Hillary: Can a liberal change her spots?

Posted: Jan 28, 2005 12:00 AM

A little immigration reform here, a little religion in the public square there, a little gentle talk about common ground on abortion -- and what have you got? The birth of a new, moderate Hillary Clinton, announces the press.

 "Democratic Party appears to be getting softer on reproductive rights," headlined a National Public Radio story. "Gasps as Hillary woos the anti-abortion vote," reported the London Daily Telegraph. "Hillary Clinton Seen as Staking Out Centrist Positions," announced the Bulletin's Frontrunner.

 It's a testament to the rigidity and extremism of the pro-choice abortion movement that even such platitudinous phrases as Clinton tossed into her address to the New York State Family Planning Providers conference were considered signs of movement to the center.

 Clinton, in what some hopeful Democrats are describing as her "Sister Souljah" moment (a reference to Bill Clinton's rebuke to a hip-hop star in 1992), told a pro-choice audience that "opposing sides" on the abortion question should "seek common ground" in the effort to prevent unwanted pregnancies. (Oh gosh, she's gone soft!) Clinton further allowed that, "We can all recognize that abortion in many ways represents a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women."

 If anodyne words like those are evidence of a move to the right, consider what that says about the pro-choice position. The pro-choice movement does not want to seek common ground in preventing unplanned pregnancies? It does not recognize that abortion is sad or tragic?

 In point of fact, the pro-choice position has hardened over the years to the point where any deviation from orthodoxy is considered heresy. Abortion advocates have fervently resisted every single legislative limit on abortion. They've stoutly opposed waiting periods, parental notification laws and bans on late-term abortions and partial birth abortions. They've even opposed a law that would permit a baby who by accident survives a late-term abortion to be welcomed into life.

 Elsewhere in her address, though, Clinton reassured her audience that she remains firmly in the camp of traditional liberals. Following lip service to abstinence programs, Clinton launched into a full-throated cry for (naturally) more federal spending on "comprehensive family planning services." She denounced what she labeled the "global gag rule," by which federal funds are denied for abortion services worldwide.

 Still, it would be foolish to laugh off the New Hillary. Political makeovers have succeeded in the past (the New Nixon, the New Wallace), and the Clintons have shown a knack, rare in the Democratic Party, for grabbing symbolic bits of conservatism and weaving them into sheep's clothing. Bill Clinton latched onto curfews and school uniforms to signal a comfortable centrism, and then supplemented this window dressing with a couple of substantive concessions, one on welfare reform and the other on a balanced budget, and thereby ran away with the prize.

 Can Hillary do the same? It's not impossible. She can sniff the wind with the best of them. But she has two major hurdles. The first is the Democratic Party, or at least that part of the party that nominates presidential candidates, which is moving steadily to the left even as the country is moving the other way. Hillary cannot campaign as a centrist and hope to win the nomination.

 The second hurdle is her life. She has made a career as a liberal do-gooder, rolling up her sleeves to attempt single-handedly to refashion one-seventh of the U.S. economy with Hillarycare. When told that her plan would bankrupt small businesses, she sniffed haughtily that she couldn't be "responsible for every undercapitalized small business in America."

 Her proudest moments as a lawyer were those she devoted to working on behalf of the Children's Defense Fund, a super-liberal lobbying group that promoted welfare dependency as a right and fiercely resisted reform. It was Hillary who initially backed Dr. Johnetta Cole, not a "friend of Bill" but a friend of Fidel Castro, for secretary of education. And it was she who coined the phrase "vast, right-wing conspiracy" to describe those who noticed her husband's lies.

 She may be moving to the center, but her past will cast a long shadow.