A first-tier presidential candidate was the keynote speaker at a recent trade association convention held just outside Washington.
The candidate began the evening by telling the crowd: "His eye is on the sparrow, we know that. . . . And we are here tonight to give praise and thanks to He who made it possible for us to be with each other this evening."
The candidate spent a lot of time talking about the importance of hard work and personal responsibility, quoting another thinker's motto: "If I've accomplished anything in life, it is because I've been willing to work hard."
The candidate also spoke out against partisanship, saying: "It is time for us to come together again, to reach across the divides."
Later, the candidate talked about the responsibility of the nation to children: "When that little child was brought into this world, there was the spark of G-d in his eye . . . and what it is our job to do as members of the village is keep that spark alive."
Guess who the candidate was. Nope, not Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney. Not even Sam Brownback. Perhaps you can imagine the outrage some on the left might muster if one of those nasty theocrats used such language. No, the candidate was Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and she was speaking to the National Beauty Culturists League.
Her speech was further evidence of Sen. Clinton's move toward the political center. She is now the most conservative Democrat running for president. Next to Joe Lieberman and Dick Gephardt, she might be the most conservative Democrat to run for president since Bill Clinton left office.
All of which has left the senator with a small dilemma during this early phase of the primary process. She is, by Democratic standards, reasonably conservative. But until votes are cast, the primary process tends to be dominated by out-of-the-mainstream interests who do not necessarily reflect the leanings of the main body of the party. Recall that in 2004, until a few hours before the residents of Iowa were allowed to speak, Howard Dean was lapping the Democratic field.
So what is Clinton going to do? Her speech to the NBCL might offer some clues. In turning to Iraq, the senator opened with an unequivocal statement: "We have a lot of work to do around the world, starting with bringing our troops home from Iraq." It was her biggest applause line of the night.
But almost as soon as those words passed her lips, she began clarifying the remark. First, she noted that "we have to get our men and women out of their civil war."
Next, Sen. Clinton attempted to locate blame for the situation in Iraq. Praising the troops, she said: "We are not only proud of them, but we understand that they achieved what they were sent to do. They were asked to get rid of Saddam Hussein, and they did. They were asked to give the Iraqis free and fair elections, and they did. They were asked to give the Iraqi government the space and time to make the decisions that only they could make for their future, and they did. It is time for the Iraqis to take responsibility and for us to bring our troops home as soon as possible."
Finally, she proclaimed that "if the president does not end this war before he leaves office, when I'm president, I will." Again, this was met with huge applause.
Clearly, Democrats feel strongly about Iraq. What, exactly, they feel is a different matter. Depending on the day, it seems to run anywhere from wishing for immediate withdrawal to actually hoping for America's defeat. (Democratic House Whip James Clyburn recently said that good news from Iraq would be "a real big problem for us.") Sen. Clinton was able to tap into that anger in her speech.
But if you parse her words carefully, you get the sense that she may not mean what her audience might have thought.
After all, if there were no Iraqi civil war - because, let's say, the Baghdad Security Plan worked - then might not U.S. troops stay in Iraq as needed? The qualifier "as soon as possible" is the type of wiggle phrase that maddens those on the antiwar left who want immediate withdrawal. Even in her statement about ending the war on her watch, Sen. Clinton leaves open the possibility that she would prosecute the war to victory, not merely that she would turn tail and run.
In their anger with the president, some Democrats seem to have forgotten that it would be the United States, not just George W. Bush, that loses if our country fails in Iraq. That is the bedrock truth, and it exists independent of questions about how wise the war was and how competent a commander President Bush has been.
But many Democrats do understand this basic truth - as evidenced by John Kerry's trouncing of Howard Dean. Hillary Clinton seems to understand that as well. And history suggests that her message will be well-received by the main body of Democratic voters.
In the meantime, however, she may be trying to fool the party's base into thinking she's more irresponsible than she actually is.