Not long ago, Senator Hillary Clinton went on a 2006 re-election campaign swing through the North Country, that vast expanse of upstate New York that stretches from Albany to the Canadian border. With its mix of family farms and grubby towns struggling with disappearing manufacturing jobs, the region feels less like the Northeast than like the industrial and agricultural Midwest. In other words, it’s not a bad place to gauge how Clinton might play in swing-state America.
It’s a question that of late has obsessed the pundits, who frequently, and often quite mindlessly, hold up the most obscure of the Senator’s utterances or policies–even ones that echo positions she’s held for years–as proof that she’s readying herself for a 2008 presidential run. The political classes tend to offer us two tidy Hillary narratives to choose from. The first (courtesy of Dick Morris and company) is that Clinton has given herself a moderate makeover designed to mask the fact that she’s really a haughty left-wing elitist, in order to appeal to moderate Republicans and culturally conservative, blue-collar Democrats who are deserting their party. The opposing narrative line (courtesy of her supporters) is that Clinton, a devout Methodist, has revealed her true self as a senator; she’s always been more moderate than is generally thought, and, as Anna Quindlen wrote recently in Newsweek, “people are finally seeing past the stereotypes and fabrications.”
Yet if you watch Clinton on one of her upstate swings, as I did earlier this spring, it becomes clear that neither story line gets it right. What’s really happening is that Clinton, a surprisingly agile and ideologically complex politician, is slowly crafting a politics that in some ways is new, and above all is uniquely her own.
Clinton’s evolving approach–call it Brand Hillary–is sincerely rooted in her not-easily-categorized worldview, but it’s also a calculated response to today’s political realities. In effect, she’s taking her husband’s small-issue centrism–its trademark combination of big but often hollow gestures toward the center, pragmatic economic populism and incremental liberal policy gains–and remaking it in her own image, updating it for post-9/11 America with an intense interest in military issues.
At the same time, she’s also experimenting with an increasingly national message about smart government and GOP extremism and testing new, unthreatening ways of revisiting her most politically disastrous issue: healthcare. In one setting after another, she offered the same impromptu-seeming refrain: “You may remember that when my husband was President, I tried to do something about healthcare. Well, I still have the scars to show for it. But I haven’t given up.” That’s a line worthy of the man Hillary married–you can picture Bill sitting at the kitchen table in Chappaqua, repeating the line and chuckling, “That’s good. That’s really good.”
Bill Clinton’s political success, of course, sometimes came at great cost to liberal Democrats, and Hillary’s brand of politics, too, poses a tough dilemma for liberals and progressives. It asks them to swallow their discomfort with her tactically shrewd but sometimes morally questionable maneuvers on big issues like war and abortion. In exchange they get less visible victories for progressivism, as well as the pleasure of seeing the former First Lady–the figure most loathed by the right in at least a generation–succeed at a time when Democrats are desperate to figure out how to get that winning feeling again.