No Shift to the Center

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By Peter Beinart
Monday, May 9, 2005

Hillary Clinton has moved to the center in preparation for 2008. It's become a cliche -- so self-evidently true that it shows up not merely in editorials but in news articles as well.

One of the reasons it's so uncontroversial is that it seems innocuous, even flattering. It shows how shrewd a politician Clinton is. She knows Democrats must do better among hawkish, culturally traditional voters -- so she's moving in that direction herself.

But in fact the "Hillary shifts to the center" line isn't innocuous at all. It's crucial to the campaign that conservatives will wage against her in years to come. That campaign is likely to revolve around character.

In the 1980s Republicans demonized Democrats as ultra-liberals. But once Bill Clinton moved the party to the center in the '90s, that argument became less effective. And so in the past three presidential elections -- 1996, 2000 and 2004 -- Republicans have focused less on what Democratic candidates believe than on whether they believe anything at all. As the New Republic's Jonathan Chait has noted, Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry were each called flip-floppers -- politicians willing to say anything to get elected. Those three GOP campaigns were all variations on the same theme: The Democrat running for president has no moral core.

Now the drumbeat is starting with Clinton. This fall a conservative imprint will publish "The Truth About Hillary: What She Knew, When She Knew It, and How Far She'll Go to Become President," by Edward Klein. Its publisher boasts, "Just as the Swift Boat Veterans convinced millions of voters that John Kerry lacked the character to be president, Klein's book will influence everyone who is sizing up the character of Hillary Clinton."

The "Hillary moves to the center" story line dovetails perfectly with this character attack. How far will Clinton "go to become president"? So far that she'll radically change what she believes. When Clinton recently said that religion played a central role in her life, New York Conservative Party leader Michael Long told the New York Times, "All of a sudden she is saying she has these deep convictions. . . . I don't believe that. It's clear to me that she is getting ready to launch her candidacy for presidency, and she will become whatever she has to become to appeal to centrist voters." Implicitly endorsing that view, the Times headline read, "As Clinton Shifts Themes, Debate Arises On Her Motives."

But she wasn't shifting themes at all. In May 1993, in a long profile in the same New York Times, Clinton spoke at length about her Christian youth group, about theologians such as Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and about her guest sermons for the United Methodist Church. "She is moved," wrote Michael Kelly, "by the impatient conviction that moderates and liberals have wanly surrendered the adjective 'religious' to the right." That was 12 years ago.

In the same article, Clinton attacks "rights without responsibilities," endorses welfare reform and lavishes praise on an article by Daniel Patrick Moynihan called "Defining Deviancy Down," which argued that Americans were tolerating more and more antisocial behavior.

In truth, Hillary Clinton was basically as "centrist" when she entered the national stage in the early 1990s as she is today. To be sure, Pat Buchanan savaged her at the 1992 Republican convention for supposedly comparing marriage to slavery and suggesting that 12-year-olds could sue their parents. But those were absurd distortions of her legal writing, as the press largely acknowledged.

In fact, Clinton used the same formulation on abortion -- "safe, legal and rare" -- that her husband did. And she kept public funding for abortion out of her famed health care plan, recognizing that it was too controversial. Republicans savaged that plan, of course, but it relied on competition among private insurers, eschewing the single-payer system that many liberals desired.

On national security, where Clinton has been quite hawkish since entering the Senate, the public record from her days as first lady is slim. But if there's little evidence that she backed military intervention in places such as Bosnia, there's little evidence that she opposed it either.

So why has the press been so quick to call her centrism a dramatic shift? Partly it's because, in the post-Bill Clinton years, many Democrats did move away from language such as "safe, legal and rare" on abortion. So when Clinton recently returned to it, she was breaking with others in her party, if not herself.

But there is something deeper: the unstated assumption that high-profile women, especially feminists, must -- in their hearts -- be dovish, relativistic and secular. Republicans will exploit that stereotype in their effort to keep Clinton from the Oval Office. But before playing along, the press should first figure out whether it's actually true.

The writer is editor of the New Republic and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. He writes a monthly column for The Post.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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