The Democratic Party that rejected Hillary Clinton in 2008 is even more distant from her now. It’s more resistant to military entanglements, more leery of Wall Street and more firmly in favor of pot smoking.
And there’s Clinton, still stubbornly centrist to the core, straddling the fence on legalizing marijuana, staying close to her supporters in the world of finance, making clear she’d have armed Syrian moderates when President Barack Obama didn’t -- and all but certain to win the party’s nomination this time.
If this Clinton Paradox seems hard to explain, it’s not, some Democrats contend.
Rather than having fallen in love with Clinton, many of her would-be detractors are motivated by a trio of cold calculations: They want to win, she’s the strongest candidate in an otherwise weak 2016 field, and she might prove better at advancing items on their agenda than Obama, who has struggled to push a legislative agenda since Democrats lost control of the U.S. House two years into his first term.
Clinton could be forgiven for chuckling at the irony. Turns out for a lot of Democrats, Obama’s hope and change was a lot more hope than change -- which was her point all along in 2008.
“Regardless of your philosophical leanings within the Democratic Party, there’s overwhelming support” for Clinton, says Mitch Stewart, who embodies the changes of mind and money about Clinton that have made her the clear choice of a Democratic Party that sent her packing six years ago.
That may be fine with Clinton, who, according to two former aides, will try to position herself as a pragmatic choice with more knowledge and experience in Washington than many of her prospective Republican challengers.
Democratic criticism of Clinton -- and yearning for an alternative -- still aren’t hard to find. Senator Elizabeth Warren, the dream candidate for economic populists in the party, declined to answer when Yahoo’s Katie Couric asked earlier this week whether Clinton was too cozy with Wall Street.
Former Democratic Representative Tom Andrews, the head of the Win Without War coalition, said he and his allies are concerned about the prospect of a Clinton candidacy.
“There are many who are uncomfortable with the idea that the Republican standard bearer could be the antiwar candidate in a general election,” Andrews said, referring to Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who has called for a more limited U.S. role internationally.
Like many Democrats, Clinton advocates for renewable energy. But she hasn’t abandoned fossil fuels or the controversial Keystone XL pipeline proposal that her friend and major donor Tom Steyer, a former money manager, is spending millions of dollars to defeat.
At Nevada Senator Harry Reid’s annual energy summit yesterday, Clinton talked about moving to a “clean energy future,” words she used in a 2007 policy speech at the National Press Club that touched on many of the same themes. While being interviewed by White House counselor John Podesta on stage, she also argued that domestic oil and gas production gives the U.S. leverage in foreign policy.
Podesta, an ally of environmentalists, didn’t ask her about Keystone. Politico reported yesterday that he attended a meeting in July of outside groups that are building the infrastructure to support a Clinton presidential bid.
None of Clinton’s positions have cost her yet with the party’s liberal wing. In a June ABC News/Washington Post poll, 72 percent of self-described liberals said they would vote for Clinton in a Democratic primary. Warren and Vice President Joe Biden tied for second with 8 percent each.
In 2008, Stewart led Obama’s caucus operation in Iowa, persuading Democrats that Clinton’s support for the Iraq war and other positions didn’t align with their goals. Then he ran Obama’s grassroots group, Organizing for America, and eventually headed up battleground-state efforts in Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.
Now, he’s an adviser to the Clinton-friendly super-political action committee, Ready for Hillary, and Stewart says there’s no dilemma at all for Democratic voters.
“On a number of issues, she’s a progressive champion,” he said in a telephone interview, listing Clinton’s work at the Children’s Defense Fund in the late 1960s, her efforts to make health insurance more accessible to Americans and her recent remarks about rectifying income inequality as evidence of a “lifetime record of being a leader.”
Of course, there’s a financial incentive for the political class, too. Stewart’s firm, 270 Strategies, has been paid $216,702 by Ready for Hillary since the middle of 2013, according to federal campaign-finance records.
The biggest existing Democratic super-PACs -- which will provide funding for ad-makers, field organizers and other political operatives -- have moved in Clinton’s direction.
American Bridge, a Democratic super-PAC, houses the group Correct the Record, which was established and funded by Clinton supporters to defend her before and during a potential presidential bid.
Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager in 2012, has taken over as co-chairman of Priorities USA, the pro-Obama super-PAC that is now backing Clinton. Its board includes David Brock of American Bridge, Ready for Hillary co-founder Allida Black, 2008 Clinton campaign aides and advisers Harold Ickes, Maria Echaveste, and Marva Smalls, and Stephanie Schriock, the EMILY’s List president who is often mentioned as a possible Clinton campaign manager.
Clinton hasn’t said yet whether she’ll conduct a second campaign for the presidency, and she has plenty of time to design and articulate a vision for the future before Iowans kick off the presidential season with their caucuses in early 2016.
If she runs again, advisers to Clinton have said, she’ll do more to appeal to voters who want to see the first woman president -- a tack she avoided in the early stages of the 2008 campaign but began to embrace at the end.
She has kept up relationships among various Democratic-leaning constituencies, including advocates for women and girls. Despite taking criticism from liberal pundits and some in the gay community for waiting until 2013 to endorse same-sex marriage, she reaped praise for expanding domestic-partner benefits at the State Department and equating gay rights to human rights during a 2011 speech in Geneva.
Ben LaBolt, who worked as a spokesman for Obama’s campaigns and in the White House, said Clinton won over adversaries among Democrats by proving her loyalty to her party and the president during her stint running Obama’s State Department.
“Secretary Clinton started and finished the 2008 primaries with a strong base of followers, and she expanded that base to include many of President Obama’s followers when she joined the administration and worked side by side with him restoring alliances and stifling our adversaries,” LaBolt said. “While there are no doubt some policy debates within the Democratic Party that will play out over the next two years, we enter 2016 politically much more unified than the Republicans.”
Still, she remains at odds with much of the Democratic Party’s orthodoxy on the use of American military force and on the nexus of business and government.
When she has drawn contrasts with Obama, in her book and in public appearances, it has often been to underscore that she’s more comfortable using military force than the president. And she is proud of the relationships she has developed with U.S. business leaders, even though many in her party recoil at the idea that corporations and government should work hand-in-hand.
If Clinton avoids a primary, centrist positions on the roles of business and defense that frustrate the Democratic base could prove to be a source of strength in a general election.
Last week, Clinton showed up at Cisco Systems’ annual sales conference, where she was interviewed by Chief Executive Officer John Chambers, a Republican with whom she has forged a strong relationship over the years. Clinton gave Chambers a State Department Award for Corporate Excellence.
As secretary of State, she put special emphasis on wooing tech companies -- promising to help them expand across the globe while asking that they assist in the execution of American foreign policy.
At a January 2010 dinner, Clinton told executives from Cisco, Google, Twitter and other companies to “use me like an app.”
Clinton’s closeness to Silicon Valley isn’t as troubling to Democrats as her ties to Wall Street.
Since leaving State in February 2013, she has given paid speeches to Wall Street banks, hedge funds and financial-services associations, including Goldman Sachs, Fidelity and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
The Clinton Foundation, its Clinton Global Initiative spin-off and Clinton’s State Department raised money from 29 of the 30 companies listed on the Dow Jones Industrial index, a Bloomberg analysis found.
Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, has said privately that there’s no way to sate the populist appetite for punishing financiers, according to a story that former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner told the New York Times and recorded in his memoir.
“You could take Lloyd Blankfein into a dark alley,” Clinton said of the Goldman Sachs CEO, “and slit his throat, and it would satisfy them for about two days. Then the blood lust would rise again.”
That kind of attitude makes the Clintons the dinosaurs of the Democratic Party, as followers of Warren, a scourge of big banks, are blazing a new path, said Neil Sroka, the communications director for the liberal group Democracy for America.
“We see it as a battle between the Warren Wing and the Wall Street Wing of the party. The Warren wing is ascendant and the Wall Street Wing is dying,” Sroka said. “It is worrying that Secretary Clinton has, for example, been much more interested in meeting with Goldman Sachs and Wall Street groups than in meeting with the Netroots Nation groups in Detroit.”
Yet the acknowledgment of Clinton’s strength is evident in the tone of criticism from the “Warren Wing” of the Democratic Party. They’re making requests, not demands.
Sroka said Clinton’s foreign policy record and courtship of business are at odds with liberal values. But, he said, she could quickly ease concerns by calling for policies that would address income inequality, particularly an expansion of Social Security.
“The jury is still out on where Secretary Clinton is on some of these key issues,” he said. “She could be a fierce advocate for the Warren Wing.”