How Hillary can win

Posted: Dec 10, 2005 12:05 AM

Aspiring stateswomen have few role models on American soil. Thus, it's an invent-as-you-go process for people such as Hillary Clinton, one of only a few women in the U.S. Senate and the most likely Democratic candidate for president in 2008.

Can she become the first female commander in chief?

A year ago, I would have said "no" simply because she's not a woman most men - rationally or not - can stand. It's a primitive reaction on their part, which is shared by enough women to keep her out.

Democratic women alone can't elect her, and Republican women aren't likely to cross over in significant enough numbers to make the difference. Unless.

There's one issue on which Clinton could bridge a gap that begs someone's attention, preferably a woman's. Abortion. Hillary Clinton needs to be the voice of ending abortion.

As the most divisive domestic issue on the American political scene - especially as a more conservative Supreme Court begins deliberations on its first related case - abortion provides an opportunity for Clinton to demonstrate her stateswomanlike stuff.

Stateswomen, like statesmen, have to be willing to do and say things that are often unpopular, even among their constituents. Clinton already has proven herself willing to speak in favor of staying put in Iraq, swimming against the tide of her own party.

Separating herself from her fellow Democrats, she has earned the attention of others who might have dismissed her before. Can she do the same on abortion? It would be risky, but enormously brave and right and needed.

For too long, the far left and far right have been unwilling to compromise an inch on the abortion question for fear the other side might gain traction. Any relenting on even partial-birth abortion was viewed by the official pro-choice side as a subterfuge for the pro-life side's incursion into women's reproductive rights.

Likewise, the pro-life side couldn't acknowledge arguments favoring privacy in decisions as personal as what a woman does with her own body.

The schism between these two perspectives and the voices that dominate the debate seems in no danger of closing. What's long been needed is a calm voice that acknowledges all sides, the very voice Clinton has begun tuning in recent months.

Speaking in January on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Clinton made some fairly stunning remarks when she acknowledged that abortion is a "a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women," and said, "There is no reason why government cannot do more to educate and inform and provide assistance so that the choice guaranteed under our constitution either does not ever have to be exercised or only in very rare circumstances."

William Saletan, author of "Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War," suggested in his column at the time that Clinton was repositioning her party to win the abortion war.

Perhaps so, but I don't care why she's saying it. I'm just glad someone is speaking up. I've always maintained that you eliminate abortion by treating the subject honestly through education. If we can graphically describe or depict sexuality to high school kids, we shouldn't shy away from an equally graphic treatment of abortion.

If sickened girls and boys dash for the restroom, good. Maybe they'll slip a quarter in the condom machine on their way out.

I'm half-joking, but you see my point. Abortion is, indeed, a sad and tragic choice for many, and that's the way we ought to talk about it - not as a continuum between extremes of "choice" or "murder," but as an endpoint of last resort that we want to work strenuously against.

While President Bill Clinton said he wanted abortion to be "safe, legal and rare," his senator wife seems to prefer a more aggressive approach with a goal of "never." Politically motivated or not, Hillary Clinton's shift parallels that of a growing number of Americans who have become less comfortable with abortion and who seek a way out that doesn't criminalize women.

Politics is often a tedious, tendentious debate that leads nowhere good and fast. This may be one of those rare instances where politics leads somewhere important, if belatedly.

Clinton's position on the war has earned her enemies within Democratic ranks; shifting to the right on abortion will, too. But the vast middle in America, the millions of voters who yearn for that erstwhile "third way," will be watching to see if Clinton can stay the course of what's brave and right and needed.

And whether she has the guts to be the stateswoman she aspires to be.

(Correction: In a previous column, I incorrectly wrote that Fox News dominates ratings over the networks and other cable programs. Fox leads only the cable news shows.)