but she has the leeway to defy the liberal stereotypes. As a progressive in a country where half or more of voters are reflexively conservative, she has to find ideas that surprise people and grab their attention if she’s going to break through as a national candidate.
This kind of intraparty warfare is familiar ground for Democrats. Hillary’s comments were almost identical to the sentiments Bill Clinton voiced some 15 years ago at a DLC event when there was a dispute with the Democratic National Committee. Having the vast left-wing conspiracy after you isn’t a bad thing in a political climate where the liberal label is problematic. Democrats can’t depend on urban strongholds anymore to carry them to victory. They’ve got to do better in the exurbs, those new subdivisions springing up everywhere. For Hillary, that means getting suburban women to cancel out the votes of their husbands. At the end of the day, criticism from the loud fringes of the party helps keep her positioned in the middle.
Hillary’s hawkishness didn’t get as much attention as her gentle rebuke of her fellow Democrats, but gaining credibility on national security was the real message of her DLC speech. She urged a “unified coherent strategy focused on eliminating terrorists wherever we find them,” a more ladylike way of saying we’ll hunt them down and kill or capture them. If the New York senator can emerge as the Democrats’ Margaret Thatcher, tougher than the boys, she will overcome a major hurdle for a woman seeking the presidency. In a recent poll sponsored by National Journal, voters were asked whether Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice had “the right stuff” to be president. Clinton scored higher on toughness than Secretary of State Rice, a former national-security adviser and an architect of the Iraq war. “The American people have a relationship and understanding of her, and there’s a toughness attached to her that is real and genuine,” says pollster Ed Reilly. The poll also tested voter attitudes toward a presidential candidate who is a woman, an African-American, a liberal or a conservative. The liberal label was the only area where people freely expressed their negative bias.
Ultimately an antiwar candidate will also emerge on the Democratic side, and it could be Al Gore. He hasn’t done anything to advance his candidacy, but he has universal name recognition and is a favorite of Internet activists through MoveOn.org. The Bush administration may be venal, but they’re not stupid, and they’re beginning to lay the groundwork—at least rhetorically—for a pullout from Iraq beginning next year. Gore has the luxury of waiting and seeing whether there will still be a war left for him to oppose by ’08.
Five years ago, when Clinton first ran for the U.S. Senate in New York, she had to overcome resistance among women who thought she was too hard and calculating. She was trying then to soften her image, but now the premium is on toughness. And Clinton has one advantage over other Democrats, she has been under fire from the other side for 15 years; she understands how they operate, and she’s got the war-room mentality to fight back. It’s not personal for her anymore. She’s not going to feel bad if they call her names, or portray her as something she’s not. She’s going to respond.
Just as Karl Rove eviscerated Gore’s ethics and John Kerry’s patriotism, the line of attack against Clinton will be to question her strength of character and portray her as a calculating, ambitious woman who will do anything for power, including staying with a husband who humiliated her. It’s a game she’s played before, and she’s getting pretty good at winning.