December 15, 2005
Hillary's Ambitious Tightrope
What a remarkable
spot Hillary Clinton finds herself in at the moment. On one hand,
her power and stature have never been greater. Clinton continues
to cruise toward reelection in New York with a 62% job approval
and a $14 million war chest against Republican opposition that
can't walk and chew gum at the same time. Her near-certain victory
in November insures Clinton will remain the prohibitive favorite
to win the Democratic party presidential nomination in 2008.
On the other
hand, signs of discontent with Clinton’s stance on Iraq
continue to grow. Antiwar activists have now taken to harassing
her wherever she goes. Legendary Newsday columnist Jimmy
Breslin recently lambasted Clinton for her views on the war, saying
she now “holds the new North American record for fakery.”
In recent days Hillary has picked up not one but two antiwar primary
challengers for next year’s Senate race, and though neither
will threaten her reelection, both will hope to embarrass her
on the war at every possible opportunity.
Clinton finds herself straddling on Iraq is in many ways constructed
from her own ambition. Back in 2000 Hillary leapt at the first
(and best) chance to win high elective office, but by doing so
put herself in the Senate – a place where no one has emerged
to win a presidential election since John F. Kennedy in 1960.
also came with a historical burden: there’s no shortage
of irony that the Senate seat Clinton now occupies in New York
was once held by liberal icon Robert Kennedy who ran for President
in 1968 opposed to Vietnam, and also by the fearless liberal intellectual
Daniel Patrick Moynihan whose hallmark was staking out clear (if
somewhat controversial) positions on the big issues of the day.
Both men are probably spinning in their graves over Clinton’s
parsing and triangulation on the war, though perhaps for different
Hillary might be in
a different position today if she hadn’t been so eager to
stay in the public eye and fast track her presidential ambitions.
Had she waited two years to run for Governor of Illinois, for
example, Hillary might today be in a position much more similar
to that of Mark Warner, who currently holds the same position
on Iraq as Clinton but is being mobbed by swooning party activists
in New Hampshire and Florida instead of being heckled by them.
The same ambition
that drove Hillary to run for Senate is what causes her predicament
now. The one thing about Hillary most everyone can agree on is
that she wants to be president. Everything beyond that is speculation,
including her true feelings about the war in Iraq. Some say she’s
being principled, others say she’s coldly calculating the
electoral math for 2008.
Above all, liberal
party activists are furious with Clinton because they had always
assumed she was one of them. Bill was always Bill, but Hillary
was different. From Wellesley to the McGovern campaign, from helping
take down Tricky Dick to electing Jimmy Carter, Hillary has spent
much of her life at home among the most progressive crowds. For
nearly the last fifteen years that has been especially true: she’s
thrown the parties and hobnobbed with the ultra-progressive big
money donors and Hollywood elite.
This group has been
willing to accept feints to the middle to burnish Hillary’s
centrist credentials. And while they had rather patiently tolerated
Hillary’s position on Iraq while the politics were bad,
now that there has been a significant shift in the political landscape
they are more than a little annoyed she won’t come back
on the reservation. Not only do liberal activists feel Hillary
is on the wrong side of history, even worse they see her unwillingness
to join the “withdraw now” crowd as implicitly helping
the enemy – not al Qaeda but President Bush.
impossible to see how Iraq could derail Clinton’s bid for
reelection in 2006, and if progress continues there is a growing
likelihood Iraq could take care of itself or be significantly
diminished as an issue for 2008. The only way Clinton becomes
truly vulnerable to the antiwar crowd is if the situation in Iraq
flatlines or deteriorates and the U.S. either can’t drawdown
troops or keeps suffering a steady flow of casualties. All of
that remains to be seen in the coming year, and Clinton is way
too smart to make a hasty decision today that could make the difference
between winning or losing the presidency three years from now.
Her ambition simply won’t let her do it.