Contentious presidential primaries are usually an opportunity for a party to take a long, hard look in the mirror and decide what it wants to be. But even if Hillary Clinton quashes a season of introspection by steamrollering any 2016 challengers, a possibility that looks increasingly likely if she decides to run, liberal Democrats are still confident they can make themselves heard.
Progressives' apprehension about Clinton is no secret—she's seen as too cozy with Wall Street at home and too eager to use the military abroad—but they're not holding their breath for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (who has repeatedly pledged not to run) or another liberal idol to swoop in and stop Hillary.
No matter how much money she can raise, Clinton will need the Democratic base for its energy and organizing, she'll need its small-dollar grassroots donations, and she'll need it to rally to her defense when she gets attacked. If she wants to create an aura of having united the party behind her, she needs to bring the base on board. And all of that gives the rank and file leverage.
It was they, after all, who cost Clinton her first "inevitable" ascension to the nomination six years ago. "For progressives, income inequality and Wall Street oversight are going to be the Iraq War vote of 2016," says Progressives United's Josh Orton, echoing several other liberal thinkers and activists. And unlike 2008, when Clinton's Iraq War vote was a done deal, this time she has the benefit of waiting to come down on key issues until the time is right. "There's a ton of willingness from the base to see where the candidates stand on these issues," says Ilya Sheyman, the executive director of MoveOn.org Political Action and a former congressional candidate in Illinois.
A survey of MoveOn's members released this week found that the plurality think it's still way too early to focus on 2016. Nonetheless, 32 percent said they're currently supporting Clinton, versus just 15 percent who listed Warren.
And the longer Clinton waits to take a stand on inequality issues like raising the minimum wage, the more her decision will be made for her by her party, which is increasingly internalizing much of Warren's agenda. From Bill de Blasio's win in New York City to progressives' campaign to attack the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, and especially to President Obama's State of the Union, the center of gravity in the party is moving to the left.
In that sense, the invisible primary against Clinton's invisible candidacy has already started. While no secret cabals of liberals are working to move an eventual candidate Clinton to the left, the activists are already accomplishing that by moving the entire party. "Economic inequality is the fundamental question of our time. It is generation-defining," says Heather McGhee, the newly elevated president of the policy center Demos, who, at 33, represents a new generation of liberal leaders. "Both parties are going to have to answer to this question."
Just as LGBT and reproductive-rights activists have done with their issues over the years, this new generation of economic progressives wants to make fighting inequality an issue that any Democratic presidential candidate will take for granted as a priority. If it becomes a matter of political necessity, then it almost doesn't matter who the candidate is. "It's not about personality; it's about policy," Sheyman says.
Shifting the party from the inside is far more precise than the kind of throw-the-bums-out primary challenges launched by the tea party. "Primaries, especially on the presidential level, can be a blunt instrument," Orton says. "Progressives that are working on this issue are savvy enough to know that to move the needle on a candidate, there has to be path for electoral victory. You don't get anywhere by writing someone off entirely. It's just counterproductive."
At any rate, Andrei Cherny, the founder of the policy journal Democracy and a former Arizona Democratic Party chairman and congressional candidate, thinks the division between Clinton and the Left is overblown. "If you asked progressives around the country, there would be huge enthusiasm for her," says Cherny, who wrote an essay recently in The Daily Beast arguing that Clinton has a record of economic populism going back to her time as first lady of Arkansas.
The anti-Clinton voices, he says, "are coming from a very, very small group of people, who are, frankly, those whose livelihoods—be they political professionals or journalists—depend on there being a kerfuffle in the Democratic primary."
On the other hand, there's plenty in Clinton's past to give progressives pause. In the waning days of 2013, for instance, she reassured an audience of wealthy investors gathered by Goldman Sachs in New York City that she wouldn't demagogue Wall Streeters. "It was like, 'Here's someone who doesn't want to vilify us but wants to get business back in the game,' " one unnamed attendee told Politico Magazine.
As is often said about Clinton, whose public life spans decades and various reincarnations of the Democratic Party, she contains multitudes. The question is which version she'll put forward if (or when) she runs again.
This article appears in the February 1, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Clinton’s Invisible Primary.