Political repositioning

Let’s start 2006 with a Washington version of everyone’s favorite TV game
show: Welcome to “Political Jeopardy.”

You know the rules: I read the answer. You, as our contestants, provide the
correct question.

Here’s the Answer: This U.S. senator is a 2008 presidential hopeful who
became famous as the leader of the party’s left-most fringe, but is now moving
right and fashioning a new image as a “more electable” party mainstreamer.

We’ll listen to our monotonous “Political Jeopardy” theme music while you
write down your answer. OK, time’s up. Let’s see what you have written.

“Who is Hillary Clinton?” That’s correct! “Who is John McCain?” That’s also

Clinton and McCain have been using the same playbook to position themselves
as presidential nominees of two parties that think they are political polar
opposites. For months already, the New York Democrat and the Arizona Republican
have been working hard to reposition themselves well to the right of themselves.

Now readers may see this as a trick, but Washington’s smart set thinks it is
just a tactic. That’s because Washington politics is best viewed through
funhouse mirrors _ they not only add wacky curves where none exist, but when
positioned artfully by political image-makers they can make even the most warped
political bodies seem straight. At least for a while (see also: for an election

Of course, Clinton and McCain are still in their pre-positional phase (which
everyone knows is something you should never end a sentence with). So their
positions are still a work in progress. Consider Iraq: Clinton and McCain are at
pains to explain that they do not favor a quick pullout of troops from Iraq;
they seem to support President Bush’s basic timetable (except for the minor
detail that no one can really say what that timetable is). Both look rather
pained each and every time they are asked publicly to detail a position on the
war in Iraq.

Then there is flag-burning. One of them has taken a strong stand favoring
legislation to outlaw it. This sounds like a right-wing mantra. Yet it not being
chanted by the senator who is wooing the right, but by the left-winger trying to
declaw the right. Yes, Clinton.

Here’s a preview of what will happen after Clinton and McCain forge their new
centrist positions: Clinton will get herself close to where McCain was _ only to
find that McCain has gotten himself closer to where Bush’s base is. They will
have traded political security for political discomfort. Meanwhile, their true
believers will be signaling each other not to worry, it is all just a game. They
will not tell each other this with words (which could be reported and maybe
distorted, by the media). They will do it with so much winking and blinking that
the most important tech tool of political communication may turn out to be not
the Internet after all, but an ocular Morse code.

Remember this: Clinton and McCain are repositioning themselves for very
different reasons.

Clinton figured her longstanding liberal image was no barrier to winning the
Democratic presidential nomination. But it is a big barrier that could make her
unelectable in a general election if she cannot convince independents and
moderates to vote Democratic again.

McCain figured his longstanding moderate and progressive image was no barrier
toward winning a general election _ indeed, it probably makes him the most
electable Republican. But it is a big barrier that could make it very difficult
for him to win the Republican presidential nomination. For his tolerant views on
social issues have made him loathsome to many in the Christian Right, the new
base of the Grand Old Party.

Meanwhile, as the front-runners remake their images by stressing things they
never used to say, the Democratic and Republican faithful must come to grips
with some major decisions, as well. Starting this year.

Democratic stalwarts need to finally make the core decision they have been
dodging and fudging for decades: Do they want to regain the presidency and at
least the Senate, if not the House? Or do they want to further entrench the
Democrats as America’s perennial also-ran party?

Republican stalwarts need to make a core decision that is new to the Grand
Old Party, but which it will face for years to come: Do they want to condemn
Republicans to a new minority status by moving so far toward the intolerant
right that they give independent Americans no real political choice other than
to vote for Democrats?

It appears that 2006 is shaping up as a mind-bender of a year, starting with
two front-runners and two parties, both facing double jeopardy.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.
E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)