Saturday, September 17, 2005

Why Hillary Will Lose

The old CW on Hillary's presidential aspirations was that they'd be crushed under her liberal reputation. The "socialized medicine" attacks on her health care reform plan stuck to her more than they stuck to Bill. And while Bill's upbringing and red-state governorship made him acceptable to Southern regionalists, Hillary's Chicago roots and New York Senate seat marked her as someone from the strange liberal cities that many small-town folk still regard as foreign to their way of life.

The new CW is that she's moving to the center and leaving the old liberal reputation behind. She supports the Defense of Marriage Act, repositions herself on abortion, and has an incomprehensible position on flag burning that allows her to vote for a ban. But I doubt that she's actually gained any lasting political support through these moves. A candidate just coming onto the political scene might use these positions to get a genuine reputation as a moderate on the issues, which could play into any number of attractive political identities. But given Hillary's history and the way her moves are being analyzed by the press, her new reputation will be that of an unprincipled opportunist -- a reputation that has, in one way or another, defeated our last two presidential candidates.

They said Gore was a serial exaggerator who would make up anything to win; they said Kerry was a flip-flopper whose positions shifted with the political winds. While people identify with and vote for leaders who share their values, there's no identifying with opportunism. The current understanding of Hillary's positions is one that plays straightaway into charges that she's just saying whatever will help her get elected in 2008. Perhaps it's somewhat overblown -- this bit from Media Matters argues that she's not actually changing her positions that much. But perception here matters more than reality, and Media Matters documents the ubiquity of perceptions that Hillary is making opportunistic moves.

Every one of our other 2008 primary possibilities -- save the hapless John Kerry -- has a reasonably well-defined political identity, and staying true to this identity will do a lot to avoid charges of opportunism. Wes Clark is the General, and he can present himself as personally concerned with good national defense and foreign policy. Russ Feingold is the Liberal, and while this has limited appeal, he'll avoid charges of opportunism as long as he just goes out there and does his lefty thing. I'm guessing that Mark Warner will present himself as the Governor, a competent executive who knows how to make a government work efficiently. John Edwards, the Populist, probably has the most firm identity of them all. Who is Hillary? I'm worried that she's the Opportunist.

[Crossposted at Ezra's, go there to comment.]