Following the Herd: Media mindlessly echo Clinton foes' claim that Hillary Clinton is “moving to the center” for presidential run

In “Following the Herd,” Media Matters for America will periodically examine the ideas, preconceptions, and assumptions underlying the news media's conventional wisdom. In this first installment, we investigate the rapidly spreading idea that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) is “moving to the center.”

Sources: Both journalists and conservative commentators. On a few occasions, progressive commentators have also echoed the claim.

Serial proponents: Dick Morris, Chris Matthews, Deborah Orin

Assumptions: At some previous, usually unstated time, Clinton was more liberal than she is today. More recently, she has changed positions, shifting to the center in preparation for a potential 2008 presidential run.

Phony supporting evidence: Clinton has allegedly become more hawkish on foreign and defense policy, particularly in her service on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Proponents cite her support for the Iraq war -- something that has not changed from the beginning -- as a recent example of repositioning. By stating that efforts to reduce the number of abortions through adequate birth control can serve as common ground between pro-choice and pro-life forces, Clinton has supposedly moved to the center on abortion -- although she has not changed her position on anything having to do with abortion, whether the larger issue of reproductive rights or specific issues such as parental consent. Her discussion of her personal religious faith is also offered as proof of the alleged move to the center, though Clinton has been quoted on this topic going back at least a decade. In short, proponents have failed to locate any specific policy issues on which Clinton has actually shifted positions -- to the center or in any other direction. But when she takes a position or makes an argument that seems at odds with proponents' perception of liberal orthodoxy, they characterize it as a “move” or a “shift,” even if she has taken the same position throughout her career.

Discussion: The idea that both Bill and Hillary Clinton are extreme liberals has been a conservative staple since the early 1990s. Newt Gingrich even referred to the Clintons as “counter-culture McGoverniks.” This notion persisted despite Bill Clinton's leadership of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and his relatively conservative positions on issues including welfare reform, the death penalty, missile defense, and the North American Free Trade Agreement -- positions that Hillary Clinton shares. So where does the idea come from? Those most likely to describe Bill Clinton as extremely liberal are extreme conservatives; National Election Studies data show strong conservatives rating Clinton more liberal than any other Democratic presidential candidate, including Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, George McGovern and Hubert H. Humphrey. This feeling is probably more a translation of generalized antipathy into an ideological assessment than a realistic conclusion based on issues. Put simply, conservatives say they don't like the Clintons because they believe they are too liberal, but in reality, they just don't like the Clintons.

As John F. Harris recently wrote in his book The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House (Random House, 2005) and adapted in a May 31 article in The Washington Post, advisers to Hillary Clinton say her political strategy “has three elements” :

On social issues, it is to reassure moderate and conservative voters with such positions as her support of the death penalty, and to find rhetorical formulations on abortion and other issues -- on which her position is more liberal -- that she is nonetheless in sympathy with traditional values. On national security, it is to ensure that she has no votes or wavering statements that would give the GOP an opening to argue that she is not in favor of a full victory in Iraq. In her political positioning generally, it is to find occasions to prominently work across party lines -- to argue that she stands for pragmatism over the partisanship that many centrist voters especially dislike about Washington.

Whatever one thinks of this strategy, none of it involves changing position on any issue.

A sampling:

“Well, she's trying to move to the center ... she's been 'the hawk' Hillary, among -- in recent days. But, look, the key point is that people aren't going to really forget what Hillary really is, and she is a liberal and she's very polarizing ... at the end of the day, I believe she's trying to be the new Hillary, but she's still the old Hillary. Well, she's trying to move to the center.” [Former Virginia governor and Republican National Committee chairman James Gilmore, CNN's Crossfire, 05/26/05]

“In preparation for a political run, the liberal senator has impressed many by moving to the middle on a number of key issues such as abortion and immigration.” [Bay Buchanan, Crossfire, 05/17/05]

“She puts herself next to Newt Gingrich and helps move herself, as she has been doing, on social issues, on defense, into the more moderate center of the Democratic Party, and perhaps in a bid for her run in 2008 to shed some of her past more liberal images.” - [BBC News host Katty Kay, NBC 's Meet the Press, 05/15/05]

