Love her or hate her, you have to admit that Sen. Hillary Clinton is one good politician. What she lacks in experience she makes up for with skill. New York's junior senator best demonstrated this recently when she played the "woman card." Her reasoning and timing, along with her decision to implement this strategy, were very impressive.
Clinton showed off her political savvy in the midst of a mistake. During an Oct. 30 Democratic debate, Clinton both supported and didn't support granting illegal immigrants driver's licenses, showing her first real signs of imperfection.
In truth, I think she did it on purpose, or at least partially. She did, in fact, intend to try to please both a primary constituency (left) and a general-election audience (more conservative). This was a smart move, even if the execution was flawed. Fellow Democrats recognized her flaw and tried to take advantage.
But Clinton tactfully broke out the whine. The brilliant part of this tactic was that she didn't pour the whine herself; she let Mark Penn do it for her. The day after the debate, her senior adviser argued on a conference call with supporters that the imagery of the Democratic field full of men who beat up on the only woman on the stage wouldn't go over well with voters. In response, the media frenzy transitioned from "Hillary Supports Driver's Licenses for Illegal Immigrants" to "Stop Being Mean to the Girl."
And once the meme was out there, the brilliant politician reappeared on the scene. Clinton announced during a campaign stop in Concord, N.H.: "I don't think they're piling on because I'm a woman. I think they're piling on because I'm winning."
Now, if she had actually cried, "I'm a girl, leave me alone," it would have hurt her hardnosed image. Instead, it was someone on her campaign who cried, speaking with a little gravitas -- someone who you knew spoke for her, but still has enough independence and experience to freelance in her name without her express approval, leaving Clinton a little plausible deniability.
Inasmuch as she is a smart pol, Clinton is actually as refreshing as a liberal Democratic woman can be to a conservative like me. Despite her tendency to support programs that encourage women (among others) to be dependent on the federal trough, she is not the whiner many of the sisters are. Clinton, at least, ran for Senate, won, and is known as a worker. No obvious sense of entitlement there. She occasionally sounds like she could almost be a social conservative on issues like abortion (even if she's not one), and when she lets out a good feminist cry, she won't let it be the YouTube moment of 2008: She sends out Penn to do it.
Fact is, Clinton knows that the campaign of the first woman president cannot be a whinefest (see Nancy Pelosi continually playing the "woman card"). It would make her look weak and annoying. If anything, voters may need some assurance that Clinton will be commanding during this time of war. And so she is.
Clinton often makes jokes about a field of Republican men and their friends who are "obsessed" with her. She reminds her feminist sisters that she is one of them and can -- theoretically, anyway -- let out a good victim cry now and again. But she will do it on her terms when she needs it most -- like diverting attention from her driver's license gaffe (77 percent of Americans oppose driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, according to a Rasmussen poll).
Clinton, in the end, changed the subject. That's brilliant. And that's formidable. That is a woman who can play with the best of the boys on the bus.