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Hillary's Close-Up

By Daniel Henninger

Has anyone else out there begun to find that it is easier to make sense of the struggle between Hillary and Barack if one thinks in terms of film tragedies? Several have been unspooling in my mind these days: "All About Eve," "Sunset Boulevard," "A Star Is Born," even "Bonnie and Clyde," if one assumes the Clintons are going to either pull off this heist or go down in a blaze of bullets.

Hillary's star is being eclipsed. Why?

A year ago, Hillary Clinton assumed the effort would bring her the prize. Instead, it has brought her to the precipice. What happened? What was supposed to be triumph has turned to tragedy. Who rewrote the plot?

The first revision came at the hand of Howard Dean. The Vermont governor's quixotic 2004 presidential run did one big thing: It let the netroots out. It empowered the Democratic Left. Web-based "progressives" proved they could raise lots of political money and bring pressure, especially when allied with labor unions.

They didn't defeat centrist Joe Lieberman in 2006, but they drove him out of the party. They pushed the party's Iraq policy under Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi into total, rejectionist opposition. In this world, the Petraeus surge is a failure, period. Thus, Obama calmly gives the surge little or no credit. Also in this world, trade and Nafta are anathema, as seen in the House refusal to pass the trade agreement with Colombia, the U.S.'s strongest ally in South America.

What the netroots has done is bunch up the party ideologically. While the Republican Party slices conservative ideology as thinly as aged prosciutto, the Democrats, in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail, are all swinging a populist anvil -- with the left hand.

This pushed Hillary out of the Clinton comfort zone. She established her Senate career as a reasonable person, winning public compliments from GOP colleagues. Came the campaign and she finds herself onstage with wall-to-wall men of the ascendant populist left.

On trade, the Democratic Party is as far left as at any time in its history. Both Al Gore and John Kerry ran as economic populists, but there was nothing on trade like what we have heard in this campaign. In Al Gore's 2000 nomination acceptance speech, trade was the last issue mentioned: "We must welcome and promote truly free trade." His running mate was Joe Lieberman, also a Nafta supporter. Labor "held its nose" and voted for Gore.

The party next nominated another Nafta supporter, John Kerry, whose acceptance speech also reduced trade to a line, with a quick bow to "a fair playing field." There was talk that Kerry would cover himself by putting the ardently antitrade, prounion Dick Gephardt on the ticket. Labor lost that one, too, but with the selection of John Edwards, the party became more invested in left-leaning populism.

Both Al Gore and John Kerry ran out of the trade tradition established by the Clintons and Democrats who straddled the center -- free trade as a proven economic benefit but with pressure applied at the margins on labor and environmental standards.

Barack Obama slipped smoothly into the antifree-trade current in his party. Hillary Clinton, one guesses, operates inside a structure of intellectual integrity of her own devising, and her antitrade riffs (the "time out") sound strained.

It's often said that she lacks Bill's political skills, whatever that means. Her retail skills are pretty darned good, though, good enough to defeat John Edwards or virtually any other Democrat one can imagine. So why is she losing to a three-year senator?

Partly because she's running in the wrong century.

Hillary's politics is the world of Eleanor Roosevelt, when it was all being born anew. The Washington of LBJ's Great Society in the mid-1960s was alive with policy debates -- among Democrats. By now, the Democratic Party's ideas are largely generic. Everyone noticed that the Democratic presidential candidates were largely singing from the same script. Health care, public schools, green energy, the eternal shafting of the middle class, the unions, protecting Social Security and Medicare. This common script means that the Democratic primaries are largely an audition. The candidates are reading for a role. The lines are known.

The part, however, is challenging. The Democratic platform may be familiar, but it is also infused with the quality of a dream. Actually, the word "dream" gets used a lot in Democratic rhetoric. What are essentially bureaucratic arrangements, such as health insurance or after-school programs, are promised as "universal." Meanwhile, "the middle class" is being offered a version of never-never land -- total public protection from the traps and betrayals of the private sector, which has been reduced to a kind of Grimm's Fairy Tale abstraction, the wolves.

If you are selling a dream you need the best possible salesman to make it seem somehow possible. They found him in Barack Obama.

Hillary attacked Obama this week on exactly this basis -- for selling dreams: "And you know the celestial choirs will be singing . . . and the world will be perfect." In her world "none of the problems we face will be easily solved." In her world, the real one, mediocre pols must be worked and massive bureaucracies pushed to do the right thing. And you know what? She just might be good at it.

The bitter irony is that what the Democrats want is someone like the original Clinton, another figure who can make the old-time religion sound not like a government program, but personally uplifting. She can't. In the Cleveland debate Tuesday, even Brian Williams couldn't resist noting "a 16-minute discussion on health care."

We're about six days away from the last close-up. What Hillary Clinton has invested, given and endured for her party to get to this moment is hard to imagine. Then the Democratic audience says: What difference does that make? A star has been born. Now comes the mad scene.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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