TUESDAY'S SENATE debate on flag desecration was emblematic of Hillary Rodham Clinton's ongoing attempt to rebrand herself as a red-state-friendly Dem by supporting a bill that would have criminalized flag descrcration, while still holding on to her liberal bonafides by voting against the Constitutional amendment banning that desecration. It was eating your patriotism cake and having it too.
Even if Clinton doesn't know what she stands for any longer, doesn't she at least read the polls? The latest analysis by Democracy Corps, a Democratic polling firm, couldn't be clearer: Democrats need to draw sharp distinctions between themselves and the GOP -- especially by stressing their opposition to the war in Iraq. Oh, that's right, Clinton doesn't see things that way. She wants to have it both ways on Iraq too.
"I do not think," she said earlier this month at a Take Back America conference, , "it is a smart strategy for the president to continue with his open-ended commitment, which I think does not put enough pressure on the new Iraqi government. Nor do I think it is smart strategy to set a date certain."
Is that not the second coming of "I voted for it before I voted against it"?
And will Democratic leaders ever learn that this kind of have-it-both-ways hedging on matters of war and security is electoral death? Voters have an instinctive aversion to it. Something in their guts tells them that if a leader can't take a stand and clearly speak her heartfelt beliefs on such life-and-death matters, she won't be able to keep us safe.
When it comes to their security, people don't want finely parsed calculations, they want confidence. Even misguided confidence like President Bush's.
Listening to Clinton, you could almost smell the cold calculation hanging in the air, like the smell of gunpowder after a shooting. This issue and others -- including the escalated rhetoric on abortion -- are part and parcel of a move toward a mythical center to position herself for a run for the presidency in 2008.
On Iraq, Clinton has told confidants that, as a woman, she cannot take a position against the war and still be electable. The debate over Iraq, Clinton says, is "a difficult conversation." Difficult for whom? The American people have already had this difficult conversation, and 62% of them in a recent poll disapproved of Bush's handling of the war.
The Democrats don't even have to lead. They just have to follow the people.
The Democratic leaders who still believe that the way to get elected is to be hawkish on the war, support the flag-burning bill, share friendly photo ops with Newt Gingrich, Bill Frist and Rick Santorum and be feted by Rupert Murdoch should keep in mind that the president, who shares that belief, has a 36% approval rating.
But the Democrats have utterly failed to take advantage of Bush being down -- and he's starting to climb off the deck, gaining some traction following the killing of Abu Musab Zarqawi and the recent presidential photo-op visit to Baghdad.
Instead of giving the president breathing room, Democrats need to keep pounding him where he's most vulnerable -- Iraq -- and do it 24/7. And the only way to do this is by providing a clear alternative stand on the war.
During her Take Back America speech, Clinton made much of her new "Count Every Vote" bill, which is designed to fix many of the flaws in our voting system -- an initiative that is critically important and that I wholeheartedly endorse. But the GOP's failures over the last six years are so overwhelming and so tragic that unless the Democrats shoot themselves in the face -- i.e., fail to make the Iraq war and how it has made America less safe the dominant issue in 2006 -- they should be able to win in a landslide victory that not even Katherine Harris, Ken Blackwell and Diebold can steal.
But that won't happen if Democrats keep getting dazzled by Clinton's star power and allow it to blind them to how fatal her calculating, inauthentic stance on Iraq would be.
No wonder she'd rather have attention focused on her aisle-straddling on a nonissue such as protecting the American flag. Even proponents of the amendment admit that there have been just four incidents of flag desecration this year and about 50 in the last five years. But for Clinton, it's stars, stripes and triangulation forever.