February 11, 2005

I've Looked At (Pro-) Life From Both Sides Now

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Three day after setting off political tremors by appealing for “common ground” on the issue of abortion, the AP published this photo of Hillary Clinton. 

In a speech to 1,000 “pro choice” supporters in New York on January 24th, Clinton described abortion as a “tragic” choice, and said she respected those who opposed abortion under all circumstances.  At the same time, Clinton called for those on both sides of the debate to look beyond abortion in order to focus on sex-education (including abstinence), emergency contraception for women who have had unprotected intercourse, and family planning.

If the photo is editorializing, what’s the message?  That Hillary is trying to have it both ways?  That she is giving a double message?  That she’s being two faced?

In the days after the speech, the conventional wisdom was that Clinton (looking ahead to 2008) was directing her comments primarily to the right.  In other words, she was making a strategic appeal to moderate-to-conservative voters receptive to a more nuanced approach to the issue.  In it’s orientation, the picture certainly confirms that.  What the picture also suggests, however, is that a larger focus of Hillary’s message was actually aimed directly toward the left.  Certainly, this intention seemed to have its effect.  Many in attendance were observed to gasp, clap tepidly or just sit mute.

If Clinton is setting up a Presidential run, I think this image is an interesting advertisement for her strategy.  It says that Clinton can stand up to the left in a big way.  (In Clinton fashion, it recalls how Bill established his moderate credentials in ’92 by criticizing black activist Sister Souljah at the National Rainbow Coalition Convention.)  It also puts the left on notice that she intends to speak to the right, and it tells the right she will continue addressing the left, even as she maintains her distance. 

If I can take the photo further, it’s interesting how far Hillary is positioned from the microphones.  Just like Bill before her, it implies the intent is to create a “larger middle.”  Also, notice how the microphones are situated in the right quarter of the image?  The suggestion is that Clinton, in addressing the electorate, considers all but the extreme right as fair game.  At the same time, notice that there are two microphones, a left one and a right.  In classic Clinton tradition, one aim of this speech was to accentuate the difference between conservatives and moderates on the right.

I couldn’t talk about this speech without also addressing it from a semantic point of view.  To my mind, Clinton’s strategy shows that the Democrats have (finally) pulled a page from the Rove playbook.  In this era in which presentation has become practically everything, Clinton demonstrates how to shift the terms of the debate just by framing the debate in other terms.  I think the right half of this picture expresses this as well.  You could say that Clinton is projecting herself into a larger place in relation to the issue.  Rising above the darker and more confined “pro abortion” position, she is setting her mind in line with a lighter approach, one in which the borders that have bound the issue can not only be broken, but put behind her.

(image: AP/Kevin Wolf in YahooNews)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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