The left nips at Hillary after her move to the right

Right after Election Day in November 2004, Bill and Hillary Clinton seemed to have reached certain conclusions.

Right after Election Day in November 2004, Bill and Hillary Clinton seemed to have reached certain conclusions.

They appear to have decided that Hillary needed to stress religious values, hew to a hawkish position on the war on terrorism, remain steadfast in her support for the Iraq war and move to the center on a variety of issues, painting herself as a moderate.

But circumstances have changed, and there is increasing evidence that the Clintons are realizing that they miscalculated in their November decisions. The George Bush of 41 percent approval in September 2005 is a far cry from the man who was reelected with more than 51 percent of the vote 10 months earlier. The endless casualties in Iraq, the inability to stop terrorist attacks in cities such as London and the high price of gasoline have all contributed to a swing to the left among the electorate and, especially, within the Democratic Party.

The antiwar movement represents a real menace to Hillary’s ability to win the nomination in 2008 and might even represent a sufficient threat to give her a primary in her pursuit of the Democratic nomination for Senate from New York in 2006. These folks, from Cindy Sheehan to the followers of Howard Dean, are not to be trifled with.

Is Hillary looking a bit like Hubert Humphrey or Nelson Rockefeller did in the mid-’60s? Once the liberal darlings, they were increasingly forced by their pro-war positions into an adversarial relationship with their former political base.

There is no doubt that strident antiwar spokespeople are capturing the hearts of the Democratic electorate. And, as in the ’60s, the political leaders of the Democratic Party are dragging their heels in following the voices of their own voters. And, as in the ’60s, new leaders who overtly echo the antiwar sentiment — the latter-day equivalents of Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern — are likely to emerge from out of nowhere to take up the cause.

So far, Hillary has tried to backfill the hole in her left flank by ancillary positions that skirt the central issue of the war. Her opposition to the confirmation of Judge Roberts and her vigorous criticism of Bush over his role in rescuing the victims of Hurricane Katrina are both examples of her move to the left. But, on the war, as reaffirmed in her meeting with Sheehan, there is no movement. Hillary is still a hawk.

But the stars do not align in favor of such a course for the prospective Democratic nominee for president. Antiwar sentiment will increase with each week’s casualty lists. Bush is not going to give in, and the terrorists won’t stop trying to create mayhem. If the Iraqi forces are ever able to replace U.S. troops, it will take quite a while for it to happen. (There is, after all, a reason that the minority Sunnis were able to impose their dictator on the rest of the country.)

And politics abhors a vacuum. One can easily see a latter-day McCarthy challenging Hillary for the Democratic nomination and upending her in the early going. Who will it be? Will Dean step into the space, as he did in 2004? Or Al Gore? Or Joe Biden? Or some certifiably liberal senator? Or will someone from the movement itself — a Sheehan — come forth.

In any event, Hillary is caught in a dilemma. If she moves to the left, she risks running afoul of the stereotype that a woman cannot be an effective wartime leader. She moves away from a Thatcher-esque image, which she will need to win the 2008 election. But if she leaves the left vacant, someone else will occupy the turf she has vacated and will give her fits in 2008, if not in her renomination run in 2006.

Tough times at Chappaqua.

Morris is the author of Rewriting History, a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History.