Hillary Lurches Leftward: An Early Abandonment of Her Centrist Strategy

The 2008 Democratic presidential primary season has gotten off to a good start . . . for the Republicans. While political professionals of both parties see the 2008 election as very hopeful for the Democrats, there is no such thing as a lay down hand in presidential politics. Both parties start off with a minimum level of support of 45 percent. The battle will be for the remaining 10 percent of voters who are probably moderate and less attentive to the daily news.

Unfolding events will, of course, be critical; and it is in this area that professionals, expecting continued deterioration of our position in Iraq, see the Democrats’ justified reason for optimism for their 2008 ticket.

But the presidential elections of 1948 (Truman/Dewey/Thurmond/Henry Wallace), 1960 (Kennedy/Nixon) and 2004 (Bush/Kerry) all demonstrate that the positioning and performance of the candidates can provide victory to the shrewder and better performing candidate, even if he or she faces an adverse national and world events topography.

As the Democratic Party presidential aspirants finished their speeches last week to the Democratic Party winter meeting, the early big political fact is the dangerous populist and anti-war pull that the candidates feel. This is particularly dangerous for Sen. Hillary Clinton as she ratchets up, almost weekly, her anti-war Iraqi rhetoric and policy.

She has shrewdly understood, at least since she entered the Senate in 2001, that the Achilles’ heel of every Democratic Party presidential candidate since George McGovern in 1972 has been the appearance of weakness regarding American national defense and national security. Only Jimmy Carter after the Watergate scandal and her husband after the fall of the Soviet Union got a pass from the American electorate on their national security shortcomings.

That is why she chose to serve on the Armed Services Committee when she entered the Senate. That is doubtlessly why she voted to authorize the Iraq War in 2002. And that is why she has, until very recently, broadly supported the president in the war, carefully not calling for troop reductions or timetables. Of course, she has harshly criticized Bush’s conduct of the war — but so have many of us who both support the war and are his natural partisan supporters.

But the magnitude of the Democrats’ victory in the 2006 elections, the continued ugly images and bad news coming out of Iraq, the inflamed "get-out-now" passions of the Democratic Party activists, and the unexpected threat of the Barack Obama candidacy seem to have unnerved the Clinton camp into abandoning their strategic plan to position her as a steady military hardliner and centrist.

First, when she came back from her visit to Iraq last month, she felt the need to announce a policy of capping American troop levels, opposing the "surge" and threatening the likely de-funding of the Iraqi government if it didn’t meet impossible goals. (Presidential aspirant and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Joe Biden blasted this Clinton policy as itself irresponsible and foolish, as it would undercut the very Iraqi government that everyone says must take charge upon our departure.)

Then, a couple of weeks ago, she said the president would be irresponsible if he didn’t end the war by the end of his term. She reinforced that argument last weekend at the Democratic Party winter meeting when she promised to end our involvement in the war immediately upon her taking office as president in January 2009.

Hillary Clinton apparently felt the need for these swiftly escalating efforts at flamboyant anti-warism to match the "bring the troops home within months" proposals of her two strongest challengers: former Sen. John Edwards and Sen. Obama.

Compounding this dangerous leftward pull on the Democratic Party presidential aspirants is the fierce economic populist message of former Sen. Edwards, who is currently running disconcertingly (for Clinton and Obama) strongly nationwide — particularly in Iowa. As he increases his tax-the-rich, class-envy rhetoric (a message that episodically works well in the odd state and in the personal injury courtroom, but has not yet elected a president in the modern era), I suspect that Obama and Clinton may feel the pressure to at least partially match such divisive policy.

Of course, it is typical of presidential nomination campaigns to run to the left in the Democratic Party and to the right in the Republican Party. But what makes this cycle so dangerous for Hillary Clinton is that the campaign is starting so early. With almost a year before the first votes are cast, she must match the leftward lurch of her opponents — so long as that is where the center of gravity of Democratic Party primary voters are — for a full year (rather than the few months that have been the case for previous front-runners until this election cycle).

If the news from Iraq turns around over the next year and a half, the Democrats, as the party of defeat, will likely themselves be defeated.

But even if the news from Iraq stays bad, or gets worse, the increasingly dangerous world that such events would reveal to the American electorate may well suggest to the voters that, whatever the mistakes of George Bush, in such a dangerous world they cannot rely on the hard-core anti-war mentality of Hillary Clinton, or any other cut-and-run Democrat (or Republican).

It will be a vital test of Hillary Clinton’s political judgment, nerve and innate confidence in the fundamental strength of her candidacy if she can now put the brakes on her leftward drift and avoid a full year of mispositioning herself for the general election in November 2008.