Saturday, March 12, 2005

What’s She Up To?

Last week’s Sunday Reading pointed to an article in the New York Times on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s ability to make nice with everybody, including Republicans, in her New York senate career. Eleanor Clift of Newsweek looks at it in terms of her chances in 2008.

What’s Hillary up to? She’s laying the groundwork for a presidential run in ’08, and she’s paying attention to the voters. Postelection focus groups revealed that what concerns parents is not the Jerry Falwell agenda of opposing gay marriage but how to raise children in a sex-and-violence-soaked culture. Hillary is not a newcomer to the issue. As First Lady, she sponsored a children’s television summit at the White House, and she was a big proponent of the V-chip to screen out unwelcome programming. In her book, “It Takes a Village,” she has a chapter called, “Seeing Is Believing,” where she blames the deadening effect of television for contributing to the alienation of young people.

Republicans ridiculed her book, accusing her of wanting to replace families with government, but now that media have exploded onto the Internet and spun off games like Grand Theft Auto, they’re with Hillary looking for a heavier federal hand. Keeping company with Hillary is frustrating for the right because she’s proving to be something different from the caricature they made of her. “She’s having a rebirth,” says Marshall Wittmann, a former McCain staffer who’s now with the centrist Democratic Leadership Conference. More than any other Democrat eyeing the presidency, Hillary understands the cultural weakness of the party. Her recent comments on wanting to find common ground on abortion and her appearance at a press conference with such avatars of the right as Santorum and Brownback show she has absorbed the lesson of the ’04 election more systematically than anyone else.


It’s widely assumed that Bush is not grooming anybody to succeed him. But that judgment could be misplaced. Watching Condoleezza Rice on the world stage last month made people look at her in a different light. She glowed with confidence. Maybe Bush is grooming somebody right under our eyes, and it’s Condi. It’s premature to draw conclusions, but clearly she’s evolved from the staff position she held at the White House to a personage in her own right. Depending on the state of the world three years from now, she has the potential to be at the top of the ticket. The current take on Condi is that any Republican paired with her in the second spot would double the GOP’s share of the African-American vote from 10 percent to 20 percent and win the election. If the Republicans make further inroads in the African-American community, it will be impossible for a Democrat to win the White House.

The question for any woman seeking the presidency in the post-9/11 era is whether she can be a credible commander in chief. Rice has the resume, but can she stare down the North Koreans and the mullahs in Iran? Clinton gets rave reviews from Republicans for her work on the Senate Armed Services Committee. She is confounding them on a daily basis by defying the caricature they created. The lamp-throwing, cursing, calculating Lady Macbeth is gone, if she ever really existed.

It pisses off some of the hard-core left to think that Hillary could drink beer and munch pork rinds with those who aren’t true believers, but if there’s to be any hope of a Democrat regaining the White House, two things have to happen. First, the Democrats have to shake off the mantle of wusshood that has been draped over their shoulders. They can do that by putting forth a candidate who truly wants to mix it up in the political arena — someone with the combination of charm and steel to withstand the worst attacks that groups like the SBVT can mount. The second thing is to truly expand their base of appeal to more than just the liberals and minorities that have made up the core of the party since the 1970’s.

Conventional wisdom informs us that a successful candidate runs toward the party base in the primaries and away from it in the general election. That makes sense in a party that has a strong base, but the argument becomes problematic with the Democrats in 2005 — they have more bases than Fenway Park. Hillary may be doing the right thing by shoring up her already-solid base — her Senate seat in New York — and by doing what every successful candidate has done since FDR: reinventing themselves as often as needed to close the deal.