AGAINST THE GRAIN

Hillary Clinton’s Identity Crisis

Her focus on issues that excite her base is coming at the cost of issues that could win her a broader appeal.

Hillary Clinton sits in on a round table discussion as she visits the Kikis Chicken and Waffles restaurant on May 27, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina.
National Journal
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Josh Kraushaar
June 16, 2015, 4 p.m.

Hil­lary Clin­ton be­latedly offered her ra­tionale run­ning for pres­id­ent last week­end, mak­ing the case that she’s an ex­per­i­enced fight­er who will force­fully ad­voc­ate pro­gress­ive-minded policies to raise the for­tunes of dis­af­fected Amer­ic­ans. It was a well-de­livered and ne­ces­sary speech to counter the end­less re­mind­ers about her en­titled status — from her se­cret­ive home-brew email serv­er as sec­ret­ary of State to the avoid­ance of the press and reg­u­lar voters dur­ing her ini­tial pres­id­en­tial launch.

But at the same time, the speech un­der­scored what will make Clin­ton‘s cam­paign a chal­len­ging en­deavor — it was de­tached from the polit­ic­al real­it­ies of the mo­ment. She as­sidu­ously sidestepped con­tro­ver­sial is­sues di­vid­ing her party, avoided oth­ers en­tirely, and soun­ded like a born-again pop­u­list des­pite be­ing one of the wealth­i­est wo­men in the coun­try. She barely men­tioned her role as sec­ret­ary of State or her ser­vice as a sen­at­or from New York. Far from be­ing con­fid­ent that the coun­try has moved sharply to the left, as one of her su­per PAC’s top ad­visers pro­nounced, Clin­ton soun­ded as if she was hedging her bets, sprink­ling lib­er­al shout-outs over tak­ing firm po­s­i­tions on spe­cif­ic is­sues.

In clas­sic Clin­ton fash­ion, she railed against in­come in­equal­ity while ar­guing that a grow­ing eco­nomy will lift all boats. She tweaked Wall Street for ex­cess, while prais­ing oth­er com­pan­ies’ long-term in­vest­ment in be­ne­fits. She ref­er­enced pro­gress­ive pri­or­it­ies, like cli­mate change and ex­pan­ded vot­ing rights, without mak­ing them the core of her ad­dress.

(RE­LATED: How Hil­lary Clin­ton ‘Of­fi­cially’ Launched Her 2016 Cam­paign)

This is a can­did­ate in the middle of an iden­tity crisis, try­ing to ap­peal to the Demo­crat­ic Party’s myri­ad con­stitu­en­cies while for­ging an over­all mes­sage that can ap­peal to “all Amer­ic­ans,” as she put it. It will be aw­fully tricky for her to tri­an­gu­late all the way through a lengthy cam­paign without suf­fer­ing through the in­con­sist­en­cies in her mes­sage.

In Clin­ton’s world, Pres­id­ent Obama isn’t re­spons­ible for any of the eco­nom­ic mal­ad­ies she out­lined. Only Re­pub­lic­ans are. Her speech takes an all-too con­veni­ent de­tour from her last pres­id­en­tial cam­paign to the present day, en­tirely sidestep­ping the cur­rent pres­id­ent’s role in the grow­ing gap between rich and poor, and why his policies haven’t cre­ated enough op­por­tun­it­ies for the grow­ing num­ber of Amer­ic­ans left be­hind.

In Clin­ton’s think­ing, the world is a pretty safe place. She spar­ingly men­tioned na­tion­al se­cur­ity in her 45-minute ad­dress, fo­cus­ing more on the “good news” from abroad than the grow­ing threat that ter­ror­ist groups are pos­ing. She spoke as much about her Nix­on-era work as an at­tor­ney at the Chil­dren’s De­fense Fund as she did about her lead­er­ship as sec­ret­ary of State. It’s be­com­ing in­creas­ingly clear that for­eign policy is a ser­i­ous vul­ner­ab­il­ity for her cam­paign, even as grow­ing num­bers of voters rank it as a top pri­or­ity for the next pres­id­ent. (It’s telling that Clin­ton’s ad­visers don’t think for­eign policy will play much of a role at all in the gen­er­al elec­tion.)

