The Mystery of Hillary: Her Record Versus Rhetoric

Some left-wing lunatic Hillary Rodham Clinton is turning out to be.

In fact, if you have been writing checks to the Republicans in the belief that Mrs. Clinton doesn’t wear all those Mao jackets for nothing, these past few weeks may be enough to make you want your money back. With the notable exceptions of that business about gays serving openly in the military and her tip of the hat to the homeless, the First Lady has lately seemed the very soul of centrism.

A few of the notes she has recently hit, albeit not all for the first time: She supports the death penalty and welfare reform. Though staunchly pro-choice, she views abortion as a matter of conscience over which pro-life candidates ought not to be castigated or, for Pete’s sake, targeted for defeat. Faced with the familiar New York Democrats’ choice between marching in the St. Patrick’s Day parade or boycotting in the name of gay rights, she has, it seems, opted to march.

“Hillary Clinton is a moderate Democrat and has been a strong supporter of this Administration’s common-sense policies,” said Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson, citing welfare reform, the crime bill and the balanced Federal budget. True, those who best know the First Lady have long insisted that she never has been the Hanoi Hillary of right-wing conspiracy lore, and has never been fairly characterized as such. Fair enough. But once you accept the point that Mrs. Clinton really, really is every bit as much a New Democrat as Mr. Clinton, you have to come to grips with the irony that the people at the base of, and most enthusiastic about, her candidacy (and, in many cases, his Presidency) are the very “oldest” Democrats around: unions, feminists, ethnic politickers, all manner of activists.

Politically, of course, that’s hardly a handicap: Backed by her base and spared the formality of a primary, she is free to court crucial swing voters. But, substantively, if one is truly trying to search out the line in the sand of her ideas where rhetoric crosses over to conviction, her having all that Democratic space to roam around in can render her more, rather than less, difficult to divine.

On abortion or, rather, what political fate should befall those who oppose it: “I’ve worked with many people who hold strong opinions on matters of conscience that I respect,” Mrs. Clinton told the gathering of Irish leaders at O’Neill’s on the morning of Dec. 9. Lately, the first among such people have prominently included Representative Joe Crowley of Queens, a pro-lifer who was standing behind her physically as she will be standing behind him in his bid for re-election. “I don’t think that any person in public life can afford the luxury of saying, ‘There’s only one issue that determines how I would represent the people …'” Well, three cheers for tolerance! And as for the abortion-rights absolutists who constitute one of her biggest fan blocs in the Democratic Party–and one of the strongest power bases in the Democratic Party, full stop–Mrs. Clinton parried ably, drawing a legitimate distinction between the zeal of advocating and the compromise of legislating.

Still, consistency being the hobgoblin of little journalistic minds, one can’t help but ask: Has the earth moved since 1992, when Robert Casey, then the pro-life Governor of a decent-sized state called Pennsylvania, was not allowed to address the Democratic convention that nominated her husband? (Not uninterestingly, before Judith Hope ascended to the chair of the state’s Democratic Party, Thomas Manton, the party’s Queens County chairman who is Mr. Crowley’s political godfather, was effectively blocked from the position for the same reason.) Indeed, abortion-rights advocates have been busily making the case that the earth has moved, slowly, subtly and all but silently, statute by statute, regulation by regulation, away from the right to choose. If that’s so, then isn’t this the time for greater ideological purity, not less? And for those who are coming at it from either the pro-life or the agree-to-disagree angle, will Mrs. Clinton’s support for Mr. Crowley, despite the fact that he is as pro-life as ever, do anything to dampen her proxies’ enthusiasm for blasting Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for having been pro-life during the Reagan Administration?

Elsewhere in the moral-issue spectrum: “I have come to be a reluctant supporter of the death penalty,” Mrs. Clinton said on the morning of Friday, Dec. 10, at an interfaith, largely African-American, gathering in the basement of Riverside Church, where she had been asked her position on the possibility of repeal. Reluctant is right: Consider just part of the First Lady’s 271-word semi-soliloquy on the matter. “All of us should be very vocal in our opposition to the use of the death penalty on a very broad basis and in a way that really undermines whatever effect it might have, as either retribution or deterrent, however one eventually uses it.” Say what? Actually, the surfeit of syntax is understandable: The death penalty is a terrible conundrum, with which no reflective individual could fail to “struggle mightily,” as the First Lady claimed to have done, and over which the most rigid mind could be forgiven for equivocating endlessly. Here’s what’s curious, though: In all those words, the First Lady devoted not a single syllable to how she views it, as retribution, deterrent, or what? Nor–and this may turn out to be the more politically salient element of her style–did she choose to shed a ray of light on what, in the course of that mighty struggle, made her land on the for-it side of the fence.

With regard to welfare reform, The Observer hesitates to harp too repeatedly on the unacknowledged, though seemingly yawning, gap between the position that the children’s-advocate-for-30-years took in 1996, and the positions she seemed to be taking during the 30 years in question. (Oops! Did it again!) But if, as her remarks at Riverside suggested, poverty should be an issue in the campaign, the First Lady has, as Ricky Ricardo would say, some ‘splainin’ to do. “There have been some states and localities that have chosen to implement [welfare reform] in the most draconian way,” she said of the welfare law. Not to be sarcastic or anything, but … wow! Who ever would have thought that some places in these United States would be … draconian … about welfare reform? Kinda makes you think we ought to have some kind of … Federal safety net, or something. It’s too late for that, of course, but not for the antipoverty plan, which Mrs. Clinton pledged to unveil in the coming months–and which, sarcasm aside, one awaits as perhaps the single strongest indicator of exactly where she falls on the map of ideas.

All that said, one mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the only ideas that matter in a political campaign are the ones that can be rolled cleanly into spitballs and hurled at one’s opponent with minimal fear of their being double-packed and hurled right back–and none of the foregoing fits into that prime category. But, oddly enough, in a year when character is becoming political destiny, the more wiggle room she leaves herself, the more space she has to get lost in.

Gotcha headlines notwithstanding, Mrs. Clinton flip-flops much less frequently than she simply fails to fill in. Therefore, her biggest political problem is not that she lacks character as such. It’s that she lacks what actors call a character arc; a path to take her plausibly from one point to another on her political trajectory, so that she seems–or dare we say it?–so that she is, real.

The Mystery of Hillary: Her Record Versus Rhetoric