From the start of her campaign, Hillary Clinton has firmly established herself as the most conservative of the Democratic candidates; but the vehemence of the Right’s hatred has blinded the base to her drift towards the center. However strongly progressives distrust Hillary, they cannot shake away the thought that there must be something Republicans despise so passionately.

That Clinton is simultaneously moderate and polarizing is the central paradox of the 2008 campaign, and it puts Clinton’s opponents in a bind. The two major arguments they rehash on the campaign trail – that Clinton is Bush-lite and that she is too divisive to be elected and to govern effectively – undermine each other in the minds of Democratic voters. If she is so polarizing, is she not a true liberal? And if she is a middle-of-the-road centrist, does that not make her the most electable of the candidates? It is only the irrationality of the Right’s hatred that can account for both aspects of Clinton’s candidacy.

Conservatives have transformed Hillary into the Devil incarnate since her first days as First Lady fifteen years ago. No doubt uncomfortable with an independent woman who publicly expressed that she was not interested in “baking cookies and making tea,” Republicans proceeded to create an image of her as a dangerous leftist agitator – and are planning a similar effort in next year’s campaign. As Mitt Romney recently warned us, Clinton in the White House would mean “out with Adam Smith and in with Karl Marx.”

Anti-Clinton feelings have grown viscerally personal. Once, while I was speaking with a conservative woman who had turned against President Bush and the GOP, I committed the fatal mistake of mentioning Clinton. The woman leaned towards me as if about to blaspheme or reveal a long-buried secret. “Hillary…” she murmured, “I’ve heard she’s a lesbian.”

Yet Clinton was never fitted for the Karl Marx costume the GOP forced upon her. A moderate at heart, she sought to alter her image as soon as she arrived in the Senate. As other Democrats with a presidential run in mind became fiery populists overnight – witness Howard Dean in 2004 and John Edwards v.2.0 – Hillary gave herself the reverse make-over. She teamed up with Utah Senator Robert Bennett to outlaw flag-burning, worked with Newt Gingrich to pass health care legislation, and made overtures to the pro-life movement in a high-profile 2005 speech on abortion.

What is most disturbing is the fearlessness of Clinton’s drift to the Right. She is running in a contested Democratic primary, but appears unconcerned with the risks of seeming out of touch with the base. She was recently the only Democratic candidate from the Senate to vote for the resolution designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group (though Obama avoided the vote altogether), and she has consistently refused to apologize for supporting the Iraq War authorization.

More stunning was her impassioned defense of lobbyists as “representing real Americans” at a summer debate held in front of a crowd of liberal bloggers who immediately started booing her. Even when Clinton does voice a progressive position, such as her recent support for granting so-called illegal immigrants driver licenses, she appears to have stumbled upon it by accident.

Hillary is certain that she will not lose the base no matter what she does – and she may very well be right. Faced with conservatives’ hatred, what can Democrats do but rally around their attacked front-runner? No matter Clinton’s actual political positioning, the hostility she awakens from Republicans means that she does not have to prove her liberal bona fides. It is telling that the only development that has hurt Clinton in recent months has been the driver licenses story, a rare instance in which Clinton did not pander to the Right.

In fact, there is reason to believe Hillary Clinton would not stay at the center once elected. She might not be the Left’s dream candidate, but she is an unwavering partisan, mostly because the GOP made her into one. The fact that she has been caricatured as a socialist utopian means that she would have little choice but to turn to her liberal base if she wants to maintain her electoral and governing coalition. Already reviled by the Right, Hillary would have little support to gain by governing from the center. And that would be a blessing for all of those frustrated that the Democratic Party has been unwilling to go down a more unapologetically progressive path.

This is what the Left hopes a Clinton presidency would resemble.

Its fear, of course, is that Hillary will hold steady in her moderate positioning and abandon the base as regularly as her husband did in the 1990s. Obama’s own ideological contortions complicate the picture, making it difficult for Clinton’s skeptics to support her main rival.

If Hillary Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee and some progressives have qualms about supporting her, they should listen to the GOP’s rhetoric. They will immediately be comforted to discover that, without even realizing it, they were backing a pacifist lesbian ultra-liberal Socialist.