The Hillary Clinton paradox: Progressives can't trust her -- and that's a good thing

The fight over the Trans-Pacific Partnership shows how an untrustworthy Dem president can be liberals' friend

Published May 11, 2015 8:53PM (EDT)

Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren                 (Reuters/Carlo Allegri/Michael Dwyer)
Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren (Reuters/Carlo Allegri/Michael Dwyer)

Because I care about my readers and don’t want them to pollute their minds with meaningless political ephemera any more than being a good citizen absolutely requires, I hope this comes as news to you — but, last week, the New York Times and CBS published a new poll on how the public views former secretary of state and current presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton (HRC). There were two big takeaways for the 2016 frontrunner, both of which could be reasonably seen by left-wing activists as good omens for the months and maybe years to come.

The poll’s most striking discovery pertained to how voters felt about Clinton’s handling of her email while at Foggy Bottom, which was either unnecessarily secretive or downright sketchy. I got into some arguments with other folks in the media about how much voters actually cared about this story; so forgive me my vanity, but I can’t help but note that during the weeks following the press’s wall-to-wall coverage of “emailgate,” Clinton’s favorability actually went up. And it wasn’t just a little statistical blip; it was an increase of nine full points. (On this score, then, picture me as Nelson Muntz.) 

The poll’s second notable finding, on the other hand, wasn’t nearly so much of a boon to Clinton supporters. According to CBS and the Times, fewer than half of respondents described her as “honest and trustworthy”; and that number was only near the 50 percent mark because around 80 percent of Democrats answered in the affirmative. This issue of HRC’s trustworthiness has been the thin reed on which many of the loudest promoters of the emailgate pseudo-scandal have hung their arguments. But as Ronald Brownstein writes in National Journal, a Clinton has already won the White House before while being seen as less than entirely untrustworthy.

However, just because American doubts about her honesty are unlikely to keep HRC out of the White House, that doesn’t mean that her image on this score is irrelevant. What it means instead is that Clinton’s low margin for error on trust will manifest in harder to perceive ways during her campaign and hypothetical presidency. For example, look at President Obama and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s argument over fast-tracking the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It’s the kind of debate Obama is having with those on his left — a debate over progressive bona fides — that a President Clinton probably will not.

If you’re unfamiliar with the battle over TPP and the fast-track option, I’d recommend this Wall Street Journal post as an OK, mostly objective primer. The short version, though, is that Obama wants Congress to grant him expanded powers to negotiate the biggest free-trade agreement since NAFTA and to do so without having to worry about folks in the House or Senate larding-up the agreement with amendments. Instead of letting Congress get into the weeds of the deal, Obama would prefer they leave it to him and then ultimately give what he comes up with a simple yea-or-nay vote. Along with most liberal and labor organizations, Warren is opposed.

Yet what matters for our purposes isn’t the TPP so much as the way Warren and Obama, arguably liberal America’s two favorite politicians, have been fighting about it through the media. From the very beginning, Obama has relied on a rhetorical strategy that can be boiled down to one essential question: Don’t you trust me to do the right thing? “When people say that this trade deal is bad for working families,” he said in late-April, “I take that personally. My entire presidency has been about helping working families.” Just this weekend, he used similar phrasing, saying he’d “have to be pretty stupid” to support a deal that imperiled the middle class the way Warren claims the TPP does.

The biggest reason why Obama has been able to adopt this strategy can probably be found in a Gallup poll released earlier this month. On that question of trustworthiness, the president fares well, especially by the standards of our polarized era: 53 percent of respondents say “honest and trustworthy” applies to Obama, while just 45 percent disagree. That’s not a Grand Canyon’s worth of distance apart from HRC’s 48 percent, of course. But it is enough to make the White House feel relatively confident that liberals are willing to trust the president — and to make Warren skip over Obama and raise concerns about what the next (possibly Republican) president might do with fast-track’s powers. 

On the trail (as well as in the White House, if she wins) Clinton will be much more constricted. Yes, she’s very popular with self-identified liberals; and, yes, like Obama’s, much of her negative numbers on trustworthiness are the product of overwhelmingly disdain from conservatives. But while Democrats may on the whole approve of HRC, they don’t necessarily trust her, at least not yet. That means that Clinton will be much more poorly equipped to argue in the face of a challenge from her left that liberals should relax and trust her to do the right thing. For anyone who wants to see Sen. Bernie Sanders succeed in pulling her to the left during the primary — or see Sen. Elizabeth Warren pulling her to the left if she’s in the White House — this is a plus. 

All of that being said, there’s still a good chance that, by the time 2016 really kicks-in and voters are paying attention, the reality of polarization in American politics will bump HRC’s numbers on trustworthiness and honesty closer to where the president’s are today. And even without that development, pushing Clinton from her left will be harder on issues where left-wing anger over her husband’s record isn’t quite so close to the surface (Obama is desperate to separate TPP from NAFTA for a reason). But if Brownstein is right, and HRC wins despite a majority of voters not exactly trusting her completely, it could be something of a win-win for liberal activists. Not only would they get a non-Republican president, but they’d get one with a stronger desire than the current incumbent to prove she’s one of them.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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