The past few weeks, with Hillary Clinton’s formal acceptance of the Democratic party endorsement for Senate and an ensuing wave of articles about her politics and personal life, have brought speculation about the Democrats 2008 primary and the role that she will play in it. The emerging conventional wisdom consensus of today seems to be that she’s much less popular with party activists than was assumed in the conventional wisdom of yesterday, but that denying her the nomination would require an “Un-Hillary” capable of clearing the field of other viable aspirants and gathering together the disparate constituencies that don’t want to see her as the party’s standard-bearer in the next Presidential election. What the pundits seem to disagree about or, in many cases, ignore entirely, is whether that alternative candidate will come from the left or from the right of the Democratic party.
Since pundits and party hacks are likely to force the narrative of the coming primary into either a “Hillary versus the Un-Hillary” mold or a “Hillary versus a slew of guys” one – the latter of which pretty much secures her the nomination – who emerges from the primary will turn in some significant part on how the part of “Un-Hillary” is scripted. What kind of candidate the “Un-Hillary” is supposed to be will help determine who gets to seize the mantle and get the attention and the activists that make it possible to win. And what kind of candidate the “Un-Hillary” is supposed to be will depend in good part on who Hillary herself is perceived to be: the ostensible feminist firebrand committed to subversion of culture and nationalization of industries, or the hawk who’s proud to have voted for the war and wants government to regulate video game content more and credit card interest rates less. Evan Bayh and Mark Warner are running against the former; Russ Feingold and John Edwards are running against the latter.
So while the ostensibly-right-of-Hillary majority of Democratic presidential aspirants are each other’s immediate competitors for the right-of-Hillary niche, they are also allies in working to ensure that Hillary is seen as a left-winger who could be stopped by a right-of-Hillary “Un-Hillary” and not a right-winger who could be stopped by a left-of-Hillary “Un-Hillary.” The opposite is true of the minority of Democratic presidential aspirants who are gunning to run to her left.
Which camp will get the Hillary they want? The right-of-Hillary folks still have the media largely on their side, in that even the increasingly publicity around her moves to ban flag-burning and such still frames these acts as feints to the right by a unreconstructed liberal with the political savvy to disguise herself (this coverage often pivots around the myth that “Hillarycare” was a solidly left-wing proposal). The left-of-Hillary folks have Clinton herself on their side – both the conservatism of her record on the issues that divide the party and the intensity of her campaign to highlight her centrism. Judging by the approach she’s taken (with exceptions on some votes on seemingly forgone conclusions, like Bush’s nominations), as well as the comments of her advisors, she seems much more concerned with protecting herself from the right-of-Hillary competitors than from the left-of-Hillary ones.
Last month, Jonathan Chait noted the bind Clinton is in: “instead of moderates focusing on her positions while liberals focus on her persona, the opposite seems to be happening.” The logic of her circle seems to be that her gender, her rhetoric, and the relentless multi-decade assault on her from the right will be enough to secure the support of the left even as she offers policies to woo the center and beyond. If she succeeds, then progressives will be confronted not just with the comparatively conservative Clinton as frontrunner but with the comparatively conservative Clinton as the leftie of the crop of frontrunners. But given the increasing anxiety about her amongst the Democratic base, there’s reason to hope she won’t.