Thursday, January 05, 2006


Hillary's Bum Right Rap

One of the most oft-repeated pieces of conventional political wisdom these days -- and one of the most flawed -- is this notion that Hillary Clinton is shamelessly changing her ideological stripes to position herself to run for President. A perfect example comes from Washington Post commentator Eugene Robinson's column on Tuesday predicting the top stories of 2006:

"(5) Hillary Clinton will also deny that she's running for president -- at least until she gets reelected to the Senate. But all the while, she will slog ahead on her epic rightward march, reinforcing her change of allegiance in the Culture War. When her support for a bill to outlaw flag-burning fails to soften the hearts of the most adamant Hillary-haters, she may have to go all the way and announce she intends to honor our troops in Iraq by baking a batch of cookies for each and every brave unit.

This criticism not only shows an obvious naivete about the modern political process -- and the serious challenges national Democrats have in gaining credibility beyond the party's activist base -- but more importantly it seems to be largely contradicted by the facts. As best I can tell, Hillary Clinton, like her husband and a lot of thoughtful Democratic leaders of this era (Bill Bradley, Al Gore, Bob Kerrey, just to name a few), has long been an iconoclastic progressive. Indeed, her record is dotted with examples of her departing from what have been regarded as liberal orthodoxies when she thinks they are outdated, unworkable, or conflict with other, higher-order progressive values.

For instance, Hillary butted heads with the teachers union in Arkansas while working with her husband's administration to reform the public school system there and put a greater emphasis on standards and accountability. And throughout Bill Clinton's presidency she strongly and consistently supported efforts that my former boss (Senator Lieberman) and other Members of both parties made to help parents protect their kids from media sex and violence and push our friends in the entertainment industry to be more responsible -- just as she has as a Senator (to much unfair and ill-informed criticism).

As for Iraq, you can disagree with her original support for the war and even question her continued defense of her vote in light of the mess that Bush has made of things and the failure to turn up any WMD. But I have yet to see any evidence to back up the charge that she has been a hawk on Iraq for pure political expedience.

In fact, all the evidence that I have seen is to the contrary -- she has been a hawkish-leaning, muscular internationalist in the mold of John Kennedy and Harry Truman throughout her time on Senate Armed Services Committee. Plus, it should be noted that Bill Clinton (who remains a hero to much of the activist base that is attacking Hillary) initially supported the war, and while he has in retrospect said that the way Bush went to war was a big mistake, he has consistently opposed an arbitrary withdrawal of American troops (just as his wife has done).

One could even argue that the politically expedient thing to do, given all the grief Hillary has gotten from the Cindy Sheehan crowd, would have been to mimic John Kerry's Iraq backtrack, and that she showed some character by sticking to her guns, so to speak. It's a debatable proposition, but one worth considering.

Now, is Hillary and her team doing what they can on the margins to make herself as broadly appealing as possible and to obliberate the silly caricature of her as a time-warped flower child? Of course, but show me a modern American president who has not done the same thing in trying to get elected. Is it really fair to hold Hillary to a different and utterly unachievable standard?

The operative question is whether she is being hypocritical or intellectually dishonest in her positioning, and so far the indictment on this count is pretty damn flimsy. That is except for the less-than-deft handling of the flag-burning bill, which I have to agree was a questionable move at best, especially given the high-pitch motive-doubting that was going on within the party about Iraq at that time. But in my mind, that sole count, even if you assume the worst, is not enough to throw a heavyweight like Hillary in the political sell-out pen.

The bottom line to me is that Senator Clinton, like any one else, is entitled to a fair trial -- she's especially due that consideration, given all the vituperation she has had to put up with over the last dozens or so years. There may evidence I am overlooking to prove that she is compromising her principles in an indefensible way -- I welcome others to make that case and show me I am wrong. But in the meantime, let's try to avoid giving into surface cynicism, as understandable as it is, and judge the woman on her record -- which regardless of its merits (a subject for another time) seems remarkably consistent to me so far.

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