Who Are You, Hillary?

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, May 11, 2006; 12:00 AM

I know a businessman who says that if the answer to a question is not about money, the question has to be restated. If that applied to politics, the answer to the question of who the Democratic presidential nominee will be in 2008 would be simple: Hillary Clinton. She has far and away the most money.

But politics is not just about money -- not quite yet, anyway -- if only because ideology and principles are not yet "products." That being the case (I hope), then Hillary Clinton's vast lead in fundraising -- she now has more than $20 million in the bank -- will be offset by growing questions about her principles and ideology. In other words, who is this woman who wants to be the next president of the United States? Is she the wife of Bill Clinton, who we were once led to believe was more liberal than he was, or is she actually far more conservative? The answer, at the moment, is something I cannot provide.

The latest reason for my perplexity is Clinton's agreement to have Rupert Murdoch host a fundraiser for her this summer. Murdoch is the very personification of the contemporary conservative movement. He is the proprietor of both the New York Post and Fox News, both of which are ideologically biased, sometimes blatantly so. No doubt Murdoch can raise lots of money. That's not the question. The question is: What will it buy?

Murdoch has always used his media properties to advance his business interests. In that regard, he is without ideology. Conservatives may loathe the communist Chinese regime, but when Murdoch wanted to do business in China, he kowtowed to the government and ejected BBC television from his Star satellite service. Earlier, when he ran into some business problems here, he went from being an Australian to an American citizen -- not exactly the reason school kids donated pennies to build a base for the Statue of Liberty.

When Clinton gets into the room with Murdoch and his band of merry millionaires, will she emphasize her liberal credentials? Will she say she's pro-choice and favors a government role in health insurance? Will she revive talk of the "vast right-wing conspiracy" that she correctly said had managed to impeach her husband? Beats me. There's no telling what she'll say anymore.

Clinton may feel that her standing with certain Democratic Party constituencies is so secure that she can afford to take them for granted. Maybe so. But women, blacks, liberals and Clinton admirers in general are not fools. I, for one, cannot quite get over her recent co-sponsorship of a bill that would outlaw certain types of flag burning. This is like outlawing certain kinds of speech. At the time, certain observers simply shrugged and attributed her affront to the First Amendment as a harmless pander to the right wing -- as if there could be any such thing as harmless when it comes to civil liberties.

It could be that Clinton is being as amorally pragmatic as Murdoch himself. Before she can run for president, she has to win re-election to the U.S. Senate from New York. She has virtually no opposition, but in politics nothing can be taken for granted. In New York, it helps to have Murdoch's support. When he endorses a candidate, he is not subtle about it. He wages a crusade on their behalf, although sometimes -- as when Mario Cuomo beat Ed Koch in the 1982 Democratic gubernatorial primary -- his reach exceeds his grasp. Still, Cuomo had to pay attention.

Somewhere in the vast Clinton organization are people telling her she is doing the right thing by moving a bit to the right. The trap for Democratic presidential candidates is that by appealing to the party's activist and disproportionately important left wing, it makes them unacceptable to more conservative voters. That might explain why Clinton has not called for a withdrawal from Iraq or repudiated her vote authorizing George Bush to go to war. It's a strategy that assumes she can win the nomination without the support of fiercely anti-war Democratic activists. More and more, this is beginning to look like a dubious proposition.

For some people, the embrace of Murdoch is only going to raise old questions about Hillary Clinton. What does it mean? Does Clinton agree with him? Does he agree with her? If so, what does he know that I don't? Is she now pro-life? Does she support reactionary judges? Does she endorse the use of the press to advance business interests? Does she know what she believes? Do we know what she believes? Hillary, help us. Who the hell are you?

© 2006 The Washington Post Company