WASHINGTON -- When Hillary Clinton began to readjust her campaign rhetoric to reinvent herself as a born-again centrist, few bothered to check out whether she had shifted rightward in her voting record, too.
With rare exceptions, she hadn't. Her rhetoric had changed around the edges, as when she talked about finding common ground with right-to-life advocates. But "her voting record on abortion issues didn't change one iota," said an official at the National Right to Life Committee.
Yes, the New York Democrat had voted for the Iraq war resolution (as did other Democrats like Massachusetts lefty Sen. John Kerry). And she votes for the defense-appropriations bills, and a free-trade bill here and there, but the rest of her votes have been overwhelmingly left wing.
Who says so? None other than Americans for Democratic Action (founded by Eleanor Roosevelt and Hubert Humphrey), a yearly liberal scoring index on congressional votes.
Clinton scored a perfect liberal rating of 100 percent from the ADA in 2005. So did Barack Obama, the freshman senator from Illinois who, after two years in the Senate, now wants to be president of the United States. Their 2006 scores, which will be out shortly, will be close to those grades.
Obama's centrist-sounding campaign speeches, inspiring perorations for compromise, unity and bipartisanship, have propelled him to his party's front ranks. He now runs close behind Clinton in some of the Democratic presidential-preference polls.
But his nonpartisan tone belies a far more liberal agenda on a wide range of domestic and national-security issues (he ran against the Iraq war in his 2004 campaign and looks to government as the answer to every ill that confronts us). In the broader scheme, both now head a field of Democratic presidential hopefuls who are pointedly and uniformly more liberal than the nation at large -- raising alarm bells elsewhere in the party.
The shift didn't get the attention it deserved, but the lineup tilted further to the left when former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh dropped out of the race for the 2008 nomination.
Both men, with a deeper range of executive experience than most of the presidential wannabes, were respected advocates for a centrist agenda on domestic and national-security policies.
Their departure from the presidential arena left behind a field of far-left contenders for an office Democrats have won in only five out of the last 14 presidential elections.
That worries moderate-leaning party strategists like former Minnesota congressman Tim Penny who fears this will allow liberal candidates to use or exploit the rhetoric of moderation without actually embracing the centrist policies themselves.
"If you don't have a genuine moderate in the race, it allows liberal candidates to put on the mask of moderation because there's no certified moderate to compare their rhetoric to reality," Penny told me.
Warner, a pro-business Democrat who was hawkish on defense issues, and Bayh, a popular two-term governor from a heavily Republican state who chaired the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, won little support from a party that is now in the grip of the anti-war left.
"Without them in the race, it leaves us without diversity on the campaign trial. That also leaves us in a circumstance where the remaining candidates will be more liberal than the mainstream voters and will not be challenged as aggressively if Bayh or Warner were in the race," Penny told me.
Democratic campaign strategist Alan Secrest also acknowledged their withdrawal "probably does leave the field somewhat more liberal." But "I don't think it's fair to say they left the race having concluded that a centrist cannot win," he added.
"It wasn't ideology that drove Warner and Bayh out of the race. It was the personalities in the race they were up against -- personalities like Clinton and Obama that often overcome ideology," he said.
However, another Democratic campaign adviser cautioned that, as left wing as the field is now, "the conservative nature of the electorate has not changed. It's still relatively conservative. People like Obama and Clinton know where the boundaries are in the electorate. I don't think it means racing off the cliff to the left. It means appealing to the center once they win the nomination."
Even so, he added, "In the short term, the pack is more liberal than it was." That is demonstrably clear right now. Al Gore is more fiercely liberal on economic and national-security issues than he was in 2000. All the others are also playing deep into left field. Kerry's score is 86 percent. Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd and Delaware Democrat Joe Biden score 79 percent and 77 percent, respectively. Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich is nearly off the charts at 92.5 percent.
Compared to these and other contenders, Bayh's more centrist score was a milder 61.9 percent.
So the lesson in 2008 for discerning centrist Democratic voters is this: Beware of all that moderate-sounding rhetoric from the candidates. Check out their voting records first.