December 15, 2005
Hillary's Ambitious Tightrope

By Tom Bevan

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.

The tightrope 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.

Hillary’s choice 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 reasons.

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.

It’s almost 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.

Tom Bevan

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