- The Washington Times - Friday, August 5, 2005

“I am, you know, adamantly against illegal immigrants.” Who recently blurted that out?

Pat Buchanan? Rep. Tom Tancredo? Nope, it was Hillary Clinton.

Which Democratic senator has expressed little public remorse in voting for 23 counts to authorize war against Iraq, and has scoffed, “Saddam Hussein had been a real problem for the international community for more than a decade”?

Yep, Mrs. Clinton again.

And who frowned on frequent abortion, hoping it “does not ever have to be exercised or only in very rare circumstances”? Need I even answer that? We all know the New York senator is moving ever rightward, but why so brazenly and suddenly?

The depressing answer is clear for any Northern liberal who wishes to be president: No Democratic presidential candidate has been elected without a Southern accent in the half-century since 1960. If the country in the last half-century has grown more conservative, the South is emblematic of that shift.

John F. Kennedy’s long-ago success came by a razor-thin margin. He pulled it off by emphasizing national defense, space exploration and tax cuts that apparently created the necessary patina of conservatism Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton later naturally had with drawly good-old-boy personas.

In contrast, given the defeats of Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis and John Kerry, it seems liberals from above the Mason-Dixon Line have little chance anymore of winning enough red states to capture the Electoral College. A sort-of-Southern-sounding Al Gore came close and won the popular vote in 2000.

Many on the left, however, feel the medicine of moving the party centerward is worse than the disease of continued irrelevance. Still, triangulation for a chameleon Mrs. Clinton relies on an emotional base that will cry Hillary, right or wrong.

Like her husband, Hillary Clinton generates just that diehard loyalty. Bill Clinton signed a welfare reform bill for which George W. Bush would have been demonized. Without a cry from Barbara Boxer or Al Franken, he pre-empted and bombed in the Balkans despite neither U.N. approval nor a U.S. Senate vote.

Mrs. Clinton also grasps another great truth about America: Populism is never passe. What the old blue-collar middle-class electorate revolted against in the 1960s was not only the Democratic liberal social agenda, but also the hypocrisy of their erstwhile spokesmen in the universities, foundations, media and Hollywood who lived a very different life from what they advocated for those less well-off.

But as the Democratic Party moved leftward and upward, middle-class Americans below and to the right nevertheless remained distrustful of unearned aristocratic privilege. They don’t like, for example, hearing about chief executive officers finagling multimillion-dollar bonuses from their publicly held companies that are unconnected to their actual performance or the businesses’ health.

So Hillary Clinton now voices the old Democratic Fair Deal, without giving too much rope to fringe zealots, who could hang her in places like Topeka or Memphis with same-sex “marriage,” open borders, partial-birth abortion or skedaddling from Iraq.

Inasmuch as Mrs. Clinton’s transformation for now seems cosmetic and unmatched by a written agenda that spells out reduced entitlements, low taxes and strong national defense, can Hillary pull it off without seeming entirely cynical?

Perhaps. Bill Clinton could possibly behave in the next two years and help her avoid another tabloid marital spat. Mrs. Clinton learned populist ropes in Arkansas and so now represses the boilerplate bombast of Nancy Pelosi or Ted Kennedy.

All her dirty linen has long ago been aired. A recent sleazy biography by Edward Klein gained her empathy rather than embarrassment. Mostly forgotten the 1993 socialist health-care plan fiasco and her old putdown of stay-at-home moms.

Finally, she is advised by one of the most astute political triangulators in American history — her husband. Bill Clinton didn’t win a majority vote in either successful presidential election and yet navigated an entire agenda through a hostile Republican Congress. If liberal Hillary once held down Bill’s left flank while he moved rightward, expect now for a suddenly more liberal-sounding Bill to do exactly the same for her.

We can already gauge the success of Hillary Clinton’s new odyssey in a variety of ways. For starters, out-of-touch Democrats on the left already worry how far she will stray.

But Republicans are even more fidgety she is moving not just laterally in the views she expresses but up in the polls as well. Like frozen observers watching a train wreck in progress, conservatives sweat that a winking Hillary might just get elected and unveil her true liberal agenda.

Fewer on the right now say Rudy Giuliani is too liberal to be the Republican presidential nominee; instead many suggest he’s perhaps the only candidate who can derail Mrs. Clinton

What a strange metamorphosis — a candidate still in the veiled chrysalis stage, whose supporters fear the eventual new creature may emerge a centrist butterfly while detractors are even more convinced she will turn out to be a liberal moth.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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