Out of right field, conservatives gush over Clinton
By Matt Stearns
WASHINGTON — Since when is Hillary Clinton the idol of conservative pundits?
After Clinton delivered a foreign-policy haymaker to Barack Obama's head during a Democratic presidential debate Tuesday:
• Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard, a neoconservative weekly, wrote that she answered the now-famous "would-you-meet-with-despots" question "firmly and coolly."
• Rich Lowry of National Review, a conservative weekly, gushed: "She excels. ... Clinton has run a nearly flawless campaign and has done more than any other Democrat to show she's ready to be president."
• David Brooks, conservative columnist at The New York Times, wrote that Clinton "seems to offer the perfect combination of experience and change" and is changing perceptions in a way that may persuade voters to give her a second look.
• Charles Krauthammer, conservative columnist at The Washington Post, summed up the Clinton-Obama smackdown: "The grizzled veteran showed up the clueless rookie."
All this from a crowd that has spent the better part of two decades demonizing Clinton and her husband, former President Clinton.
Is the conservative chattering class just hedging its bets, wary that Clinton might win the White House and banish them all?
Or is it a set-up: the vast right-wing conspiracy pumping up the polarizing candidate it really wants to face in the general election?
Naturally, no one in politics wants to talk about that with their names attached, lest they alienate people whose favor they need. But here's what some political strategists said when given anonymity:
"Absolutely," said one Democrat, citing Clinton's high unfavorable ratings (42 percent in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, twice Obama's 21 percent). "Look at Fox News. They play her up all the time. Imagewise, they think she's the one Democrat they can beat right now."
"A plausible theory," said a Republican strategist with a top-tier GOP candidate. "Hillary Clinton is our best shot to win the White House. That's pretty much consensus by Republican insiders. It's a really [bad] environment for us right now. What she does, and what Obama doesn't do yet, is single-handedly solve our base problems. Because of who she is."
Others laugh off the "set up Hillary" theory.
"The vast conspiracy is not that well-organized," said John Hinderaker, co-founder of Power Line, a popular conservative blog. "We couldn't pull that off if we tried."
Conservative admiration for Clinton — on the foreign-policy debate question specifically and the way she's running her campaign generally — is real, said Hinderaker, who added that he thought she'd be a tougher opponent for Republicans than less-experienced Obama or smooth former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
Could the plaudits of the right hurt Clinton with the left-ish voters who dominate the Democratic primaries? That's clearly what Obama thinks, as he mocks Clinton's position as "Bush-Cheney lite."
The question, briefly, was whether a new president should meet with anti-American leaders without preconditions in his or her first year in office.
Obama said sure. Hillary said not without preliminary diplomacy to avoid being used in a propaganda trap.
They have been sniping at each other about it ever since. She said he's naive. He said her position of not talking to bad guys sounds like Bush, and of course he'd do some preliminary diplomacy, too.
This 60-second sound bite is not much of a way to choose a president, to be sure, but it's the closest the two Democratic front-runners have come to taking each other on frontally, so politicos are feasting on it.
The Clinton camp believes she won the weeklong spat. Her supporters aren't concerned about liberals being upset by conservatives' praise for Clinton, noting that many — though not all — on the left also say that Clinton's debate answer was better than Obama's.
Edwards, running to the populist left of both Clinton and Obama, said at the debate that he agreed with Clinton. And in The Nation, a liberal weekly, David Corn wrote that, "this moment illustrated perhaps the top peril for the Obama campaign: with this post-9/11 presidential contest, to a large degree, a question of who should be the next commander in chief, any misstep related to foreign policy is a big deal for a candidate who has little experience in national-security matters."
If the National Review and The Nation agree that Clinton won a debate, maybe diplomacy is her strength.
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