The Invisible Primary Against Hillary Clinton

The liberal base knows she probably won’t face a primary challenge. So how will they steer her their way?

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National Journal
Alex Seitz-Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
Feb. 3, 2014, midnight

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.

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