Hillary The Chameleon

February 25, 2005

I have always considered Hillary Clinton a formidable politician, but I haven’t really feared a Hillary presidency because I haven’t thought she was electable. I’m not quite as sure anymore.

Hillary, in her true skin, is too stridently liberal and unlikable to be electable in a national election. But who says she has to show her true skin?

Hillary is polarizing, but that’s hardly a disqualifying attribute. So are her husband and President Bush, both of whom were elected twice. Indeed, in today’s partisan climate, almost any strong leader of either party will ultimately be deemed polarizing.

Hillary’s polarizing nature will energize Republicans to work to defeat her, but it will also motivate Democrats to support her because the qualities that alienate you from your opposition are the same ones that endear you to your own party.

Yet contrary to the conventional wisdom, mainstream liberals are far less electable than mainstream conservatives in nationwide elections. Bill Clinton knew that, which is why he attached himself to the “moderate” Democratic Leadership Council. John Kerry also knew that, which is why he ran from the liberal label, despite his unambiguously liberal credentials.

Howard Dean doesn’t know that or doesn’t care, which is one reason he tanked as a presidential candidate as fast as he rose. Nor does the Democratic Party know that (or can’t otherwise mollify its base), which is why it has elevated the liberal, vigorously anti-war, anti-Bush Dean to be its party chairman.

The key for a Democrat to be elected president is to be liberal enough in reality to satisfy the base, but not so obviously liberal as to scare swing voters. The shrewd and calculating Hillary has been in the process of a public makeover for years.

She has been doing a masterful job of toning down her liberalism a little dose at a time. Even so, her metamorphosis has been so transparent that even the perennially apathetic and ignorant should be able to see through it. But many don’t. She’s even polling well — or much better — among New York Republicans.

Hillary’s apparent strategy is to present herself as hawkish on defense, including Iraq, moderate on abortion and other social issues, and Clintonesque on economic issues.

She’s already abandoned the party line by praising the Iraqi elections and opposing a date certain for American withdrawal. (Notice that Hillary sounds wiser in direct proportion to the extent she emulates the conservative position.) She’ll continue to be hawkish unless and until she perceives the war to have become unpopular with voters, at which point she’ll switch her position as quickly as a liberal spends federal money.

Hillary has also been depicting herself as a devout Christian who only reluctantly supports abortion. But at heart she is a radical feminist who, while claiming to want to make abortion safe, legal and rare, will fight like a feline to preserve it as a holy sacrament of feminism and liberalism.

On the economy, Hillary will have a couple of advantages, the main one being that a wave of economic prosperity accompanied the Clinton presidency. Another is that on domestic spending, especially education, President Bush hasn’t exactly been conservative.

Also, with his enthusiastic expansion of the prescription drug entitlement, Mr. Bush has made Hillary Care seem less ominous, by contrast, than it used to be. And if the president mistakenly accedes to the “compromise” of raising the payroll tax ceiling in exchange for getting private Social Security accounts, he’ll do even more to erode the GOP’s comparative position on economic and entitlement issues going into 2008. Unfortunately, the president has also virtually forfeited the natural advantage Republicans should have on the immigration issue, unless he achieves meaningful reform this term.

Hillary has done a far better job than I expected in faking her “centrism.” She’ll only get better in her “performances” as time rolls on. Look for her to pull Sister Souljah moments (dissing those of her own party or principles) every other month during the next three and a half years.

Hillary will never be a conservative; she’ll never be a moderate; she’ll never be anything other than a liberal. But she is getting quite accomplished at making it appear otherwise. In 2008, it will be about time for the presidential pendulum to swing back toward Democrats, and Hillary is plotting and maneuvering every day to exploit that possibility.

The question is whether she’ll be able to fool enough of the people enough of the time to pull it off. While my gut still says she’s going to have a very hard time fooling that many people, I’m not nearly as sanguine about it as I used to be, which is a sobering thought.