As I noted below, Hillary Clinton grabbed some headlines this morning with some very pointed comments yesterday about the Bush Administration. While giving a speech in Harlem honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, she said the House of Representatives is run "like a plantation" and added: "I predict to you that this administration will go down in history as one of the worst that has ever governed our country." That is one hell of a thing to say, so it's obviously raised some eyebrows and makes great political theatre (in addition to probably being accurate). So what's going on here? Why would Hillary Clinton, who has been so careful and coy as she approaches running in '08, who has slowly worked her way to the perceived political middle by mostly supporting the war in Iraq, an anti flag-burning law, and restrictions on violent video games, who only seems to be strongly critical and vocal when it's an easy win issue, who is smart enough and experienced enough that her every public utterance will be scrutinized, dissected and criticized, suddenly argue that the Bush Administration is so bad that it should be consider among the worst? (more in expanded post)
Here's how the story goes...
President Bush governs by being moderate in tone ("compassionate conservatism," affable good 'ol boy demeanor, etc.) and far-right in policy (intelligent design, global warming doesn't exist, we can invade whoever we want whenever we want if we want, massive tax cuts for the wealthy). That way, he can use his PR machine to make him seem moderate, but keep his base happy with the realities of his actions. That system seems to work so long as the moderates are comfortable with the direction the country's going so that they don't start to look through the PR to the policies and the far right is happy with quiet victories. Neither of those two things is any longer true; moderates unhappiness with the war and wiretapping and corruption have pushed Bush's trust and approval ratings way down and the Right appears to be increasingly vocal and demanding (ex. Harriet Miers). So Bush is having some serious trouble.
Clinton appears to be trying to do exactly the opposite. The Right would have marginalized her by accusing her of being a radical feminist and an advocate for huge government, so she's moderated her politics, focusing on policies that avoid these pitfalls and staying essentially in the center-right of her party. This enables her to diffuse the argument that she is philosophically of the far Left. The only problem is, the Left is getting frustrated with her over her support for the War in Iraq, and people like Russ Feingold are testing the waters to run against her in a base-driven effort ala Howard Dean. So Clinton becomes weak in the base. How does she fix this?
She becomes the most effective and aggressive political opponent of the Administration. She becomes vocal, critical and unabashed in her willingness to call Bush to task. While Bush appeals to the base in politics and the middle in tone, Clinton does the opposite and appeals to the middle in politics and the base in tone. This, of course, only works so long as the middle is not alienated by her criticisms in the long run (after the Democratic primaries), so Clinton is gambling that it's far enough away and the Administration's approval is low enough that she can get away with kicking some ass and still come back to the middle later by refocusing on her own moderate self.
Assuming I'm right in this analysis, which is of course speculative and may be doubtful to some readers, the interesting thing about this is that it exposes two things: 1. how much smarter Hillary Clinton is than most of the other Democrats and 2. how important the mainstream media's narrative is. Clinton's move to the middle has been widely documented and turned into a lovely story line. Most people have no idea how she's voted on the bulk of her politics, but the war and a few symbolic issues allow her to create a story line that others will follow, therefore allowing her to remake herself. With Feingold entering the race and building a challenge from the left, the media narrative turned to "Hillary has a Left problem" probably without much in terms of actual polling and factual basis. The story line is speculative in that way, but becomes reality because of its speculation.
Hillary Clinton proves her effectiveness as a politician here because she is able to throw fresh meat to her base by embroiling herself in something of a controversy, quiet the "Hillary has a Left problem" story line, and get good coverage all at the same time. In other words, she regains control of the narrative without being obvious about it.