Parson Clinton rides the circuit

As Sen. Hillary Clinton makes centrist sounds on abortion, Kristen Lombardi of The Village Voice expresses some predictable misgivings: Clinton is "getting serious about God and guns" and "trying to sound like the second coming of John Wesley." But Lombardi also provides good background on how the Senator's language is more a return to her past than an ideological makeover:

Here's a little-understood truism about Senator Clinton: She feels right at home with the churchgoing crowd. A lifelong and devout Methodist, she spent her teen years active in the church's youth movement. In 1993, as the newly crowned first lady, she became the symbol of an emerging religious liberalism when she gave a speech in Austin, Texas, that called for "a new politics of meaning."

"She used those words," recalls Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of the progressive Jewish magazine Tikkun. Lerner used to meet with Hillary at the Clinton White House until, in his words, "the liberal media and the religious right demolished her for it."

Now the senator is reclaiming her moral roots. She hasn't found religion in order to make a presidential run -- it's more like she's finally coming clean. Says Lerner, "There's a new openness among Democrats to speak religion, and Hillary has gone back to being who she really is."

Clinton's aides put it another way. "The times may have changed, but Hillary Clinton's views have not," says Philippe Reines, her spokesperson. Everything she's voiced recently, he points out, she's voiced before.

Take abortion. In 1999, then first lady Clinton told another pro-choice crowd: "It's essential that as Americans we look for that common ground that we can all stand upon." Similarly, two years earlier, she expressed hope for dialogue with abortion opponents -- "people of faith who do not share extremism as their rallying cry." As for the phrase "safe, legal, and rare," the senator has used it to describe abortion going as far back as 1995.

Lombardi also explores the left's nervousness about Clinton's recent appearance at a fundraiser for the Rev. Eugene Rivers' National Ten Point Leadership Foundation. Gay activists warn that they consider Rivers as much a threat to their well-being as, oh, Alan Keyes:

Sean Cahill, of the Manhattan-based National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Policy Institute, wrote a January 25 letter to the Boston Globe, calling Clinton's cameo in the city "disturbing." He wrote, "Rivers is a demagogue with a history of trying to pit gay people and people of color against one another."

But Cahill, who's now on leave from his job, stands alone among most pro-gay-marriage activists in New York. No one at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force responded to requests for comment on the Boston event -- even though its "Religious Leadership Roundtable" issued a January 19 statement condemning Rivers's Michigan speech as "homophobic." Other gay rights leaders aware of the event didn't return phone calls or declined to comment.

In Boston, meanwhile, gay rights activists have been left scratching their heads. Gary Daffin, who heads the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, likens the reverend to the notorious Alan Keyes. "He's saying the same things that come out of the mouths of the religious right," Daffin says, "so Democrats should stay 100 miles away from him."

Two remarks from political observers are especially insightful.

Clinton, of all Democrats, has no chance of winning over the hardcore religious right. Such conservatives, says University of Akron professor John Green, who specializes in religion and politics, "really don't like her. They associate her with her husband and see her as a raving liberal."

So her real target is middle-of-the-road churchgoers who take faith seriously enough to leave the Democrats because of absolutist stances on abortion rights, gay rights, and church-state separation. Yet they don't fit with the Republicans' domestic policies. "It's entirely possible for Clinton to do well with this group if she can find a moderate approach and a religious language," Green says.

And there's this from Marshall Wittmann of "the super-centrist Democratic Leadership Council":

"Senator Clinton has more leeway than most Democrats to appeal to those social conservatives because she has so much strength among the left within the party," Wittmann says. "She can do a Nixon-goes-to-China with greater ease than many Democrats."

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