On a hot August night in the Astrodome 16 years ago, Pat Buchanan stood before the Republican National Convention and declared that America was in the throes of a religious and cultural war, with the opposition party pushing an “amoral” agenda of unregulated abortion, rampant homosexuality and unrestricted pornography.
In particular, he singled out the “lawyer-spouse” of the Democratic presidential nominee, gravely warning that Hillary Clinton “believes that 12-year-olds should have the right to sue their parents, and she has compared marriage as an institution to slavery and life on an Indian reservation.”
“Friends,” Buchanan continued, “this is radical feminism. The agenda Clinton and Clinton would impose on America—abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat—is change…but it’s not the kind of change we can tolerate in a nation that we still call God’s country.”
Roughly speaking, this is the caricature of Hillary Rodham Clinton—the angry radical feminist bent on destroying every last vestige of traditional American culture—that has prevailed among conservatives for the last decade-and-a-half. It’s why she registered the highest unfavorable ratings of any First Lady in history and why so much ink has been devoted to the question of whether she’s too polarizing to win the presidency.
But something funny has happened as this year’s Democratic race has unfolded: Some of the same right-wing voices who once vilified her as the second coming of Hanoi Jane now seem to see Hillary Clinton as some new Frank Rizzo.
Take Buchanan, who has taken to promoting her on an almost nightly basis on MSNBC as the salvation for working class, culturally conservative “Reagan Democrats,” an electable antidote to Barack Obama, whom Buchanan now skewers as the same kind of nutty leftist he once branded Hillary.
On a recent broadcast, Buchanan emphatically sang Clinton’s praises for the appeal she has shown in states with heavy populations of working-class white ethnic voters—precisely the people at whom his 1992 convention speech was aimed. Then he spouted the Clinton campaign’s spin that, even though their candidate trails in popular votes and delegates and fares markedly worse against John McCain in numerous swing states, Hillary is nonetheless the superior fall candidate because only she can carry the white ethnic vote in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
“If he loses Pennsylvania by anything like the margin he lost Ohio,” Buchanan said of Obama, “Democratic superdelegates and Democrats everywhere are going to say, ‘Look, Reagan Democrats looked at him…They are recoiling and moving away. This guy can lose it all for us when we’ve got it won.’”
He added: “The Democrats have to win the general election, and his vote—African-American, young, liberal professors—they’re going to vote Democrat anyhow.”
Others on the right are making the same case.
A decade ago, The National Review’s Rich Lowry branded Hillary “a practitioner of the odious political style of the enlightened Baby Boomer.” But now, with Obama poised to win the Democratic nomination, Lowry is rushing to Clinton’s defense, praising her “a serious person, afflicted, as she put it once, with ‘a responsibility gene.’”
Lowry then lionized Hillary for pressing on even though the cultural elite in her party—the same people that, according to the conservatives’ preferred narrative until recently, she supposedly represented—had abandoned her, leaving her with a coalition of “unglamorous voters who aren’t young or rich or independent, but working-class Democrats without the time or inclination to stand so long at Obama rallies that they faint in the middle of her speeches.”
Or take Howie Carr, a vitriolic conservative radio host and Boston Herald columnist who spent much of the last 15 years portraying Hillary as the mortal enemy of Joe Six-Packs everywhere. “An ashtray-tossing shrew,” he dubbed her back when she was First Lady.
Now? In his most recent column, he portrayed her as something of a champion of the common-sense, law-abiding working man, arguing that her supporters are “those who work with their hands” while Obama’s are “those who don’t work, period.”
“Clinton voters,” he also wrote, “know who caused 9/11 – Arab terrorists. Obama voters know who caused 9/11—Halliburton.”
At least Carr recognizes the irony of all of this.
“Once,” he wrote, “it was the Clintons who were the insurgents, the draft-dodging, pot-smoking, partial birth abortion-backing Ivy League limousine libs. Now, compared to Barack Obama’s radical-chic comrades, Bill ’n’ Hill look like refugees from the local Tuesday-night candlepin-bowling league.”
That is probably as good an explanation as any for the right’s sudden sympathy for Hillary Clinton. Sure, her style has changed through the years and she’s made a concerted effort in the Senate to moderate her image.
But what has changed is that, for the first time ever, a young African-American has emerged as the likely Democratic presidential nominee. And, while the breadth and depth of Obama’s coalition should be sufficient to defy caricature, the popular image of his bandwagon has it overstuffed with idealistic and awe-struck college students and black voters. To reactionaries like Buchanan, it’s as if George McGovern and Malcolm X have joined forces.
And just like that, the old feminist doesn’t look so bad to them.