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The Great Right Hope

Hillary Clinton?

11:00 PM, Nov 18, 2008 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Campaign 2008, which went on for four years, if not for four centuries, was rich in dramatic personae with strange tales -- candidates from Alaska, the Canal Zone, and Hawaii; mavericks, moose-hunters, and multi-racial messiahs -- but none has been so bizarre as the story of Hillary Clinton, who began her career as the wife of a liberal president, who entered the race eons ago as the liberal hope to become the first woman president, and who may end it weeks after the fact as the third female secretary of state in our history, the first ex-First Lady to become a top diplomat, to the relief and delight of many conservatives. How did the feminist wife of Bill Clinton, demonized as a fiend during much of his tenure, end up as the Great Right Hope of the party they bested? The race changed her, and it, beyond all expectations. It was all the campaign.

Candidates of course plan their campaigns, but they are defined more than they anticipate by their opponents, to whom they are forced to react. In 1992, Bill Clinton, an interesting and effective middle-way reform governor, planned to run against liberal Mario Cuomo who would have the support of his party's establishment. To his surprise, Cuomo bowed out, and he became by default the establishment candidate. In 2000, George W. Bush, an interesting and effective reform governor, planned to run against fiscal or social conservatives as an inventive and maverick figure. He ran instead against John McCain, the maverick's maverick, and became in his turn the establishment figure, as the fiscal and social conservatives flocked to his side by default.

And so Hillary planned to run from the left against Evan Bayh or Mark Warner, with the support of the backers she and her husband had wooed over decades in politics: the civil rights groups, the gay and the feminist lobbies, the glitterati of New York and Hollywood, the intellectuals and/or academics, the mainstream and celebrity press. But Bayh and Warner dropped out early on, and she was assailed from the left and above by Barack Obama, whose appeal to her backers unraveled her base. She critiqued the Iraq war and David Petraeus, but he was opposed from the very beginning. She appealed to the young, but he was still younger. She ran as a star, but he was more new, and more glittering. She ran to make history, but the history he was making was much more compelling, as it spoke to undoing the country's most terrible wrong.

As he rose, all her old mainstays began to desert her. The trendies and glitzies peeled off, as did the students. The civil rights lobbies peeled off, as was expected. The feminists split. NARAL deserted, aborting her hopes at a critical moment. Hollywood and the fashion world broke for her rival, who looked like a film star, or a model for the Gap. The media swooned, and began to assail her, deriding her style, and clothes. As her previous base was collapsed by Obama, she responded by taking the only route open: She morphed by default into the champion of middle-aged, middle-class, small-town and middle America; of the more conservative, post-Reagan Democrats; and, by her party's standards, the hawks. In no time at all, Hillary Rodham of Wellesley and Yale became the new voice of the Democrats' social conservatives, defending rural voters and small town inhabitants against charges of "bitterness," saying elites had degraded the culture, knocking back shots of Crown Royal in bars. If Obama was Gary Hart, she was Henry (Scoop) Jackson; if he was the Priest, then she was the Warrior; if he was the Academician, pacific, detached and non-confrontational, she was the Jacksonian, ready to fight for her country and rights.

In this incarnation, she began to attack Obama for his lack of war-on-terror credentials, noting that she and John McCain had years of experience dealing with war-and-peace issues, while Obama had speeches. She ran ads implying Obama was not the right person to answer the phone when it rang in the White House at three in the morning with news of a terrorist outrage. She didn't just change, she seemed authentic in changing, as if a woman who had gone through multiple makeovers during decades in politics had finally found a persona that fit her. Martha's Vineyard flaked off, revealing the soul of a Midwestern scrapper. Conservatives watched, with surprise, with some awe, and with some bemusement. Perhaps this was her all along.