Dangers of a Hillary Clinton campaign: The disastrous centrism she desperately needs to avoid

Questions remain about how far to the left Hillary will run. One tip: Learn from your mistakes!

By Heather Digby Parton


Published April 13, 2015 9:58AM (EDT)

  (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
(AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

With the Big Announcement yesterday, Hillary Clinton officially entered the race that everyone assumes she's already won. Can you feel the excitement? No? Well, this shouldn't come as a shock, because despite all the handwringing about a primary being necessary, it's long been obvious that the Democratic party subconsciously saw 2008 as The Big Primary when decided it would use its current national electoral advantage to bring the U.S. into the modern world and break the white male presidential paradigm with two historic candidacies. It's important to seize these openings to advance civil rights and establish a new "normal" for leadership when you have the chance and it's to the party's credit that it has taken this path.

2008 was a rough-and-tumble a primary with the two candidates coming as close to a tie as has ever happened in party history. Barack Obama won fair and square, but the fact remained that a very large number of Democrats also liked Hillary Clinton and both candidates were wise enough to see that the way forward was to put away their swords and join together in his administration. It is not surprising to me that all those circumstances have made the party open to Clinton as Obama's natural successor with few others seeing a reasonable path to victory. (None of this is to say that I wouldn't love to see a primary fought out on ideological terms this go around --- or any go around. But I can see why, in this case, it's not happening.)

But still, it's vital that Clinton's campaign realizes that this is not 2008 and the issues and political terrain have changed in seven years. Many of the stances both Obama and Clinton took at the time, most of which were more alike than different, are no longer salient. Such social progress as marriage equality has advanced at lightning speed leaving both of their positions at the time ("I believe in civil unions but marriage is between a man and a woman" blah, blah, blah) sounding callous and calculating. The default Democratic party line on the financial crisis, which they both embraced, was a cautious centrist approach without any real desire to attack the root causes. Their foreign policy stances were obviously contrasted with the bellicose bombast of the Republicans, most especially the frontrunner John "bomb Iran" McCain, making whatever each of them believed look like the only sane choice regardless of the details. As we all know, Clinton suffered for her earlier vote for the Iraq war, the dominant issue of the time. It may have been the single act of her career that denied her the nomination.

Today we look at all that with the benefit of hindsight and see how Barack Obama handled the challenges that came after his election and we naturally wonder if Hillary Clinton would have acted any differently. I'd guess probably only around the edges and on certain discrete issues. But one hopes that the hard lessons learned by all of us will have brought her to a different place today. And that is what drives the progressive wing of the Democratic Party to seek a primary challenge from her left: They want to know whether she has pushed beyond (in the immortal words of Bill Clinton) "the braindead politics of the past" and embraced the new populist and internationalist mood of the present.

Perhaps the most urgent question is about foreign policy, which is very likely to be a major issue in this campaign and about which she is assumed to be more hawkish than President Obama. This is not just because of her earlier Iraq war vote but also some of her reportedly aggressive stances as Secretary of State on such issues as Libya and Syrian intervention. Where she stands on the clandestine CIA drone war and such issues as the massive NSA dragnet are unclear. Her position on the Iran nuclear negotiations has been supportive (thank goodness) but we are in a very volatile moment in a number of hotspots around the world and it's important that progressives are able to make their positions known before the national security establishment has its way.

She does have one thing going for her on this, just as she and Obama had in 2008: The Republicans are proving themselves to be so savagely militaristic that they will make whatever case she presents as being the only sane alternative.

This, of course, does not mean she should not have her feet held to the fire by voters or that she is not obligated to listen and be responsive to their concerns. After all, the left was right about Iraq --- and she was wrong.

On the economic front, they would also like to know if she has moved toward what the Progressive Change Campaign Committee has called "The Warren Agenda" which their members, and progressive groups generally, are urging Clinton to adopt as her own:

Raising wages and incomes for working people: Raising the minimum wage so that no one who works full-time will live in poverty. Strengthening and enforcing labor law to make it easier for workers to organize and have bargaining power. Better overtime pay rules. Equal pay for equal work for women

Creating more jobs: Making investments in roads, bridges, power grids, education, and research.

Trade policies that will raise wages and create new manufacturing jobs rather than the opposite results we have seen because of trade deals like NAFTA.

Protecting the economic health and dignity of retirement: Protecting Social Security and Medicare, adding to Social Security benefits, and changing federal policy to better protect and encourage pensions.

Making sure that Wall Street has less power to manipulate the economy and our political system, and that regular people have less debt: More cops on the beat watching over the big banks so that consumers and the economy as a whole are better protected from financial speculation and fraud. Breaking up the biggest banks to lessen their market and political power.Reducing the level of student debt.

Bringing in additional tax revenue in a fair way: Closing corporate tax loopholes, especially those that subsidize dirty energy companies like Big Oil. Raising tax rates on the wealthiest Americans. Creating a financial transactions tax so that speculative trading is dis-incentivized.

These are all popular mainstream Democratic policies which differ in some respects between the policies both Clinton and Obama supported in 2008 and which the current administration has advanced during its tenure. Some, like the minimum wage, are easy. Taking on Wall Street is hard. But progressives believe the time is ripe for a shift on these issues and would very much like to see Hillary Clinton take up the challenge. It's never been a better time to be a progressive with a populist agenda.

Unfortunately, while the Democratic establishment seems to be more than willing to ride the "progressive" brand to victory (and that's progress!) they also seem determined to redefine it in their usual image. Perhaps the best illustration of this comes from some of the beltway wags in the wake of Rahm Emmanuel's victory last week in Chicago. Ron Brownstein reported this fatuous comment from one insider:

To Bruce Katz, vice president of Brookings' metropolitan program, these disparities frame cities' real choices. Garcia, he says, was wrong to argue that Emanuel's efforts to attract business to the city's downtown core somehow hurt its low-income neighborhoods. Without the jobs and tax base that a "robust downtown" generates, Katz says, "a city is not going to have a very competitive economy … and there is going to be very little social mobility." The real question for cities, he says, "is how do you bring more people along for the ride?"

Despite all the liberal sniping, Katz places Emanuel at the forefront of mayors who are "redefining what being a progressive is" by focusing both on creating jobs (for instance through the public-private partnership World Business Chicago) and equipping more of their cities' youth to compete for them.

That would be "re-defining" progressivism by making it into business friendly DLC centrism. We've been down that road before. These think tank technocrats have been selling  these vaunted "public-private" partnerships since the early 90s when Bill Clinton first ran for office and we're still dealing with crumbling infrastructure, poor education, soaring wealth inequality and stalled social mobility. At some point these people need to confront the fact that these ideas aren't getting the job done.

Clinton already faces a challenge of being someone who's been in politics for a long time and carries a lot of baggage (much of it dirt that's been flung by her political enemies, and unfairly adopted by the press as a "narrative" which in their view is some unalterable historical reality.) There's not a lot she can do about that but endure it. But she has control of her own agenda and if she doesn't want to wear the "braindead policies of the past" button on top of all that she will reject anything that smacks of "Rahm Progressivism" and take a bold step into the future.

The time is ripe for a woman president and it's ripe for an unabashed progressive populist agenda.  If Hillary Clinton seizes this moment and runs with it, she could make history in more ways than one.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Barack Obama Democratic Party Elections 2016 Hillary Clinton Presidential Elections Rahm Emanuel