These remarks, along with recent media-reported comments in which Clinton has talked about faith and values, have prompted quite a reaction. Conservatives-who, let's be honest, have never liked her much to begin with-took them as proof that the senator is a morally bankrupt individual who will say anything to advance her political career (never mind the fact that sticking it to one of your biggest constituencies on their biggest day of the year isn't the precise definition of 'pandering.') Those liberals who support Clinton rejoiced in what they saw as a clear sign that she was launching her campaign for the White House in 2008. Liberals for whom that thought makes them want to go cryogenically freeze themselves until the year 2016 bemoaned what they interpreted as an unseemly early start to the next presidential race. And journalists everywhere filled pages and airwaves with speculation: Why had Hillary suddenly "found" religion? Is this part of her 2006 reelection campaign? Or a larger bid for the highest office?
Virtually no one considered what is perhaps the real explanation for why Clinton is speaking out on the need for Democrats to reclaim faith, values, and the moral ground: She actually means it.
While those who oppose Clinton (on both sides) claim that she's only talking about religion and moral values because Democrats believe that's why they got whomped at the polls in November, it isn't as if Clinton suddenly "got" the idea that American voters may care about values. This is a woman who taught Sunday school classes in Arkansas and was an active member of Foundry Methodist Church in D.C. during the entire time the Clintons were in the White House. Ever since she came to the Senate, she has been convening those in her caucus to discuss how Democrats can take back concepts like morality and faith that they have ceded to Republicans for too long. She really stepped up those discussions after the 2002 election, bringing in religious and political leaders to talk to her colleagues and help brainstorm ways to get over the traditional Democratic aversion to talking about faith.
Why would she do this? Well, again, we're going to need to set aside our chartreuse-colored cynic glasses for a moment and consider the plight of the religious Democrat. Over the last two years, I've spent a lot of time talking to Democratic officeholders and they've confirmed what I observed during my time as a staffer in the Senate: It's incredibly frustrating to be personally religious, to know that many of your constituents are motivated by religious beliefs, to see those on the right claim religion in the name of all that is conservative and divisive, and yet feel politically pressured to pretend that Democrats don't ever think about religion. I've lost track of the number of Democratic politicians who have told me what a "relief" it is to begin to speak openly within the party about faith.
There's no question that, thinking purely in political strategy terms, it's also the smart thing to do. I'm not one of those who believe Democrats lost this particular election because of moral issues. But I do think one of the main reasons they've lost every election for the last six years is moral issues. (As a friend of mine said, "Saying Democrats didn't do any worse on moral issues this year than they did in 2000 is like saying baseball salaries are high because they didn't go up this year.") This could be one of those rare instances in which the right thing to do is also the politically smart thing to do.
And that's where Clinton comes in. I have no idea whether she's running for president, and neither do you. My suspicion is that she understands that although there is a deep well of support for her among Democrats, an equally deep well of virulent antipathy exists for her on the right. If Democrats have learned anything from the past election, it's that once voters have a perception of a candidate in their heads, it's as immovable as Superglue. But that doesn't mean she can't be a major player-heck, even the player-involved in re-shaping the Democratic party into a more powerful political force. Fixing the image problems of the Democratic party could be an accomplishment that is felt for decades-that's a legacy worth pursuing.
Ultimately, Hillary deserves credit for something that's seen all-too-infrequently in politics. She's not a maverick whose career depends on bucking her party with iconoclastic remarks, like John McCain or Bob Kerrey. She's not an up-and-comer who needs to grab headlines by establishing a name for herself. She has political heft and a solid reputation, which give her the freedom to take on entrenched and defensive corners of her party. But even so, you don't often see politicians who enjoy that rare position stick their necks out until they're out of office. This is a woman who is in a position to do the right thing, and she's doing it. It's simple, admirable, and-if she can pull it off-brilliant.