Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign is letting hundreds of staffers go this week, all but conceding the Democratic primary race to Hillary Clinton, and raising the question of whether she will change her electoral strategy now that she is effectively running unopposed.
In the course of fending off Sanders’s challenge, Clinton appears to have conceded to him on a couple of major economic policy issues. The former U.S. senator and secretary of state has abandoned the centrist positions she previously held on trade and Social Security and taken stances closer to Sanders’s views.
Once presidential candidates have beaten out other primary contenders, they sometimes shift their positions and rhetoric to appeal to voters outside the party. On the other hand, there’s some reason to think that Clinton might not revert to her previous positions on economic issues in the general election. Sanders wasn’t the only force pushing her to the left.
Democrats, in general, have become much more willing to embrace liberal policies over the past couple of decades. One clear indicator of this trend is the steady increase in the number of Democrats who describe themselves as liberal -- and who became the largest group within the party for the first time last year, according to the Pew Research Center.
Pew’s numbers show that this shift isn’t just demographic. White Democrats have become more likely to identify as liberal, even more so than Democrats of color. And more Democrats of every age group put themselves in this category.
In a more detailed analysis, Pew also confirmed that the shift isn’t just a question of nomenclature. The center asked Americans a set of 10 questions about race, poverty, business, regulation, immigration, homosexuality and foreign policy. The share of Democrats whose attitudes on these questions were mostly liberal almost doubled, from 30 percent in 1994 to 56 percent in 2014.
On economic questions, for example, the share of Democrats who said that government regulation of business is necessary to protect the public interest increased from 50 percent in 1994 to 65 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, the share who said that reducing the federal deficit should be "a top priority" declined from 61 percent to 48 percent.
"There’s no denying that the party has become much more progressive over the last few years, and she’s going to need liberals to come out in large numbers," said Jim Manley, a former spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "It’s going to be incumbent on the Clinton folks to work hard to bring [Sanders] and his supporters on board, while recognizing that they’ve got to run hard in the general, as well."
When she campaigned against President Obama eight years ago, Clinton opposed increasing taxes on wealthy workers to make up Social Security’s shortfall, which analysts project will prevent the agency from being able to pay retirees in full after about 2034.
Instead, Clinton suggested turning the problem over to a bipartisan commission like the one formed in 1983, which recommended a combination of benefit reductions and tax increases.
In the current campaign, Clinton has suggested she is willing to consider raising taxes on the wealthy, and that she won’t reduce benefits but expand them.
"I won’t cut Social Security," she wrote online in February in response to prodding from her opponent.
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) February 6, 2016
Sanders’s proposals are more expansive than anything Clinton has endorsed, but his needling was far from the only possible reason for her shift. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and other liberal figures have argued forcefully for making Social Security more generous.
"The movement’s larger than him on this one," Manley said. He pointed out that when an effort at bipartisan compromise on entitlements failed during negotiations over the debt ceiling in 2011, many Democrats gave up on the idea of negotiation with Republicans. Perhaps Clinton has become frustrated, as well.
"Clinton has made some adjustments to her thinking when it comes to Social Security over the past couple years," Manley said.
As secretary of state, Clinton supervised the negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Obama administration’s controversial trade deal. The pact "will lower trade barriers, raise labor and environmental standards, and drive growth across the region," Clinton said in 2012. She called the agreement the "gold standard" in international trade.
During the campaign, however, Clinton withdrew her previous support.
She argues that her views have been consistent. "I did hope that the TPP, negotiated by this administration, would put to rest a lot of the concerns that many people have expressed about trade agreements," she said in a debate with Sanders in February. "Once I saw what the outcome was, I opposed it."
Given the data, Clinton’s choice might have come as a surprise. While Democrats have become more liberal in general, they’ve moved in the opposite direction on the question of trade.
When Obama took office, just 36 percent of Democrats said they viewed foreign trade mainly as an economic opportunity rather than as a threat, according to polling by Gallup. Today, that figure has nearly doubled to 63 percent.
A poll conducted by The Washington Post and ABC News in October found that Democrats were generally amenable to the TPP. A narrow majority of 51 percent said they would prefer that the next president be someone who supported the trade deal rather than someone who opposed it, and 25 percent said they had no opinion. (Among all registered voters, 41 percent said they wanted a president who supported the deal. Again, a quarter had no opinion.)
Clinton’s shift to the left on an issue that matters most to a motivated party minority could also have been a tactical decision in a primary that was unexpectedly competitive because of the success of Sanders’s campaign.
"If she were running unopposed, if she had a minor candidate, a much weaker candidate, it would be much easier for her to ignore these issues," said economist Dean Baker, a director of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.
Even now that Sanders is effectively out of the running, however, broadening Clinton’s appeal on economic issues would carry risks. Donald Trump has pledged to defend current Social Security benefits, denounced U.S. trade policy and excoriated Wall Street financiers on the campaign trail, Baker noted, so the Republican front-runner could run to Clinton’s left on economic issues. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has changed, and Clinton’s advisers might decide she will need the support of the ascendant liberal faction in November -- including Sanders supporters.
Matt Bennett, a former aide to President Bill Clinton, argued that Hillary Clinton’s apparent shifts on trade and Social Security might prove temporary if she becomes president. While presidents Clinton and Obama both pursued trade negotiations in office, Bennett pointed out, neither embraced free trade wholeheartedly during their campaigns.
"Being president and running for president are different things," said Bennett, who works at Third Way, a centrist organization that supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership. "Democrats run for president as protectionists, but they govern as free traders. That’s what they always do."
On the other hand, decades of research in political science in several countries suggests that politicians tend to keep their promises: Once in office, they are much more likely than not to do what they said they would do while on the campaign trail.
Health care, Wall Street
On many economic issues, Clinton’s positions are more moderate than those of Sanders. Unlike him, she hasn’t fully endorsed a $15 hourly minimum wage nationwide, saying only that if presented with a bill to create one, she wouldn't veto it. She has rejected Sanders’s proposals for universal, federal health insurance and for eliminating tuition at public colleges and universities.
When it comes to financial reform, Clinton has endorsed only a limited version of the kind of huge sales tax on purchases of stock and other securities that Sanders has proposed. Sanders’s tax, economist Baker said approvingly, would amount to "digging the guts out of Wall Street."
All the same, Baker added, Sanders’s campaign has focused the attention of the Democratic rank and file on Wall Street, and he has contributed to the party’s gradual shift toward more liberal policies. However she feels about the issues herself, Clinton will have to find a way to satisfy the demands of that liberal constituency if she's elected.
Sanders almost certainly won’t win the Democratic Party's nomination, but he might be on the winning side in the contest over the party’s future.