Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Hillary wraps herself in the flag in a naked attempt to placate the right

Someone once remarked that satire ended when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. But if that genre of humour did survive the honouring of the good doctor, it is being put to sore test by the latest antics of Hillary Clinton.

In the headlines-you-never-thought-you'd-read department, this one rates pretty high: "Hillary co-sponsors bill to criminalise flag-burning." But it happened last week. Once the Democratic junior Senator for New York was regarded by conservatives as liberalism made flesh. Now she has joined forces with Robert Bennett of Utah (which just happens to be the most Republican state in the entire US) in a cause close to the heart of any self-respecting conservative.

Americans, as everyone knows, venerate their flag as few others do. There's a flag code and an elaborate etiquette. In Britain, no one would think of protesting about Tony Blair's policies by setting fire to the Union flag. Here, however, burning the Stars and Stripes is almost an act of sacrilege.

But as The New York Times pointed out, flag-burning hasn't been an issue here since the Vietnam war. Iraq may be starting to rival Vietnam in unpopularity, but students are not taking a match to "Old Glory". These days, the only US flags getting burned are on the streets of the Middle East. As long ago as 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that, however regrettable, flag-burning was a permissible form of expression - unlike burning crosses, which was almost always designed to intimidate blacks and as such a violation of civil rights laws.

Ms Clinton is well aware of all this. She must know that even today's more conservative court would strike down her law as an infringement of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. So what is she up to? We all know the answer: the flag-burning gambit is another step towards shedding the albatross of liberalism ahead of a well-nigh certain bid for the White House three years hence.

Since becoming a Senator, Ms Clinton has tried to prove her national security credentials by taking a seat on the Senate Committee on Armed Services. She has defended her vote in favour of the Iraq war, when many Democrats have admitted they got it wrong. She has hobnobbed with Newt Gingrich, the conservative ideologue and Bill Clinton's old foe. She has even begun to speak out against abortion.

So what next on her rightward march? Will she chase the religious-right vote by coming out in favour of intelligent design? And what about invading Iran? Officially, her every energy is focused on re-election to the Senate. But a stand on flag-burning will not make the slightest difference to her chances. In solidly Democratic New York state, she's 110 per cent certain of victory. Indeed, on current trends, she won't have a serious Republican opponent next November.

No, this is all about 2008, not 2006. Hillary would have you believe she hasn't given the matter of a White House run a thought, still less made up her mind on the issue. Indeed, during a recent trip to New England, she apparently insisted on flying from Portland in Maine down to Boston, when she could have done the drive in a couple of hours at most. The reason? Had she travelled by car, she would symbolically have broken her vows of political chastity by crossing 14 miles of New Hampshire territory - thus setting foot (or rather tyre) in the state that holds the first presidential primary.

But there is a second reason. At this early stage, polls make Ms Clinton the clear front-runner for her party's 2008 nomination. But insiders are talking about Mark Warner, the outgoing Governor of Virginia. He has been sniffing around New Hampshire, spotted at those small-town Rotary Club dinners and discreet meetings with activists that portend presidential campaigns.

Mr Warner is many people's identikit of a Democrat winner for 2008. He is a self-made millionaire businessman, a moderate who should appeal to independents, who has proved he can win in a traditionally Republican southern state. His problem is with the liberals who turn out to vote in Democratic primaries. This may explain why last month he commuted a death sentence - a rare step in Virginia, which executes more people than any state save Texas.

So Hillary moves rightwards to outflank him. Maybe the flag-burning gambit will work. More likely, though, it will irritate liberals and leave independents unmoved. Meanwhile, conservatives - who would never dream of voting for her anyway - would only be hardened in the conviction that she is an opportunist, ready to say all things to all people to get elected.

At a certain point, naked political ambition can turn into a bad joke. Or, as the immortal Willie Rushton used to say on That Was The Week That Was, when satire was alive and kicking: "Ho, ho, ho, highly satirical."

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