When NPR host Terry Gross pressed Hillary Clinton on the subject of marriage equality, she revealed Clinton’s real political weakness: her longevity.
Clinton is the ultimate political time traveler. Her long journey on the public stage has taken her from the days when an American presidential candidate couldn’t admit inhaling marijuana to today, when there is significant bipartisan support for legalizing pot.
First as political spouse, and then as a US senator, presidential candidate, and secretary of state, Clinton has taken positions on countless issues. And just as the country has, she has changed her mind on some controversial ones.
Same-sex marriage is among them. She went from supporting the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 to backing gay marriage in 2013, about a year after President Obama did. During her recent NPR interview, she explained that she “evolved,” just like many Americans.
Now that slightly testy exchange with Gross is being viewed harshly, as one more product of years of Clintonian pragmatism. Or worse: As one MSNBC commentator put it, “Is Hillary Clinton our Mitt Romney?”
Romney, who can move from center to right and sometimes back again in the same news cycle, is in a league of his own. But in more than two decades as a national figure, Clinton has made plenty of her own shifts — which have taken her from left to center or vice versa, on matters large and small, personal and political.
When Bill Clinton’s political advisers told her the use of her maiden name was an issue for Arkansas voters back in 1982, she began calling herself “Hillary Rodham Clinton.” As she wrote in “Living History,” her 2003 memoir, “I decided it was more important for Bill to be governor again than for me to keep my maiden name.”
A focus on electability means constant adjustment is required. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, the search for the political center was famously known as triangulation. Hillary Clinton’s problem is that, when you’ve lived through as many political cycles as she has, the geometry can get very complicated.
Take her 2002 Senate vote authorizing military action in Iraq. In a post 9/11 world, Democrats like Clinton were eager to shed any vestiges of the Vietnam-era peacenik label. They wanted to look tough on terrorism, not ambivalent.
But by the time Clinton ran for president in 2008, the Iraq invasion, which had been launched on the false premise of weapons of mass destruction, was unpopular with voters. Barack Obama, who as an obscure state senator from Chicago had given a speech against the war, parlayed his stance into a winning presidential strategy. Today, as violence explodes in Iraq once again, that 2002 vote can still haunt Clinton on the hypothetical campaign trail.
As a senator mulling a presidential run in 2005, Clinton also edged towards a middle ground on abortion. Back then, she urged opposing sides in the abortion debate to find “common ground” to prevent unwanted pregnancies and reduce abortions, which she called “a sad, even tragic choice for many, many women.” Today, rhetoric like that is unlikely to be popular with Democrats who blast Republicans for waging a “war on women” and decry restrictive abortion laws.
When Wall Street considered Democrats the enemy, both Clintons cozied up to the financiers who run it. That’s not a great place to be in post-recession America, when populists like Senator Elizabeth Warren reflect an angry, anti-Wall Street mood.
But if Hillary Clinton, like her husband, is a passionate seeker of the political sweet spot, that’s how people get elected in this country — and reelected. While voters say they admire political courage, how often do they actually reward it?
What Clinton said to Gross during the Q-and-A over gay marriage is true. In every movement, there are activists ahead of their time. “Somebody’s always out front, and thank goodness they are,” said Clinton. But the out-front person is rarely a presidential candidate, and usually voters are looking for candidates who reflect public opinion rather than lead it.
As the economy turns, as wars break out or drag on, as social mores evolve, the public mood shifts, and with it the middle ground. Clinton has been searching for it for ages. It keeps moving, and so does she. And if changing your mind is a mortal sin, everyone — including the public — is guilty of it.