The Hillary Clinton Express is already lumbering down the track. Her recent trip to Los Angeles yielded professions of affection, loyalty and financial support from Hollywood’s elite should she run for president in 2016. Web sites tout her candidacy, though an official declaration is unlikely for at least a year. Old Hillary hands such as Harold Ickes have assured financial backers that the proto-campaign will be run well — at least, better than the campaign Clinton waged in 2008. And such is the scope of her appeal across Democratic ranks that handicappers have all but conceded the nomination to her, if she runs.
This conditional Clinton consensus is remarkable not only because of her popularity but also because it wouldn’t exist absent the Democratic Party’s uncharacteristic near-consensus. This party, after all, once was split on civil rights. It once tore itself asunder over the Vietnam War and maintained distinct hawkish and dovish wings straight through the 2002 congressional authorization of the invasion of Iraq.
Today, those rifts are no more. A process that began when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act has culminated in the white South moving almost entirely into the Republican column while the remaining Democrats almost uniformly support minority rights. On matters of military intervention, there are no more Joe Lieberman Democrats: The Iraq and Afghan wars destroyed any remaining Democratic (or, for that matter, American) eagerness to intervene in kindred conflicts. Clinton’s tenure as President Obama’s secretary of state has distanced her from her initial support for the Iraq war and largely dispelled the tensions that her support created.
The issue that still divides Democrats today is economics. Their differences are most readily visible at the municipal and state levels: A number of Democratic governors and mayors have arrayed themselves against public employee unions, long a key force in turning out the Democratic vote. At the national level, the clearest sign of division was the campaign several liberal senators waged to persuade Obama to nominate Janet Yellen, rather than Larry Summers, as chairman of the Federal Reserve. To the liberals, Summers’ sin was his central role in deregulating derivatives when he served as Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary as well as his support for repealing the Glass-Steagall Act, a change that allowed previously safe depositor banks to use those funds for speculative investments. In a larger sense, the opposition to Summers signaled the growing Democratic opposition to Wall Street liberalism — the free-trade, deregulatory perspectives that dominated Democratic economic policy during Clinton’s presidency and Robert Rubin’s tenure as Treasury secretary and that had enough sway during Obama’s first term, partly through the influence of such Rubin proteges as Summers and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, to block a serious crackdown on Wall Street.
And therein lies the challenge for Hillary Clinton: How to present herself on economic issues? The surest way she can alienate significant segments of her party — perhaps to the point of enabling a progressive populist such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to enter the race — is to surround herself with the same economic crew that led her husband to untether Wall Street and that persuaded Obama, at least in his first term, to go easy on the banks. The economy isn’t likely to be significantly better in 2016 than it is today, and Democratic voters will be looking for a more activist, less Wall Street-influenced nominee.
But betting against the Clintons’ political instincts has usually been a sucker’s game. During the debate over Summers and the Fed, Hillary maintained an appropriate, if strategic, silence. Bill felt compelled to defend his onetime Treasury secretary — but only after Summers withdrew from consideration. If this lack of support foreshadows a realization by the Clintons that they’ll have to come up with a more populist brand of economics than recycled Rubinomics, then the Hillary consensus is likely to hold.
Both the challenges facing the Democrats and the party’s constituencies have changed considerably since Bill was president. The Democratic base has many more minority voters and economically stressed young people than it did 20 years ago. America’s private sector — like that throughout the advanced industrial world — no longer creates jobs in the numbers it did 20 years ago. Even more pointedly, profits have soared largely because of the suppression of wages. Combine those new constituencies with those new challenges, and the need — both political and economic — for more public investment and a stronger safety net (and more tax revenue to support them) becomes screamingly clear. That doesn’t mean Hillary has to explicitly repudiate Bill’s declaration that “the era of big government is over.” At times, however, she will have to act as though he never said it — at least, if she’s going to be the sole serious contender for the Democratic nomination.
Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect.