FIVE DEMOCRATIC candidates debated for the first time on Tuesday night, but only one performed like a potential president. Hillary Clinton staked out ground to the right of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) but to the left of the center, sticking to substantive issues and arguing for practicality in policymaking.
It was an impressive performance. Yet the debate also surfaced one of Ms. Clinton’s vulnerabilities: the possibility that Mr. Sanders and the leftward drift of the Democratic Party will drag her away from pragmatism — and from general-election voters. Her challenge is to continue defending her approach to progressivism instead of watering it down with more concessions to loud activists in the Democratic base.
What is Ms. Clinton’s approach? It can be summed up in one line from Tuesday night: “I’m a progressive,” she said. “But I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.” Instead of promising to make public colleges free for everyone, she argued only for making college debt-free and for requiring students to work 10 hours a week. Instead of lazily calling for breaking up all the big banks, she insisted that only banks that pose a systemic risk should be broken up. Instead of hopping on the ever more crowded bandwagon of Democrats who favor expanding Social Security for all seniors, she said any expansion should be targeted at those who are really struggling. “I will focus on helping those people who need it the most,” she declared.
In a Democratic primary, it’s tempting to refrain from drawing these sorts of lines. But balancing principle and practicality, government action and inevitable trade-offs, is the key to successful governing in the real world of resource constraints, unintended consequences and political opposition.
Moreover, Ms. Clinton took a political risk by sticking to her more ambitious instincts in foreign policy. The controversy over her vote for the Iraq war helped sink her 2008 candidacy, but that has not turned her into another advocate for U.S. withdrawal from the world. She was the only candidate onstage willing to call for a no-fly zone in Syria, which would enable desperate refugees to find shelter from Bashar al-Assad’s bombs and bullets. She rejected the notion that playing an active role in Syria or elsewhere would require a massive commitment of U.S. troops and inevitably lead to a quagmire.
Ms. Clinton’s performance wasn’t flawless, however. She was weakest when she tried to explain away the pandering she has done to placate Democratic interest groups. She disingenuously insisted that “I never took a position on Keystone until I took a position on Keystone,” even though she strongly — and correctly — signaled as secretary of state that there wasn’t a good case against the oil pipeline before recently coming out against it. Her excuses for opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal she helped advance when she was in the Obama administration, were similarly unconvincing.
We would be surprised if this obviously calculated positioning helped her enough in the Democratic primary season to justify the damage it would do to her general-election campaign. Going forward, she should focus on what won her Tuesday night’s debate — directness and pragmatism.