In becoming our nation’s first female president, a Hillary Clinton presidency would be a milestone in American history. However, Clinton’s moment in the sun may never come: Hillary Clinton will never become the progressive that many of her supporters would like her to be, and this fact may create serious problems for her candidacy.
During Netroots Nation, a yearly convention of online grassroots activists held in Phoenix, Arizona, 2016 presidential candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Gov. Martin O’Malley (D-MD) made appearances—but Clinton herself skipped the event, a decision she has made repeatedly since 2007.
“As the most dedicated of the party’s activists, participants here are highly unlikely to support a Republican over Clinton, should she wind up the nominee,” observed S.V. Dáte of National Journal. “Yet her absence, and the hard feelings it is causing, once more point to Clinton’s difficult relationship with her party’s base.”
As Time’s Sam Frizell (who also reported from Netroots Nation) further explains, Clinton has been diligent in trying to attract progressives to her campaign, even though many of them believe she is too closely connected to Wall Street and corporate interests, following in the tradition of her centrist husband, former President Bill Clinton.
Those beliefs are not without merit. Although she has recently hired advisers like Gary Gensler—a former chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and Undersecretary of the Treasury for domestic finance, whose left-wing views trouble her Wall Street backers—she is still viewed by corporate America as a politician they can trust.
Hillary Clinton will never become the progressive that many of her supporters would like her to be, and this fact may create serious problems for her candidacy.
“The big bankers love Clinton, and by and large they badly want her to be president,” reported William D. Cohan of Politico. Clinton’s fans on Wall Street include include Lloyd Blankfein (CEO of Goldman Sachs), James Gorman (CEO of Morgan Stanley), Tom Nides (a vice chairman at Morgan Stanley), and the heads of JPMorganChase and Bank of America.
As Cohan explains, when confronted with Clinton’s recent forays into economic populist rhetoric, these men tend to dismiss her leftist statements as nothing more than “political maneuvers.” Even Clinton’s recent expression of solidarity for advocates of raising the minimum wage comes with a major caveat: She hasn’t openly supported the national movement for $15 per hour, one that is widely supported by progressive sectors of the Internet.
Yet Clinton’s problems transcend her uncomfortable coziness with Wall Street and rather opaque economic policy (both Wall Street insiders and economic reformers widely dismissed her big economic speech last week as underwhelming). She is also widely viewed as a foreign policy interventionist who would have little hesitation in embroiling America in intractable and unpopular wars.
Referring to her as “the vessel into which many interventionists are pouring their hopes,” New York Times reporter Jason Horowitz has discussed how neoconservative intellectuals like Robert Kagan—who have criticized President Obama’s foreign policy—believe Hillary is secretly one of their own. Not only did she vote for President Bush’s resolution to invade Iraq, but she said nothing in opposition to torturing inmates at Guantanamo Bay, increasing military spending, or expanding the security state through measures like the Patriot Act.
At a time when the Latino vote has become increasingly important in winning elections, Clinton’s record on immigration reform could also present a problem for her. During the 2008 presidential election, Clinton spent weeks vacillating on whether undocumented immigrants in New York should be allowed to obtain driver’s licenses before finally coming out against that policy.
Similarly, instead of supporting the path to citizenship championed by leftists on immigration issues, Clinton has supported “legalization” and “earned legal status,” which would protect illegal immigrants from imminent deportation and other threats to their security while denying them the privileges of citizenship that so many of them desperately crave.
This is in stark contrast to the stances of even prominent Republicans like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has called for a path to citizenship that would allow illegal immigrants who abide by the law, learn English, and seek to become economically self-supporting to eventually become full-fledged citizens.
Even Clinton’s recent expression of solidarity for advocates of raising the minimum wage comes with a major caveat: She hasn’t openly supported the national movement for $15 per hour.
Of course, there is a reason why Clinton has ideas on economic, foreign, and immigration policy that her party’s base often considers too conservative: She cut her teeth in national politics as an avowed centrist.
Before her husband was elected to the presidency in 1992, the Democratic Party had lost three national contests in a row due to being perceived as too liberal. As a result of these defeats, a group of centrist policy wonks and strategists formed the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which was created to form a “middle way” between the staunch conservatism that had taken over the Republican Party after Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 and the far-left policies that were believed to have sunk Jimmy Carter in 1980, Walter Mondale in 1984, and Michael Dukakis in 1988.
When the DLC finally got one of their own nominated by the Democratic Party, the candidate was Bill Clinton. With his wife, Hillary, by his side, the two transformed the Democratic brand into one that advocated pragmatic, middle-of-the-road solutions rather than the ideological extremes presented by either the left or the right.
It was an approach perhaps best epitomized by President Clinton’s 1996 State of the Union address, in which he declared:
We know big government does not have all the answers. We know there’s not a program for every problem. We have worked to give the American people a smaller, less bureaucratic government in Washington. And we have to give the American people one that lives within its means. The era of big government is over.
Unfortunately for Hillary Clinton, this model has already proven to be outdated. During the 2008 presidential election, Clinton’s conservative stances on the Patriot Act and Iraq War played a significant role in turning the grassroots online activist community against her campaign and toward that of her chief rival, then-Senator Barack Obama (D-IL). Eight years later, the fact that she hasn’t fully purged her image of its centrist aura is hurting her yet again: As Frizell reported, “the Netroots Nation conference was much more excited about Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist and populist firebrand.”
None of this means that Clinton’s presidential ambitions are doomed. The latest polls still have her far ahead of her nearest rivals (59 percent for Clinton to 19 percent for Sanders). While Clinton’s centrism may fail to excite the Democratic Party base, it could make her more electable next November by blunting the charges of extremism that have dogged President Obama since day one. After all, the contrast between her views and those of Sen. Sanders definitely helps her appear like an electable moderate.
At the same time, it would be foolish for her to ignore the growing discontent with her candidacy, as evidenced by the lackluster response to her prospects displayed by Netroots Nation—or, for that matter, by the digitally engaged progressives who chose Obama over her in 2008.
If Clinton wants to shatter the ultimate glass ceiling and become America’s first female president, she will need to perform a delicate balancing act, pleasing her party’s progressive idealists on the one hand, while remaining middle-of-the-road enough to be electable on the other. Her advantage is that she has a history of doing the latter. Her disadvantage is that… well, that she has a history of doing the latter.
Matt Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University, as well as a political columnist. His editorials have been published on Salon, the Good Men Project, Mic, MSNBC, and various college newspapers and blogs. Matt actively encourages people to reach out to him at [email protected].
Illustration via Jason Reed