Hillary Doesn’t Move Right

In the generally fun New York Times Magazine New York Politics issue (don’t miss the back-page Sheinkopf monologue), Matt Bai’s piece on Hillary Clinton is a useful antidote to the deathless “Hillary Moves Right” meme.

Bai makes the point that The Politicker has been hammering at for a while: Hillary’s not “tacking Right” in a conventional way. She doesn’t seem ever to have been a real lefty. She is where she’s always been, albeit stressing different elements of her political persona at different times.

His take, for what it’s worth:

“The truth that emerges from talking to many of those who have worked closely with the Clintons is that Hillary’s ideology is best understood through the prism of her upbringing. She was raised as a Republican and a devout Methodist in suburban Chicago, and these influences, particularly in the turbulence of the 60’s, created two philosophical impulses that were commonly linked in that era. The first is an unshakable notion of right and wrong and an almost missionary zeal for imposing it on others, mainly through political action. The second is a strand of moral conservatism that borders on prudishness.”

Hillary also flirted with the student left, but Bai chalks up the public sense of Hillary as a leftist to her role, in the White House, as ambassador to the left from Bill/Dick Morris triangulation land.

That may be true, but there’s also more to it: Hillary’s camp, at times, encourages the “Hillary Moves Right” story, since it’s a way to amplify her centrist positions. If her anodyne words on abortion earlier this year were not just anodyne, but also old news, they wouldn’t have made A1 of the Times.

You can argue that this is a short-term gain, and that the notion that Hillary is shifting her positions damages her in the long term. But Hillary’s formidable team doesn’t seem to have done anything to pour cold water on the stories on her “shift” on abortion and religion. (They easily could have by, say, putting out copies of her old speeches in which she said exactly the same stuff.)

Bai also paints Hillary as more of a centrist in the Senate than she’s really been. Her gestures to the Right tend to be on easy issues, like violence in video games. She’ll stand next to Santorum and Gingrich on these side-issues, but that’s very different from, say, McCain picking up the fight against global warming. On important and contested issues (with a sole, important exception), Hillary has been a party-line Democrat. Her cultural conservatism — Bai has a nice scene of her being appalled that young Chelsea would pierce her ears — hasn’t been tested in a public way, though she has said that she would have voted for the Defense of Marriage Act.

Anyway, Bai thinks that Hillary’s main challenge for 2008 will come from the Kos-land, where the “net-roots” (whose rise Bai has been anticipating for quite a while now) have a different, take-no-prisoners way of doing business.

Over at Tapped, meanwhile, they’re of another opinion: that Hillary’s real problem won’t be style, but substance, and that substance is the war.

Depending on how Iraq looks in a couple of years, it seems plausible that there’s an element of truth to both arguments: Hillary will have to cope with an anti-war movement inside the party that draws its organizing strength from the Web.

One thing that’s for sure: They’ll still be writing the “Hillary Moves Right” story.