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?

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 05:  People participate in a march to the U.S. Captiol during the "Million Mask March"  November 5, 2013 in Washington, DC. Organized by members of Anonymous, WikiLeaks, The Pirate Party, Occupy Wall Street and other hacktivist movements, demonstrators marched on political landmarks and institutions around the world on Guy Fawkes Day. 
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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 Mo­ve­ 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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