Here's James Bennett, now Supreme Leader at The Atlantic, interviewing new Clinton campaign manager Maggie Williams for The New York Times Magazine back in 1999:
''The biggest mistake of the American press is thinking they know her,'' says Maggie Williams, Clinton's former chief of staff and one of her closest friends. ''You know, people think she's such a big lib. I think she's extremely conservative. I think she has more in common with people in upstate New York than in New York City, in a lot of ways.'' Williams calls Clinton ''patriotic and practical. She thinks it's important to spend money on social programs, but she wants to know that they work.''
Maybe so. But until she stands on her own politically, none of us can know. Morris says Hillary Clinton recognized long before her husband the effectiveness of a campaign based on bite-size ''values'' issues like school uniforms. She supports the death penalty, as the President does. She supports abortion rights, as he does, but she has not made the issue a priority as First Lady. For all her heated warnings about children, she has been ginger in using her influence to tilt the balance of power in their favor.
Now, obviously, it's not true that Clinton is an "extremely conservative" politician. Equally obviously, she hasn't been an "extremely conservative" figure throughout her entire adult life. I'm not really sure why Williams thought it made sense to describe her boss in those terms. But in the broader context, this a welcome reminder that Hillary Clinton, progressive champion and scourge of bipartisanship, is a relatively recent identity. Not only where there the Arkansas years and the Years of Triangulation in the White House, but in the years 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2005, Clinton's main political priority was trying to convince people that she was a moderate centrist and not the liberal in the closet of her husband's administration. Her April 2006 speech to the Economic Club of Chicago is all about her love of balanced budgets and working with Republicans on small-bore reforms. She talks about health care at great length, and the idea of an ambitious program for universal coverage never comes up.
Now I don't think one should begrudge Clinton the right to shift points of political emphasis over time. I recall back when I was a New Yorker not liking the fact that Clinton was going to be foisted on us as a Senator because it seemed to me to be a waste of a safe seat to give it to someone whose presidential ambitions were going to cause her to hew to a more moderate line than was locally necessary (and of course in retrospect those fears were borne out when in 2002 and 2003 Clinton chose to use her status as a party leader to help sell Democrats on the invasion of Iraq, rather than use her Senate perch to push back). But tailoring one's politics to suit the constituency is a common turn of events -- you see it, for example, with Obama and coal over the years. But it's a reminder that this whole idea of Clinton as the authentic true progressive is hogwash -- she's been challenged from the left in this primary, and so she's run to the left; at an earlier time her confidantes were telling people that she's "very conservative." Back in October 2007 when her campaign thought it had things all wrapped up, she was ready to play the Iran hawk as part of a shift to "general election mode" and who knows what she'd come up with in an actual general election.