Hillary Clinton made a fundamental decision in 2002 to support the invasion of Iraq. In doing so, she sought the center of American politics, reacting to issues much as her husband had throughout his ascent to the presidency.
But times have changed, and the center is not what it used to be. In the highly partisan and charged environment of politics in 2006, what has become of the centrist doctrines that reelected Bill Clinton and brought George W. Bush, the compassionate conservative, to the White House? Is the center still the place to aim in getting votes?
At the White House, I described the Clintonian brand of centrism as triangulation, with the polarized, partisan participants in the dialectic aligned to the left and the right at the base of the triangle and the centrist synthesis atop the apex, embracing the best of both arguments and rejecting the worst.
But the desideratum of American politics is not always found in the apex. When we confront new issues, challenges or problems, we are not ready for synthesis. We want our politicians, on both sides of the aisle, to develop alternatives and to debate and elaborate them. Unlike the Japanese, we expect our system to polarize when we face new issues so that we can listen to both sides and make our decision.
But eventually the debate has run its course. And because we are not like Italy or France, we refuse to debate perennially the same questions and demand, after the debate has raged long enough, that our leaders articulate a synthesis that reflects our consensus.
That was the situation the Clinton White House faced in the mid-'90s. By then, Americans had been debating more or less the same issues for decades — crime, welfare, the budget deficit, our response to globalization, free trade, a federal role in education — and we had come to conclusions about what we wanted. It remained for Clinton to implement them and cement his popularity.
But as the 21st century dawned and the old problems of the '90s had been largely solved, a raft of new issues arose with which we were less familiar. As we pondered the questions of international terrorism, global climate change, the catastrophic consequences of our dependence on imported oil, the privacy issues raised by the Internet, massive illegal immigration and the high costs of the new medicines and medical treatments, we looked to our political leaders to develop alternative solutions and both want and welcome debate.
Hillary Clinton bet on consensus and centrism in backing the war and an aggressive policy on terrorism — and may have bet wrong.
There are no rewards for those who push consensus when we want polarized debate. Ask the George H.W. Bush of 1992, the Jimmy Carter of 1980 and Gerald Ford. Fate is equally unkind to polarizers when we want consensus. Ask John Kerry, Bob Dole, Mike Dukakis and Walter Mondale.
Hillary may have misjudged the left. She may have opened herself up to a challenge from the left over Iraq and the war on terror. She may have chosen the wrong time and the wrong issue on which to cross party lines.
Fortunately for her, John Kerry and John Edwards were equally complicit in backing the war at its inception. And Howard Dean was always too far off the deep end in opposing it. But Al Gore, who has no stain of support for the war to overcome and is the custom-designed candidate for the issues of energy and climate change, could mount a serious challenge to Hillary Clinton.
Mrs. Clinton is trying to move to the left on anything and everything but the war. Her comparison of illegal aliens she once said she "abhorred" to Jesus and her charge that Bush is one of our history's worst presidents reflect her concern that she may have left the left behind in her move to the center.
Now she is in a fix. If she retreats and retracts her support for the war, she will become the ultimate weather vane, shifting with the political wind. If she adopts a pro-peace posture, she undoes all of her work to position herself as a hawkish female, able to overcome the stereotypes that hamper women who wish to be commanders in chief.
But if she stays in the center as the Democratic Party falls off to the left, she could find herself with a deadly primary challenge from her husband's former running mate.