Hillary Clinton's many contradictions aren't hard to understand once you realize her need to suppress her natural instincts and policy preferences because they conflict with her lifelong presidential aspirations.
For the most part Hillary is not personally conflicted: She knows precisely what she wants. But her personality characteristics and the circumstances in which she finds herself force her to walk a tightrope between warring constituencies and to project a double-mindedness that is wholly inconsistent with her innate ideological certitude.
These themes were on display this past weekend as Hillary began her presidential campaign in Iowa. From the issue of her gender, to her kaleidoscopic positions on the war, she was trying to thread personal and policy needles to make herself attractive to Midwestern voters without triggering any more blue-state liberal landmines in the process. (Hollywood moguls have already sent her a message by hosting a fundraiser for Barack Obama.)
In the past, Hillary has vacillated between righteous indignation at any expectation that she should be home "baking cookies" and her acquired awareness that she must not go too far and project herself as cold and heartless.
So it was no surprise that in Iowa she reflected a bit of both sides: On the one hand she wore her gender on her sleeve in telling her audience she faced a "double standard" as a female candidate. In the next, shameless breath, she instructed them to look beyond "stories about my clothes and hair" to help her make history.
Similarly, Hillary wants desperately to project a soft, amiable side that is appealing to voters, but she doesn't want to come off as too soft to be chief executive and commander in chief.
Not to worry. She's quite comfortable with bare-knuckles political brawling. In this vein, she mildly criticized John Kerry for not having responded fiercely enough to his Swift boat accusers. "When you're attacked, you have to deck your opponents," she said.
Hillary has labored to cultivate the image that she's open-minded -- kicking off her first New York Senate campaign with a phony "listening tour" and pretending to absorb the people's concerns. Now, with an equally straight face, she says she wants to "chat" with voters and have "one-on-one conversations, just you and me."
Right. Surely even those not majoring in "Hillary Studies" can see she is nothing if not a woman with definite policy preferences and a singular commitment to accomplishing them -- no matter what anyone else thinks or chats.
You might note that Hillary did not come away chastened from the stinging personal defeat of her universal health care ploy. To the contrary, she said, in Iowa, concerning Hillary Care, "I now know what the roadblocks and obstacles are." (I fault her here, by the way, not for her unflinching commitment to socialized medicine -- I'll save that for later -- but for her usual duplicity in disguising it.)
On Iraq, Hillary has long been speaking out of both sides of her mouth. She figured out early on that she would have great difficulty courting a center-right electorate in a general election with the purely antiwar message her liberal base uncompromisingly demands. So she has been back and forth on Iraq -- a hawk with dovish wings -- almost as much as the perpetually double-tongued John Kerry.
For now Hillary seems to have settled -- appropriately -- on the Clintonesque position of taking responsibility for her vote to authorize the war against Iraq, while simultaneously denying responsibility because President Bush "misled Congress and the country on what he was seeking and what he intended to do."
On the broader war on terror, she throws bones to the right, saying, "we must [defend] our country and [deter] those who wish us ill, as they still do." Yet she says we must end "the alienation toward us in the rest of the world," a statement sure to warm the hearts of Jane Fonda and the 12-year-old war protestor who lamented that "the rest of the world sees us as a bully and a liar." Hillary's words should also please John Kerry, who just said on foreign soil that the United States is now considered an "international pariah."
It has yet to be determined, however, whether Hillary subscribes to Kerry's "global test," where we would virtually confer on other nations a veto power over our sovereign decision to go to war.
Though we will continue to see abundant evidence apparently to the contrary between now and November 2008, Hillary knows exactly who she is and what she wants. The open question is: How many naive or uninformed voters can she fool without permanently estranging herself from her natural soulmates on the far left?