Is Hillary Clinton’s embrace of populist and/or progressive rhetoric and policy positions consistent with her long-held convictions? Or is she only doing it belatedly, to shore up her support on the left, and to keep pace with the passions unleashed among Democrats by the rise of Elizabeth Warren and other factors?
The question gained some steam last week when Clinton shifted her stances on two key issues. She came out for a Constitutional right to gay marriage, when previously she’d said it should be left to the states, and embraced drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants, a position she’d previously opposed.
And today the New York Times reports that Clinton allies are miffed at folks who say her populist rhetoric is merely an effort to get out ahead of Warren-ism. Someone in Clintonworld produced a dossier showing she has long argued that the wealthy are benefiting disproportionately from an economy rigged for the top, at the expense of middle and working class Americans. The Times notes that Clinton advisers argue that she is “a populist fighter who for decades has been an advocate for families and children; only now have the party and primary voters caught up.”
The real story here, I think, is what this all says about the changing nature of the Democratic Party.
It’s true that Clinton has plainly evolved her positions on gay marriage and immigration. But large swaths of the Democratic Party have evolved on these issues, too. There has been a stampede of high level Democrats coming out in support of gay marriage in recent years, in a scramble to keep pace with cultural changes that have caught everyone off guard. On immigration, the party is more unified in support of reform than it has ever been, partly a reflection of its increasingly reliance on Latinos. All of this movement is an outgrowth of a broader Democratic Party shift towards the cultural priorities of the coalition that powered Obama victories in the last two national elections — nonwhites, millennials, socially liberal college-educated whites — and away from a reliance on culturally conservative blue collar whites.
Indeed, as Ron Brownstein writes, while Clinton is hoping to reverse Obama’s losses among blue collar whites in the Rust Belt, she has no choice but to preserve the Obama coalition as perhaps her greatest asset nationally, requiring her to continue speaking to Obama voters’ priorities. So Clinton’s movement on gay rights and immigration is probably less about making the left happy, and more about keeping pace with what has become broad Democratic Party consensus — it is inevitable, and part of a much bigger story.
What about Clinton’s embrace of Warren-ism? Part of the problem for Clinton, argues Philip Bump, is that she was off performing the job of Secretary of State, and then moved into the Clinton global charity orbit, even as the widespread economic pessimism and misery in the aftermath of the crisis caused a resurgence of populism and anti-Wall Street anger, particularly among Democrats. Clinton was also largely absent from the ideological death struggles over the safety net and austerity — over Obamacare and the Paul Ryan budgets — that characterized the Obama years and no doubt colored the views of many Democrats.
What’s more, the rise of Elizabeth Warren — who has spent decades on these issues — is a real phenomenon. It has shifted the debate among many liberals towards the desire for a fully fleshed out economic worldview and agenda similar to hers, one premised on the idea that the rules are rigged in favor of the wealthy and major corporations; that the rules need to be changed; and that they need to be enforced. We don’t know where Clinton is yet on many of the details and don’t have that firm a grasp of her broader ideological instincts.
And Clinton will be pressured to fill in her positions on, among other things, whether we should expand Social Security; on the proper extent of Wall Street oversight; and on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. On these last two, Warren has laid down firm markers: Much tougher financial regulations and enforcement; a financial transactions tax to discourage more reckless risk-taking; and a much more specific critique of the trade deal than Hillary has offered.
Clinton may not end up where Warren is on some or even most of these issues. If so, it remains to be seen whether that will truly complicate her march to the nomination in any way. (A CNN poll this week found that 90 percent of liberals would be enthusiastic or satisfied if she were the nominee.) Clinton’s agenda may end up looking a lot more like the Center for American Progress’ “Inclusive Prosperity” agenda, with its focus on boosting wages, workplace flexibility, and investments in education and the future, than like Warren’s emphasis on the rigged,inequality-ridden rules that hold sway on the domestic and global economic playing field. But even so, Clinton will draw on Warren’s repertoire, and the differences won’t be all that vast.
Just as we’ve seen on cultural issues, the Democratic Party has shifted on economic issues, too. Compared to the foreign-policy-focused Bush years, the post-crisis Obama presidency has brought about a deepening focus among Democrats on the nuances of economic, fiscal, and social welfare policy, and a deepening appetite for a serious debate over them. In that context, it’s understandable that there is a lot of uncertainty about Clinton’s positions and instincts, and a demand that she fill them in. But that’s okay. That’s what the process is for.