Commentary

Clinton May Lose the Independents

Everybody says that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is moving to the political center as she prepares to run for president in 2008. She supports the floundering war in Iraq. She’s cosponsoring a study on the media with conservative senators Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback. She’s participating in discussions on health care reform with Newt Gingrich. When she was booed by a roomful of liberal activists at a Campaign for America’s Future conference in June, some observers even thought she had planned it — to dramatize her newfound centrism.

But for people who’d like to see less government, she’s still the same old Hillary, except now she’s adding the paternalistic agenda of the religious right to her old-fashioned liberal paternalism. In trying to appeal to social conservatives, she may drive away libertarian-leaning independents.

Clinton’s shift to the right is part talk (she’s talking about her religious faith, teenage sexual abstinence and respect for people who oppose abortion) and, unfortunately, part action.

In July 2005, Clinton called for federal legislation to prohibit the sale of “inappropriate” video games to children and teens. She’s introduced a bill to study the impact of media on children — a likely prelude to restrictions on television content. And she touts the V-Chip regulation that President Bill Clinton signed. She has declined to support same-sex marriage, insisting that “marriage has always been between a man and a woman.” She supports federal legislation to outlaw flag desecration (though not a constitutional amendment).

Clinton is also couching lots of traditional big-government liberal programs in conservative, pro-family language. As Tom Curry, national affairs writer for MSNBC, says, “She has consistently favored working toward conservative goals (preservation of the family, protection of children) by using activist government means.”

And, of course, she voted to give President Bush a blank check to invade Iraq and has consistently opposed withdrawal since.

As Clinton moves right, she continues to embrace every big-government nostrum imaginable. As she writes on her Senate Web site, she seeks more money for low-income families, “more resources for child care assistance, greater access to education and training, and health care for people transitioning from welfare to work” and more federal money for farm programs.

Clinton voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement and a separate bill to free trade with the Andean nations. She has tried to ban foreign ownership of U.S. port operations. She wants to protect people who provide illegal immigrants with humanitarian assistance, but punish people who give them jobs.

On taxpayer issues, Clinton scores only 9 percent on the National Taxpayers Union rating of Congress, and she calls for higher taxes on wealthier Americans. In the 108th Congress she introduced 211 bills to increase spending — more than any other senator — and only three bills to cut spending.

Clinton voted for such job-destroying measures as a minimum wage increase and a windfall profits tax. She supports burdensome regulations like expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act, imposing new regulations on the Internet and slashing our use of energy. So maybe it’s only fair that she supports increasing unemployment benefits.

She wants the federal government to guarantee “every student with seven fundamental resources needed to learn, including: instruction from a highly qualified teacher, rigorous academic standards, small class size, up-to-date facilities and textbooks, and updated computers” — further centralizing education, reducing diversity and innovation in the states.

In short, Hillary Clinton is moving right in all the wrong directions. She’s still for more taxes, more spending and more regulation. But now she’s also for censorship, the continued exclusion of gay people from marriage and a misguided war.

Clinton hopes, of course, that these positions will make her more appealing as a national candidate. But as a jet-setting Ivy League careerist, she doesn’t look like the sort of candidate that social conservatives, NASCAR dads or Reagan Democrats will ever embrace. Meanwhile, her new positions are not likely to attract libertarian-leaning moderates, such as the 28 million Bush voters who support gay marriage or civil unions, or the 17 million Kerry voters who, according to the University of Michigan’s National Election Studies, think “the less government the better.” Those libertarian swing voters are more likely to vote for the first woman president than are socially conservative voters, but not if she embraces right-wing paternalism.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author, most recently, of Toward Liberty: The Idea That Is Changing the World.