(RE­LATED: Celebrit­ies Who Have Already En­dorsed Hil­lary Clin­ton for Pres­id­ent)

In Clin­ton’s per­spect­ive, the de­bate over free trade that’s di­vid­ing her party in Wash­ing­ton is totally ir­rel­ev­ant to her cam­paign. She didn’t ref­er­ence it at all in New York, and gave a tor­tured re­sponse in Iowa and New Hamp­shire. Her cam­paign has made an art form out of avoid­ing the ques­tion of wheth­er she sup­ports the pres­id­ent on one of his leg­acy-mak­ing ini­ti­at­ives. For a can­did­ate po­s­i­tion­ing her­self as a fight­er, her fear of tack­ling the is­sue dir­ectly runs against that care­fully-craf­ted im­age.

All this is­sue avoid­ance badly un­der­mines her cam­paign’s ar­gu­ment, pith­ily framed by Pri­or­it­ies USA poll­ster Geoff Gar­in, that “the cen­ter of US polit­ics has moved left on many key is­sues.” That’s cer­tainly true on gay mar­riage. But on trade, it’s the lib­er­al base that’s be­com­ing out of step with pub­lic opin­ion. Last month’s NBC/Wall Street Journ­al poll showed that, for the first time in 15 years, more Amer­ic­ans be­lieve that free trade helps the United States rather than hurts it.

On na­tion­al se­cur­ity, a re­cent Pew Re­search Cen­ter sur­vey showed Re­pub­lic­ans with a double-di­git lead over Demo­crats as the party viewed as best-equipped to deal with ter­ror­ism. The same sur­vey showed Re­pub­lic­ans with a nar­row three-point lead over Demo­crats on who’s best equipped to handle the eco­nomy, and — con­trary to con­ven­tion­al wis­dom — barely be­hind on im­mig­ra­tion (2 points).

(RE­LATED: What Young Fem­in­ists Think of Hil­lary Clin­ton

That’s hardly an en­dorse­ment for an ag­gress­ively lib­er­al cam­paign. There’s also an op­por­tun­ity cost in tack­ling sec­ond­ary, base-gin­ning is­sues at the ex­pense of an over­all mes­sage on the eco­nomy and na­tion­al se­cur­ity. Up un­til Clin­ton’s speech Sat­urday, her cam­paign has seemed con­tent to en­er­gize small slices of the elect­or­ate on side is­sues — early vot­ing, cam­paign-fin­ance re­form, and cli­mate change. To rally His­pan­ics, she prom­ised that she’d leg­al­ize more un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants through ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders than Pres­id­ent Obama. (I’m not ar­guing the im­port­ance, or lack there­of, of any of these is­sues; merely point­ing out that they rank low among voter pri­or­it­ies.)

The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Ruth Mar­cus called this “pan­der­ing with a pur­pose,” ar­guing there’s little down­side in tak­ing stands on these side is­sues that ma­jor­it­ies of Amer­ic­ans agree on. But the real risk for Clin­ton is that by fo­cus­ing on is­sues that few Amer­ic­ans pri­or­it­ize, she’s get­ting side­tracked from tack­ling the cent­ral is­sues that most Amer­ic­ans care about. Go too far down that look­ing glass, and there’s a point of no re­turn.

Clin­ton’s chal­lenge is avoid­ing the small-ball think­ing that be­fell an­oth­er Demo­crat, former Sen. Mark Ud­all of Col­or­ado, in his un­suc­cess­ful reelec­tion bid last year. Ud­all’s cam­paign fo­cused so much on mi­crotar­get­ing single, fe­male voters by ac­cus­ing his op­pon­ent of sup­port­ing con­tra­cep­tion re­stric­tions that he for­got to ag­gress­ively make the case for his own re­cord. He ac­tu­ally suc­ceeded in boost­ing turnout among single wo­men to the polls and win­ning their sup­port by a land­slide 36-point mar­gin, but at the ex­pense of turn­ing every­one else off. Ud­all won just 46 per­cent of the vote in one of the coun­try’s most im­port­ant battle­ground states.

To her cred­it, Clin­ton aimed much high­er with her Roosevelt Is­land speech, ty­ing her bio­graphy and gen­er­a­tions of Demo­crat­ic Party his­tory to the call to fight for those left be­hind. “I’m not run­ning for some Amer­ic­ans, but for all Amer­ic­ans,” she said. The big ques­tion go­ing for­ward is wheth­er her cam­paign strategy will match the lofty rhet­or­ic, or wheth­er she’ll re­main con­tent to stay in the echo cham­ber as she marches to­wards the nom­in­a­tion.

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