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Let's play 'Political Jeopardy'
Scripps Howard News Service


January 03, 2006

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 correct!

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 cycle).

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)

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