Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic front-runner for president, is working hard to shore up support among liberals in hopes of tamping down a serious challenge from the left in the battle for the 2016 nomination.
Clinton has aligned herself firmly with President Obama since the November midterms on a range of liberal-friendly issues, including immigration, climate change and opening diplomatic relations with Cuba. In an impassioned human rights speech this month, she also condemned the CIA’s use of harsh interrogation tactics and decried cases of apparent police brutality against minorities.
The recent statements suggest a concerted effort by Clinton to appeal to the Democratic Party’s most activist, liberal voters, who have often eyed her with suspicion and who would be crucial to her securing the party’s nomination.
But the positions also tie her ever more tightly to a president who remains broadly unpopular, providing new lines of attack for the many Republicans jostling to oppose her if she runs.
One Democratic strategist said the moves are “more prophylactic than anything. If she didn’t say anything, the media and the liberal groups that care about this stuff” would criticize her or nurse a grudge. Like others, he spoke on the condition of anonymity because Clinton has not yet said she is a candidate.
Strategists from both parties also said Clinton is hardly tipping her hand by remarking on matters that will be part of the coming presidential campaign.
Clinton has said she is considering a second run for president and would probably reach her decision after Jan. 1. An announcement looks likely in the spring.
There are several potential Democratic candidates who could appeal to portions of the party’s liberal base, including former senator Jim Webb (Va.), Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.). Many progressives also are urging a bid by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), whose populist anti-Wall Street message draws large crowds.
In the meantime, Clinton has been quietly meeting with potential campaign advisers and consulting a variety of people, from business leaders to sitting Democratic political figures, about issues she might address in a campaign.
She also has been making a point of addressing topical matters at speaking events and other appearances. The former secretary of state’s office has released statements in her name in support of Obama’s announcement of executive action on immigration and on the planned normalization of relations with Cuba.
Her appeals to liberals were on clear display last week at a gala award ceremony in New York named for Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1968 during his idealistic run for the White House.
Clinton said she is proud to have been part of an administration that ended extrajudicial transfers and abusive treatment of terrorism detainees. The practices were the subject of an exhaustive Senate report this month that concluded that the CIA had engaged in torture and that the methods were ineffective in gaining useful intelligence.
The well-dressed crowd in a Manhattan hotel ballroom on Dec. 16 applauded loudly at that statement and thrilled to her broader theme of righting social wrongs.
“What would Robert Kennedy say about the fact that still, today, more than 16 million children live in poverty in the richest nation on Earth?” Clinton asked.
“What would he say about the fact that such a large portion of economic gains have gone to such a small portion of our population,” she continued, also asking about the persistent wealth gap among blacks and Hispanics and the unequal treatment of black men in the criminal justice system.
“What would Robert Kennedy say to the thousands of Americans marching in our streets demanding justice for all? To the young people with their eyes open and their hands up?”
The remarks were more in keeping with Clinton’s early career as a lawyer and human rights champion than her later work as a politically moderate senator and failed presidential candidate or as a diplomat. They also appear designed to address a populist hunger among many Democrats for a candidate attuned to economic inequality and the concerns of working people, including many who would prefer a run by Warren.
The next day came word that American Alan Gross had been released from prison in Cuba and that Obama planned a larger diplomatic opening to the island nation that looms large in U.S. politics. Clinton issued a statement that evening welcoming Gross’s release and praising the moves to engage with Cuba.
“Despite good intentions, our decades-long policy of isolation has only strengthened the Castro regime’s grip on power,” Clinton said. “As I have said, the best way to bring change to Cuba is to expose its people to the values, information and material comforts of the outside world.”
Clinton was secretary of state when Gross was detained in 2009 while distributing communications equipment to Jewish groups in Cuba under a contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development. Gross had been convicted in 2011 of crimes against the Cuban state and sentenced to 15 years.
Clinton wrote in her memoir “Hard Choices” that not getting Gross out was one of the regrets of her tenure. She also wrote that she had suggested to Obama as she left the administration in 2013 that the time might be right for an overture to Cuba.
On the environment, many activists are annoyed by Clinton’s refusal to take a stand on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which requires approval from the State Department, which she used to lead. She sidestepped that issue again at another New York gala this month but gave a strikingly fulsome endorsement of Obama’s recent actions on climate change.
“You pushed for and rallied behind President Obama’s use of the Clean Air Act to set the first-ever federal limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants, which are driving the most dangerous effects of climate change,” Clinton told the League of Conservation Voters. “The unprecedented action that President Obama has taken must be protected at all cost.”
Keystone may be stuck in environmentalists’ craw now, but the issue is likely to be resolved before the next president takes office. Clinton appeared to be signaling how she would address the larger and ongoing issue of climate change in the 2016 campaign.
“From the administration’s announcement last month of a $3 billion commitment to the global green-climate fund, to that new joint announcement with China [on climate change], to new rules under consideration for ozone, we continue to push forward,” she said. “But that is just the beginning of what is needed.”
Jeff Gohringer, a spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters, said Clinton’s remarks “continue to build on her record on energy and climate issues” at a time when the forthcoming Republican Congress is expected to try to short-circuit Obama’s actions.
In early December, during a Boston speech to a women’s group, Clinton took time to address the deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, saying that many Americans think that the nation’s justice system is off-kilter. She said she supports Obama’s decision to create a new task force on policing and community relations. (She has not weighed in publicly on the killing of two New York police officers, who were slain in apparent revenge for the Staten Island death.)
On immigration, Clinton issued a lengthy statement last month supporting Obama’s controversial decision to shield millions of illegal immigrants from deportation — and blamed congressional Republicans for failing to move ahead on comprehensive reform.
“We should never forget that we’re not discussing abstract statistics — we’re talking about real families with real experiences,” she said in the statement. “We’re talking about parents lying awake at night afraid of a knock on the door that could tear their families apart, people who love this country, work hard, and want nothing more than a chance to contribute to the community and build better lives for themselves and their children.”
One benefit to highlighting areas of agreement with Obama now is that it will give Clinton the ability to distance herself from him on other issues later. She will have “a whole campaign” to make those distinctions, a senior Democrat said.
As Clinton’s every move is scrutinized, it may be too easy to see only political motives in her public statements or to analyze them only as they relate to Obama, some observers said.
“She’s a public figure, a former secretary of state, during which time I’m sure that she had a number of conversations with the president about the various issues” she is commenting on, said Nancy J. Hirschmann, a political science professor and director of the University of Pennsylvania’s gender, sexuality and women’s studies program.
“She has a clear vision of who she is, so it’s perfectly reasonable for her to express truthfully what her own views are.”