I knew it was going to be a hard week when I found myself agreeing with Hillary Clinton about something . . .
In the last two days I’ve heard and read a lot of talk about Hillary’s "disastrous" appearance in the Democratic debate this week. The standard interpretation is that she misstepped and then--after the fact--she played the gender card to complain about everyone ganging up on poor little her. Well . . . yes, that’s one way to view the thing. But conservatives should be careful about laughing at Hillary.
I’ve been watching the way the Clinton’s play this game for too long to really believe that they have room in their well-rehearsed program for many missteps. This is what I think happened: Hillary does not want to take a position on drivers licenses for illegals. She did say that she thought Governor Spitzer’s plan "made sense"--but she is right to point out that saying something makes sense is not the same thing as saying that it is sensible. Though an apparent contradiction is evident and though it was certainly slippery, Hillary’s right about the technical use of her words. She’s right because she chose those words carefully so as to be able to sit back and wax philosophic to either side in this debate. It’s not considered appropriate to say such things in public . . . but Hillary Clinton did what is typically female in this instance. She is straddling the line on a controversial issue and deflecting attention away from her inability (or unwillingness) to take a stand by pointing to the failures of someone else (Bush) in bringing things to such a convoluted point. She shouldn’t have to think about such exasperating things and, she wouldn’t, if it weren’t for that bungling Mr. Bush. Husbands, does this sound familiar? It’s all your fault! You go figure out what to do about it and don’t come to me with your messes.
This line of argument is intended to do exactly what it did. It made those men angry and confused. "But you said it ’made sense’!" they cried. "But you’re not smart enough to understand my words," she replied. It provoked a spirited piling on of the boys from all sides. And that always makes me suspicious. It may have been a calculated risk on her part. She knew she couldn’t stick her neck out and take a firm position on this issue so perhaps she’s taken the danger this presented and turned it into an opportunity. Perhaps she’s betting that the sympathy she’ll get from women watching her fellow Dems (and most conservatives) beat up on her will bode well for her female numbers. She was never so liked and admired by American women as when she was the victim of that bully husband of hers, after all.
There is a risk that this could backfire. It is fair for people to point to her duplicity on this as well as many other controversial issues. She can be seen as indecisive or non-committal. She may be criticized for playing the gender card and crying "poor me!" in the face of tough questioning. Some people will likely come to the conclusion that she is too slick and not tough enough to handle the job of Commander in Chief. But those people probably already had that opinion--don’t you think? How many more of those folks is she likely to lose? And what are the potential gains? Hillary’s negative numbers (some 48%) are very high indeed. To overcome them she needs to do something drastic. I think she’s banking on this appearance of vulnerability making her more likable with the group she considers her natural constituency: women. Of course it is insulting to women--not only for her to harbor this opinion of them--but for her to act on it so. But history has never given a Democrat an opportunity to pander to an identity group--no matter how low the level of pandering--that the Democrat wasn’t happy to take. I guess Hillary’s just one of the boys after all.
David Brooks writes an amusing parody of this episode here. The best line (attributed to Clinton) is this one: To be clear, I said that licenses for illegals was a smart idea that I oppose. There are also many dumb ideas I support and mediocre ideas I’m lukewarm about. I keep track on my iPhone.
UPDATE: Also see Kathleen Parker’s interesting take on the event.