With her bizarre claim that the House of Representatives is "run like a plantation," Sen. Hillary Clinton has turned a harsh spotlight on herself. Speculation is hot and heavy about why she made the inflammatory remark on the holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., especially when she has been taking steps toward the political center.
As with all things Clinton, the conventional wisdom is that the moment was calculated. Appearing with the Rev. Al Sharpton and other far-out Dems, this theory goes, she was feeding the crowd red meat to get its applause and Sharpton's approval. She obliged, and so did they.
It's a reasonable guess at her motive, but it's at least partly wrong. I don't think Clinton planned to use the word plantation because she didn't say it in her prepared remarks, according to my colleague David Saltonstall.
Instead, I think she panicked after a tough questioner said Democrats had been spineless and cited her record as an example. She was looking for an escape hatch and the race card was handy. She played it not because she remotely believes House rules are akin to slavery, but because she knew the word plantation would manipulate the black crowd and let her avoid explaining her support for the Iraq war.
Think of it as a cheap trick.
Of course, her panic is no excuse for rancid race-baiting. Indeed, it points up an even deeper problem with Clinton's "triangulation" strategy for her presidential run in 2008. All this zigzagging from left to right and back again on abortion, health care and national defense is supposed to make her look like a centrist.
It's just making her look confused.
At worse, it suggests she's having trouble figuring out who she is. And if she doesn't know who she is, how are the rest of us supposed to?
John Kerry demonstrated that an identity crisis can be fatal in 2004 when he gave the Bush team enough ammo to make the flip-flop charge stick. Kerry should have won, but his muddled stance on Iraq, terrorism and pretty much everything else allowed the GOP to paint him as unprincipled and unreliable.
Al Gore had the same problem in 2000. Remember those reports of his hiring a consultant to tell him how to dress like an alpha male?
Clinton is flirting with the same problem. Part of the reason is that she keeps her more moderate and leftist tendencies segregated from each other. The result is that she often seems to be two different people instead of one person with a principled coherence.
I've written about her habit of saying things that are, in substance, as radical as a Howard Dean rant. But she doesn't say those things in front of mixed audiences. Her most strident attacks on Bush come at Democratic fund-raisers. The next day, she'll talk publicly about the need for bipartisanship while she poses with a Newt Gingrich.
Then there's the race issue. Last September, she stood mute as Rep. Charles Rangel called Bush "our Bull Connor." The reference to the Alabama police boss of 1960s infamy was below the belt, but Clinton uttered not a peep of protest. It would be nice to ask her what she really thinks about such things, but our senator rarely grants on-the-record interviews to New York journalists. Maybe she's trying to decide who she is.
Or maybe she's afraid some of us already know.