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Archive for Thursday, April 21, 2005

Polarizing may be a plus

April 21, 2005

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— It is my fervent belief that anyone who writes about the 2008 presidential election before 2006 should be subject to immediate intervention and shipped off to rehab.

There, at a Gerry Ford Clinic, this political junkie should be subject to aversion therapy, forced to watch reruns of all the predictions -- Dean Has It All Wrapped Up! -- made in 2004.

As you can see, I bring a certain attitude to the current buzz about Hillary Clinton's presidential odds and ambitions. It turns out that even before she's begun her re-election run for the Senate, Hillary is being touted and trashed for the presidency.

This episode began when Newt Gingrich flatly told a meeting of editors that Hillary would be the next Democratic presidential nominee. Then a New York fund-raising drive called "Stop Hillary Now" sent out a letter warning darkly: "Stopping Hillary Rodham Clinton is the most important thing you and I can do as Republicans in the next two years."

Next we heard about the start-up of a new political action committee dubbed simply, "Stop Her Now," since apparently there is only one "Her." And finally, we got wind of another Hillary-bashing book, "The Truth About Hillary," that the publishers compared (proudly) to the attack of the Swift boat veterans on John Kerry.

She is now so widely regarded as a front-runner that the Rasmussen people -- is there a 12-step program for pollsters? -- have begun a twice-monthly check on her chances called "The Hillary Meter."

No veteran of the Hillary beat can be truly surprised. The woman who made a double-digit leap from first lady to senator, from the east wing to the Capitol, is a phenom at raising hurrahs and hackles, not to mention money. She's made a fortune for the Democrats by sheer star power and a fortune for the Republicans by sheer hatred.

But what I find intriguing is the common wisdom of the early handicappers that Hillary's biggest hurdle is that she is so polarizing.

Those who support Hillary try to counter that fear by saying she's more of a moderate than a liberal. They point to the way she has invoked religion and evoked common ground on the abortion issue.

Those who oppose Hillary turn a certain shade of lime when the words Hillary and moderate are put in the same sentence. The "Stop Hillary Now" plea repeatedly labeled her an "ultra liberal," a "radical liberal" and the darling of the Hollywood left.

It's true that Clinton has been loved and hated since she posed for the national Rorshach test on women's roles in 1992. Nevertheless, she pulled off one of the greatest second acts in history. As for the White House, I have my own list of obstacles to President Hillary Rodham Clinton before we even get to fantasizing about opponents.

First, there is the Bill thing. Today we may worry more about al-Qaida than Monica. The ex-president is now an elder statesman who shares photo ops with his new best friend George Herbert Walker Bush. But there are still a lot of folks uneasy about putting the bad boy back in the east wing.

Then too, there is the woman thing. Some 72 percent of Americans said they would vote for "a woman," but when asked if their friends would, that number drops to 49 percent. We still haven't driven a stake in the heart of the double standard.

But the one thing not on my list is the fear that Hillary is disproportionately loved and hated. Too polarizing? Were you around in 2004? Need I remind you that George Bush was a polarizing figure? Who won? Need I remind you that John Kerry was picked as a moderate and got demonized anyway?

Like it or not -- and I don't -- this is a polarized country. If you are not an extremist you will play one on your opponents' TV ads. In the current political game, the winners just rally a few more voters around their pole.

And it's likely to get worse. After all, it's only 2005 and we've already had Terri Schiavo and Tom DeLay, Justice Sunday and Bill Frist. And pretty soon we're due for a knock-down, drag-out Supreme Court nomination fight.

I hate to sound cynical, but every candidate ends up being pinned to a pole. At least Hillary knows what it feels like.

There you have it, a piece of astute political analysis from the mouth of the woman who was absolutely sure that Hillary Clinton would never run for the Senate. Now, get me to rehab.

-- Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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