Clinton's Illusory Lurch to the Left
WASHINGTON -- Warning to readers: Reports of Hillary Clinton's supposed lurch to the left have been greatly exaggerated, and there's more to come.
Certainly, her campaign has supplied bullet points for a tale of leftward tilt:
Clinton came out for an immigration program even more expansive than Barack Obama's. She called for overhauling the criminal justice system, arguing to "end the era of mass incarceration" that her husband helped create.
She endorsed universal, automatic voter registration and 20 days of early voting in every state. Last weekend, she phoned in to a union meeting to back a higher minimum wage.
All of which presents an easy narrative for political reporters: egged on by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, heels nipped by rivals Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, Clinton wants to get right with a skeptical base whose turnout is essential.
Except, nothing Clinton is saying is outside the 2015 Democratic Party mainstream -- and, more to the point, nothing she's saying is likely to hurt her in a general election.
Sure, the Clinton campaign wants to placate the base. But if Clinton's recent positions are pandering, this is pandering with a purpose, and without an obvious cost.
She's saying everything she can to make the left happy -- without backing herself into a left-wing corner. Where's the downside in chiding Republicans on voting rights?
Indeed, as Clinton prepares for her big launch speech Saturday and begins to flesh out her policy specifics over the summer, the left-leaning positions she isn't taking are as significant as the ones she has endorsed.
She's ducking the trade issue by neither endorsing nor opposing fast-track trade authority for President Obama and his successor -- a minor procedural question best left to Congress, campaign advisers argue, unconvincingly. As for the Trans-Pacific Partnership -- well, Clinton, they say, can weigh in on that down the road, if and when it's concluded.
Likewise, even as she supports an increase in the minimum wage -- and what Democrat doesn't? -- Clinton has been deliberately fuzzy on how high the number should go, even as Sanders and O'Malley push for the full (and excessive) $15 being backed by unions. She hasn't weighed in on one of the more irresponsible emerging new litmus tests of the left: expanding Social Security benefits for all recipients, regardless of need.
Sure, you might hope for more ideological bravery from a candidate with a clear path to the nomination. Why, for example, won't Clinton champion the trade deal that she pushed as secretary of state? Folks like me will hope in vain for even glancing mention of the national debt or entitlement reform.
One way to think about Clinton's situation is to consider the different political landscapes of 1992 and 2016. Bill Clinton's task then was to convince wary voters that they could trust the Democratic Party to represent their interests and values -- that he was a different kind of Democrat. Bill Clinton needed a Sister Souljah moment, separating himself from the base, in a way that Hillary Clinton doesn't.
The Clinton campaign insists that she has not given up on luring "persuadable" voters in favor of a single-minded turn-out-the-base strategy. Yet it is undeniable that the electoral terrain of 2016 is far more polarized, with far fewer voters up for grabs, than that of 1992.
Meanwhile, the social issues that once posed political land mines for Democrats -- gay rights, in particular -- now present a risk for Republicans instead. Today's Democrat doesn't need to worry about proving that she is tough on crime, or how to thread the needle of support for same-sex marriage. The 2016 Republican needs to worry about how to talk about gay rights and immigration without alienating key voting blocs -- the young and Hispanics.
Yet as you listen to Clinton's speech on Saturday and digest the inevitable commentary about her populist tone, recall as well the degree to which her husband sounded similar themes. He mentioned the middle class 12 times in the course of his announcement speech, describing his campaign as a "fight for the forgotten middle class." Shades of Warren -- he excoriated President George H.W. Bush for staying silent as "Salomon Brothers abused the Treasury markets," and "rip-off artists looted our S&Ls."
Not as much has changed as you might think. Not every reference to the embattled middle class is evidence of a hard left turn. Heed the rhetoric, but pay closer attention to the policy details to come.
(c) 2015, Washington Post Writers Group