Hillary Clinton changes images with the quickness of Madonna. Like the Queen of Pop, she provokes and reacts, rethinks and reforms, pushes at hot buttons and then cools off with a dip in the mainstream.
Madonna moved from "Like a Virgin" to "Married With Children," and began writing children's books. Hillary went from high-octane lawyer in Little Rock who didn't want to stay home to bake cookies to being a first lady sharing her recipe for chocolate chip cookies. She went from standing by her man in a way that Tammy Wynette might have sung about, to standing up for New York in the United States Senate.
Both Madonna and Hillary have made a lot of stops that women understand. Madonna, who was born Catholic, now seeks meaning in the Jewish mysticism of the Kabala, and has even taken a Jewish name: Esther. Hillary never abandoned the Methodist social gospel, and now she's making noises that fall lightly on the ears of the evangelical swing voters who were turned off by John Kerry's tinny attempt to talk about "values."
Madonna continues to surprise us, but Hillary's reinventions shouldn't surprise us at all. She's on a trip, guided by the road map first used by her husband. She's working at looking "moderate," and learning to feel the pain of others.
When she spoke to the Family Planning Advocates of New York last week, she actually expressed empathy - if not necessarily sympathy - with the fiercest opponents of abortion. "I, for one, respect those who believe with all their heart and conscience that there are no circumstances under which abortion should be available," she said. This from one of the fiercest defenders of uncompromising feminist voices in the cause of abortion rights; she voted against the ban of partial-birth abortion.
She said "common ground" was the best way to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. She described abortion as a "sad, even tragic choice to many, many women." Hillary is nothing if not calculating and she chose her audience carefully. She was talking not to a pro-life group, but in a lioness' s den of abortion rights advocates on the 32nd anniversary of the Supreme Court decision declaring abortion a constitutional right. Her rhetoric has been characterized as a Sister Souljah moment like that of her husband to the Rainbow Coalition in 1992, rebuking the black rap singer for her hymns to hate. It worked for Bill, and the gasps in the audience, as if those present had witnessed their angel's dainty feet exposed as works of clay, suggest it might work for Hillary.
She expects her base to submit, even if grudgingly, just as the blacks of the Rainbow Coalition submitted to her husband. She knows that feminists have hurt their cause by stubbornly refusing to give any credibility to moral and religious arguments against abortion. Some feminists inevitably see her remarks as a flip-flop, but Hillary is no John Kerry. She was merely changing emphasis, and she's likely to extend the "common ground" theme to good effect.
Even more fascinating was her support of faith-based initiatives. This may have been easier, since it no doubt appeals to the do-good religious faith of her early years. She told a fund-raiser in Boston that religious men and women ought to be able to deliver social services, a bold departure from fellow Democrats who have given the president a hard time on this initiative. America is big enough for people to "live out their faith in the public square," she said. "I've always been a praying person." (We should expect the second President Clinton to seek "a relationship with the Lord," too.)
Hillary has been looking at more than exit polls. In her new book, "God on the Quad," Naomi Schaefer Riley describes the increasing numbers of graduates of religious colleges - Mormon, fundamentalist and evangelical Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Jewish - whose religious faith governs their search for values. They're very different from their parents. They're savvy, secure, have high academic standards and are difficult to ridicule.
"Unlike their parents, religious college graduates see themselves less as a force outside of American culture trying to fight it, than a force within trying to transform it," she writes. "This is the psychological result of spending four years in an environment that supported rather than attacked their religious beliefs and asked them to make the intellectual connections between faith and politics, culture, philosophy and literature."
They're going into professions and many of them will move into the blue states. These young men and women won't buy into Madonna's reincarnations, but they're likely to listen closely to Hillary on moral values. Democrats would be foolish to ignore them. Hillary Clinton clearly doesn't intend to.