“A couple of weeks ago, certainly a couple months ago, Hillary was off there on the left. We thought of her with maybe Barbra Streisand, Barbara Boxer, Rob Reiner, [Sen.] Chuck Schumer [D-NY] even. Now I see her as sort of part of this drift toward the center. She's on Armed Services. She backed the war.” [Chris Matthews, MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, 5/11/05]

“She is moving to the center on gay marriage, things like that. On the war, she is very hawkish.” [Chris Matthews, Hardball, 5/6/05]

“With many Americans certain that former first lady and current New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton will run for president in 2008, they point to what appears to be a concerted effort to move her toward the political middle on one of the nation's most contentious issues -- abortion.” [Randy Hall,, 5/2/05]

“Clinton made news earlier this year by advocating fewer abortions, in a move many interpreted as an attempt to move to the center as she contemplates a presidential run in 2008.” [James Kuhnhenn, Knight Ridder, 4/26/05]

“I don't think she can afford to be over there on the left. Now, what's going to happen in 2008 if Hillary runs is they're going to re-run all of these clips of her from the early '80s, and again people are going to be presented with two images of the same person. And they're going to say to themselves, 'Which do we believe, the Hillary that was there for years and years?'” [Katty Kay, NBC 's The Chris Matthews Show, 4/24/05]

“But does anyone think that Hillary will have a pro -- you say she'll have a problem reconciling her current move to the center with her past image as sort of a Madame Defarge of the left?” [Chris Matthews, The Chris Matthews Show, 4/24/05]

“Clinton's fiery speech contrasted with her recent highly publicized moves to the center.” [Deborah Orin, New York Post, 4/23/05]

“The former first lady is seen as the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, and political observers have speculated she is moving to the center for that campaign.” [Michael Rothfeld, Newsday, 4/19/05].

“I think Senator Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. ... She is professional, smart, systematic and she is moving to the centre in a very rational way.” [Newt Gingrich, The Times of London, 4/17/05]

“While Senator Hillary Clinton continues to move to the center on social issues and tries to position herself for 2008, her foes are already starting to line up.” [Joe Scarborough, MSNBC's Scarborough Country, 4/12/05]

“Hillary is trying to move to the center, so even though this is an issue that favors the left at this point, she doesn't want to talk about it, because she doesn't want to jam her movement to center.” [Dick Morris, Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, 3/31/05]

“She's trying to conceal her liberalism and move to the center in anticipation of a run for the White House.” [Kevin Hardwick, Republican political scientist at Canisius College, Buffalo News, 3/20/05]

“Because word from the grass roots is that liberals -- now in control of the Democratic National Committee machinery with Howard Dean as DNC chair -- are getting pretty riled by Hillary Clinton's move to the center.” [Deborah Orin, New York Post, 3/10/05]

“Anyone can look at Hillary's 20-year record and can judge whether they feel that she's sincere when she moves to the center as the election clock approaches.” [Dick Morris, Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, 3/8/05]

“Mrs. Clinton exhorted both sides of the abortion issue to seek 'common ground,' signaling to many that she was trying to move to the center on an issue that may have harmed Democrats in November.” [Meghan Clyne, The New York Sun, 3/7/05]

“And so she is doing what her husband did. Which was not so much move to the center or the right, but figure out a way to bridge the left-wing base of the Democratic Party. And move to the center at the same time.” [Mara Liasson, Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, 3/2/05]

“This week, she's decided to use her post on the Armed Services Committee to move to the center on troop levels in Iraq.” [Joe Scarborough, Scarborough Country, 2/21/05]

“And she is already moving to the center or trying to reposition herself towards the center with an eye towards the general election in 2008.” [Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio, Crossfire, 2/23/05]

“But she's never going to be able to do it unless she attempts to try this makeover and move to the center that she's now attempting. So, I mean, she's a shrewd politician, and that's why she's attempting it.” [Paul Gigot, Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, 2/13/05]

“Hillary Clinton, appearing to move center right on issues like immigration, pro-life issues, family values issues. It appears, and it's been written up in the press, that this is a concerted effort on her part.” [Sean Hannity, Hannity & Colmes, 2/9/05]

“How odd it is to see Hillary trying to convince us that she's a red state kind of girl (offering moderate views on abortion, condemning illegal immigration, emphasizing the importance of prayer in her life, and backing the war) even as her party lurches to the Left. As the Clintons did after they lost Congress in 1994, they are moving to the center.” [Dick Morris, syndicated column, 2/1/05]