Missing in the Clinton story

clintonchurchThe Washington Post's front-page article on the political dynamics of a Sen. Hillary Clinton presidential run is Exhibit A in a political reporter's attempt to answer the questions that leading candidates historically refuse to answer. As expected, those questions center on "What does [Clinton] stand for? And where would [Clinton] try to take the country if elected?" Despite candidate Clinton's coyness, longtime WaPo political reporter Dan Balz draws out a decent amount of analysis on the New York Senator from an interview he scored Friday:

To the contrary, she made clear in a telephone interview on Friday that her governing philosophy may never be easily reduced to a slogan. "I don't think like that," she said. "I approach each issue and problem from a perspective of combining my beliefs and ideals with a search for practical solutions. It doesn't perhaps fit in a preexisting box, but many of the problems we face as a nation don't either."

Her detractors find much -- and much different -- to criticize. Liberal columnist Molly Ivins dismisses Clinton as the embodiment of "triangulation, calculation and equivocation." Markos Moulitsas, whose Daily Kos Web site often attacks the Democratic establishment, ridicules her as a leader who is "afraid to offend." The Rev. Jerry Falwell, echoing a view shared by many Republicans, calls her a liberal "ideologue" who is far more doctrinaire than her husband.

A selective reading of Clinton's record can produce evidence to prove she is a centrist, a liberal and much in between. But there are clear patterns. On defense, she has consistently supported the use of force abroad, having advocated military intervention in the Balkans during her husband's administration. She differs with Bush administration officials on many aspects of how they have conducted foreign policy, but not on combating terrorism or the imperative of winning in Iraq.

Domestically, she has a more complex profile, a product of life experiences that have shaped and refined her approach to issues. She is an activist who believes in the power of government to solve problems, but those pro-government instincts have been tempered by the health-care debacle of 1993-94 and the nation's budgetary squeeze. On family policy, she has some traditional, even moralistic, instincts that those who know her best say are genuine and deeply felt.

Not that there isn't more than enough to write about when it comes to Clinton, but I found it interesting that Balz all but ignores a previous WaPo splash on the alleged rise of the religious left. Not that I'm complaining at all, but I am curious what the leaders of the religious left think of Clinton and whether Clinton's people think the group is significant enough to make them worth a political courtship.

Here Balz hints at Clinton's beliefs on religious issues:

She believes government is an essential partner in a three-sided relationship that also includes the free market, and a "civil society" of churches and nonprofit groups. "I am a big believer in self-help and personal responsibility and a work ethic that holds people responsible," she said. "But I know one of the reasons our country has been one of the most successful organizations in the world is because we got the balance right."

This and a mention of her January 2005 talk regarding abortion being a "sad, even tragic choice" for women is it when it comes to religion in this story. And that's too bad, because there's plenty to write about when it comes to religion and Clinton.

A couple of notes for reporters venturing into this tenuous area: As tmatt has said repeatedly, what of Clinton's Methodist roots and her very public churchgoing when she was First Lady?

Outside Clinton's personal life, I think it would be difficult to draw in the religious left angle in an article such as this. The voters who make up the religious left have yet to define themselves or carry a significant candidate to victory.

That said, would Clinton be the religious left's candidate of choice? Or would that honor go to the more moderate Mark Warner? And what of former Vice President Al Gore? If the religious left story is going to have legs, it's going to need a candidate for the 2008 election.

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