Hillary Clinton has long been known as a cautious politician who leaned more toward methodical plodding than grand gestures. She launched her 2000 campaign for the Senate with a purposely low-key “listening tour.” As a senator, she cultivated a reputation as a workhorse who eschewed high-profile media appearances for the mundane work of writing legislation. Throughout, she staked out a place as a familiar kind of Democrat — a little more liberal on social issues, a little more conservative on foreign policy and national security — but nobody’s idea of an ideologically transformative figure.
But now that she’s making her second run for the White House, is Hillary Clinton becoming the Candidate of Big Ideas?
It’s starting to look that way. When yesterday she proposed national automatic voter registration — registering all Americans to vote when they turn 18 unless they opt out — it surprised everyone. While universal registration isn’t an idea no one had thought of before, Clinton took a Democratic priority (expanding voting rights and boosting turnout) and advanced it with an ambitious, national plan that went beyond what most prominent Democrats had advocated before.
We saw something similar on immigration, where Clinton didn’t just support the Obama administration’s position on immigration but went beyond it, proposing that the parents of “DREAMers” be allowed to stay in the country legally. She also called for an end to the “era of mass incarceration,” an era her husband had no small part in creating. She has signaled an intention to go bold in the area of campaign finance, floating the idea of a Constitutional amendment to get so-called “dark money” out of politics (though she has not gone so far as to make formal proposal).
This kind of thing is surprising coming from Clinton, given that she’s the likely nominee of the incumbent party. Usually, a candidate in that position will propose a program that sounds like, “Let’s continue what we’ve been doing, but a little better.” Generally it’s the opposition party, which has had eight years to contemplate everything they dislike about current government policy, that’s more prone to come up with dramatic ideas for change. Not only that, the candidate pushing Big Ideas is often one struggling in the polls who is looking for a way to distinguish himself from the pack. You might expect some dramatic policy proposals from some of the lower-tiered Republican candidates.
Clinton, on the other hand, could easily ride to the Democratic nomination without putting out a single policy paper. But for now she’s taking a very different course. As a media strategy, it’s very effective: the less-than-threatening nature of her primary opposition gives her the freedom to put out big ideas and get attention for them; after a temporary drought of campaign activity, she can get plenty of coverage for a speech that includes a significant policy proposal.
To be sure, we shouldn’t exaggerate the extent to which the Clinton campaign is focused on big ideas. We’re only talking about a few so far, and there are other topics like the Trans-Pacific Partnership on which she’s been vague. Part of the explanation for Clinton’s previous cautious approach lies in the failure of Bill Clinton’s health care overhaul, which she ran during the early days of his presidency — and which would have been a much more radical change than the Affordable Care Act. Supposedly, the lesson she learned from that experience was that people fear change, and when you propose something too sweeping it’s difficult to succeed and easy to get burned.
But it’s starting to look as if Clinton has decided that being the candidate of big ideas might be a pretty good plan. Particularly when the ideas themselves are likely to be popular.