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How Hillary Became a Social Conservative (Sort Of)

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

When Hillary Rodham gave the commencement address at Wellesley College in 1969, extolling the virtues of "human liberation" on behalf of a restless generation of left-wing youth, did she have any idea she'd one day be the champion of old, white, beer-drinking Democrats everywhere?

Oh, what tangled webs we weave. And what strange transformations are wrought by presidential primaries. Candidates are often driven by their constituencies and the logic of their campaigns into unexpected places.

In 2000, John McCain -- hitherto basically an orthodox conservative -- ended up a populist reformer alienated from his party. In 2004, Howard Dean -- hitherto a wonkish moderate -- ended up an anti-war fire-breather. And in 2008, Hillary Clinton -- part of the McGovernite takeover of the Democratic Party -- is representing the Democrats' culturally conservative wing (such as it is).

It's only as compared with Barack Obama, of course, that Clinton looks like a curmudgeonly traditionalist. Only he could have given her such wide openings to defend small-town mores and (gingerly) chastise a black nationalist preacher. It's not policy differences on cultural issues that divide Obama and Clinton, but differing sensibilities.

A push-pull dynamic has redefined Hillary. As the mainstream media, the left-wing blogs and latte liberals have turned on her, she has held all the more tightly to her down-scale constituency and reacted against her critics. She has lashed out against, and husband Bill has dissed "upscale cultural liberals." She has defied the precious rules of liberal politics, referring to Osama bin Laden in a TV ad, threatening to "obliterate" Iran and -- even worse -- sitting down with Bill O'Reilly for a cordial interview. The same people who spent a decade defending her and her husband howl betrayal.

Every politician becomes a function of his constituency, a particular peril this year. Both Republican and Democratic primary races have been exercises in electoral tribalism: The evangelicals have voted for the evangelical, the Mormons for the Mormon, the Southerners for the Southerners, the blacks for the black, the youth for the young guy, the old white people for the old white people. The easiest way for Hillary to grow her support has been to get even more of her -- older, poorer, less-educated -- white voters.

Why should she get them? Both she and Obama went to Ivy League law schools. The difference is that Obama left Harvard Law School for community organizing in Chicago and then a political career on the South Side. It's as if Bill and Hillary Clinton had departed Yale Law School and headed straight to San Francisco to clamber up the slippery pole of progressive politics. That way lies Nancy Pelosi.

Instead, they went to Arkansas and had to win over Bubba voters to survive. Democrats successful at the national level come from the South because it forces them into sympathy with parts of America not represented in the liberal, coastal bubble. Hillary obviously doesn't have the natural popular touch that Bill does, but she's sending him to every small town in America on her behalf.

Then, there's the matter of experience. Hillary's years in politics benefit her not because she's used to answering that proverbial red phone, but because they have roughed her up, making her -- like the Velveteen Rabbit -- more real for her voters. The soaring idealism in Hillary was long compromised away (by her) or kicked out of her (by her critics), giving her a battered grounding in realism that Obama lacks.

All of this has made her a stronger candidate. Operating on the Bill Clinton model, a Democratic candidate needs a "Sister Souljah moment," distancing him from the fringes of the party. Hillary Clinton's Sister Souljah moment has been running against Obama, pushing herself to the center in relation to him and forging a bond with voters Democrats need in a general election. Oddly, she may be a more electable candidate now when the odds are against her winning the nomination than when she seemed a lock. Tangled webs, indeed.

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