Friday, November 23, 2007

Hillary Clinton's Test of Responsibility

This morning's Wall Street Journal has an excellent piece laying out the challeges for Hillary Clinton in appealing to the hard left base of her party, while at the same time not straying too far from the center, in the hopes of not alienating centrist voters:

As Hillary Clinton huddled with advisers not long ago, she was pressed to stake a position popular with the party's left-leaning voters on one issue. But the presidential front-runner resisted. It wasn't her position.

"If I do what you all want me to do, I'll look great for the next couple months," she said, according to one insider's account. "But what if I'm the nominee? I'll be ripped apart by the Republicans. And what if I'm the president? My hands will be tied."

The New York senator's response captured the tension at the core of her 10-month-old presidential bid, and helps illuminate why she has hit a dangerously bumpy stretch as January's first nominating votes near. Sen. Clinton actually is running two campaigns at once -- courting left-leaning Democrats to get the nomination, but mindful even now of maintaining a sufficiently centrist course to withstand Republican attacks and win election next November.

Beyond that, Sen. Clinton views her campaign as a template for her possible presidency. Having witnessed Bill Clinton's early struggles reconciling campaign promises with governing - and guided by his private advice now - she knows first hand that what candidates say now for political points can haunt them as president. Close advisers call this caution her "responsibility gene."

The result: As the front-runner, Sen. Clinton has drawn attacks from Democratic rivals at a crucial moment on topics ranging from Iran to taxes, even while holding positions that could serve her well in a general-election campaign, or as president. She will be tested further with four more Democratic debates in December, before the ultimate test -- in the opening nominating contest Jan. 3 in Iowa.

Read the whole thing.

After the Philadelphia debate, where Clinton got herself into trouble with her response on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, I suggested to my students that Clinton's debate replies were too cerebral and clinical. She needs to give quick decisive answers, avoiding tying herself in knots. The Journal story notes this:

Despite her long exposure to the national limelight, she came late in life to a political career of her own, and has worked to develop her own voice. For example, she has never found it easy to give simple answers to questions. As First Lady, she once listened as White House press secretary Joe Lockhart briefly distilled for President Clinton what he, the aide, would tell reporters about some complex foreign-policy news.

She took him aside afterward, he says. "How do you do that?" she asked. "I need tolearn how to do that. I was trained as a lawyer -- I've always made an argument in paragraphs. I need to learn to speak in sound bites." That was his clue, he recalls, that she was contemplating a Senate run.

Even with her gaffes, I'd be surprised if Clinton did not win in Iowa. Even if she doesn't, her fundraising and national support in the polls should be substantial enough for her to recover going into the later contests, especially the "Giga" Tuesday round of national primary voting on February 5, 2008.

My problem with Hillary Clinton, as I've noted before, is her extreme malleability on the issues, especially on foreign policy. She's certainly been around the top levels of power, and she knows a thing or two about international policy. But her compulsive pandering to the antiwar base on Iraq - after having been a firm supporter of the Administration's policy - is a disaster. Clinton today justifies her 2002 vote to authorize regime change in Iraq by blaming President Bush for "misleading" the country with false intelligence. It's a puerile argument, and one not fit for a future commander-in-chief.

This is not just the dilemma of having to run "two campaigns at once." A true leader would have made a defense of her Iraq vote a crucial plank in the campaign. Clinton would have had to persuade the radicals she did the right thing in voting to topple Saddam. At the same time she could have reassured independent voters of her consistency and fitness to serve in the Oval Office.