Straddling the `crazy base'

May 26, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- Anti-war protesters disrupted New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's speech at the National Press Club this week. She should thank them profusely. Anytime the far left wants to portray Mrs. Clinton as too conservative, she seems quite willing these days to play in that brier patch.

On the other side of the political fence, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona owes a similar debt to the anti-war hecklers who last week jeered his commencement speech at the New School University in New York. The insults must have sounded like music to his political ears.

Like the liberal commentators who recently have taken to criticizing Mr. McCain as (gasp!) a conservative in moderate's clothing, hecklers from the left only serve to reassure the senator's skeptical supporters on the right that he has not strayed from his political base.

Such is the weird state of today's politics.

A lot of Democrats, nervous and depressed after being defeated in two consecutive presidential races, sound further depressed about Mrs. Clinton's prospects. She can't be elected, many tell me, because she is (a) a woman, (b) too liberal or (c) carries too much political baggage from her husband's two terms as president.

But the gender thing is probably a wash. For every vote she would lose because she's a woman, she would probably get one or two because she's a woman.

The political baggage is probably overblown too. The Clintons have survived just about every accusation of which anyone can be accused (most of it bogus). Mrs. Clinton's Democratic challengers will have to work hard to get to where she is in fundraising and name recognition.

Like other political lightning rods, she generates as much support as opposition.

Which is why it makes sense for her to work on the "too liberal" tag by inching her political image toward the center. She defends her vote for President Bush's war powers in Iraq, although she criticizes the way he has used those powers. She has called for common ground on the issue of abortion, saying, "We should all be able to agree that we want every child born in this country and around the world to be wanted, cherished and loved."

And she lately has been full of praise for conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who is sponsoring a fundraiser for her this summer. Bill Clinton chastised Sister Souljah, a black rapper, in 1992 to separate himself from the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson in the public eye without alienating mainstream black voters. Mrs. Clinton is similarly triangulating with Mr. Murdoch, a full-fledged member of the "vast right-wing conspiracy" that she denounced in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, Mr. McCain, comfortably perched in the political center (where Mrs. Clinton wants to be), seems to be inching toward the right. A week before the New School commencement, he delivered the same speech at the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. Yes, that's the same Mr. Falwell whom Mr. McCain denounced in 2000, along with Pat Robertson, Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton, as "agents of intolerance." Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, spoke for many when he asked Mr. McCain on a segment last month, "Are you freaking out on us? Are you going into the crazy-base world?"

And Mr. McCain, holding on to his smile for dear life, responded a bit sheepishly with the candor that has endeared him to millions of moderates, "I'm ... I'm afraid so."

What's going on? After years of bitterly polarized politics, could the Republican front-runner be noticing a national yearning for what former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell called "the sensible center"? We can only hope.

After years of arguments about flag burning, gay marriage and other wedge issues, it would be refreshing to see a national contest of solutions to the problems most Americans wrestle with every day. Mr. McCain and Mrs. Clinton might just do it, if their own partisans don't get in the way.

That's the big problem faced by moderates: They often have a better chance of winning the national election than winning their own party's nomination.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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