Goodbye to all that: Hillary ditches the caution that helped doom her 2008 campaign

Clinton isn’t obsessed with working class whites, though she won’t ignore them. She’s expanding the Obama coalition

Published May 7, 2015 3:59PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Brendan Mcdermid)
(Reuters/Brendan Mcdermid)

One of Hillary Clinton’s first ominous stumbles in the 2008 presidential race came during an October 2007 debate, when she waffled on a question about New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s plan to issue drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants. The plan “makes a lot of sense,” she told moderator Tim Russert, but she also expressed rambling reservations. It wasn’t Clinton’s stance but her waffling that got her into trouble – a three-minute YouTube clip went viral, and not in a good way. The erstwhile-frontrunner seemed to be trying to have it both ways on a divisive issue.

That cautious Hillary Clinton is gone, especially on immigration issues. Her bold promise to expand President Obama’s executive actions on immigration (she already came out for drivers’ licenses last month), combined with her speech calling for an “end to the era of mass incarceration,” shows that Clinton plans to embrace two of the movements that have emerged in the Obama years, on immigration and criminal justice reform.

There’s also an obvious political calculation: in 2016, Clinton will be less worried about reassuring and winning over skeptical white working class voters than in 2008. That’s because she’s no longer trying to reassemble the (Bill) Clinton coalition, but hold together and expand the Obama coalition. She hopes years from now people will call it the Hillary coalition.

I wrote yesterday that Clinton’s mass incarceration speech, plus her immigration stand, told me that she’d rejected the wisdom of advisors who’d theorized that she could “expand the map” in 2016 by winning working class whites, especially in places like Arkansas, Indiana and Missouri. It was widely dismissed as a pipe dream, and her moves on immigration and criminal justice show that she agrees: She’s not going to pander to white voters with cautious stands on immigration and crime.

Her earlier embrace of gay marriage was a sign she knew Democrats had won the culture wars, and that she shouldn’t worry about reassuring older white evangelical voters she shared their notion of family values. She's now making the same move on immigration and criminal justice.

That’s not the same thing as saying Clinton will ignore working class white voters. In her mass incarceration speech, she made an interesting reference to the troubling fact that white women without a college degree have seen their life expectancy decline over the last decade. Expect Clinton to use economic populism to win over struggling whites.

Still, it's always been tough to know exactly how Clinton could strongly appeal to such voters, enough to "expand the map," without a dose of race. Her 2008 campaign made many hopeful, including me, that her increasingly populist pitch might win them back to the Democratic Party. But it was also indisputable that her overwhelmingly strong showing with Democrats in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, West Virginia and Indiana was partly driven by the fact that she was running against a black man by the name of Barack Hussein Obama. Clinton’s own poorly worded appeal to “hard-working Americans, white Americans” at the end of the bitter 2008 campaign worried even some black supporters that she was resorting to dog whistling to beat Obama.

It's clear that strong economic policies to boost the multiracial working class can help with working class whites. Witness Obama’s relatively strong showing among such voters in Ohio in 2012. He lost the white working class by 20 points nationwide; in Ohio he split it with Mitt Romney. That feat was widely credited to Obama’s auto industry restructuring.

One GOP strategist put it cynically to Ron Brownstein: “The complaint that every other working class white person has about this administration – where was my bailout – has been answered in Ohio.” The always-smart Ruy Teixeira concluded Obama’s relatively strong showing among working class whites helped him not only in Ohio but Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Clinton’s best hope for edging up support among white working class voter lies with women, and that’s where most people expect she’ll put her efforts.

She has personal reasons for optimism about consolidating and expanding support among Latinos; she won them 2-1 in 2008 over Obama. Given that even Sen. Marco Rubio has run away from comprehensive immigration reform, after shepherding it through the Senate, Clinton could make sure Democrats have a lock on the Latino vote for a generation this time around. Amazingly, even to me, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows her leading both Rubio and Jeb Bush among Latinos, by 63-32 and 66-28 respectively, despite Rubio's Cuban-American heritage and Bush's Latino wife, fluent Spanish and non-hateful words about immigrants (even as he opposes comprehensive reform).

These are all early signs that this will be a demographically, ideologically and temperamentally different Clinton campaign than the one she ran in 2008. It also has a better chance of being successful.

By Joan Walsh