As if the flap over fundraising at her family foundation weren’t enough, now Hillary Rodham Clinton has to deal with Bernie Sanders.
The big story here is that an avowed socialist who voted with the Democratic Party in the Senate, but wouldn’t join it, now feels comfortable seeking its presidential nomination. This says a lot about the party’s long-term ideological trajectory, and Clinton’s compatibility with it, or lack thereof.
Though hardly a conservative, her record puts her to the right of a Democratic Party that has been gradually taken over by its left wing in the 20-plus years since a centrist Bill Clinton, accompanied by then-first lady Hillary, first gained the White House, as former Clinton White House political strategist Doug Sosnik argued in an influential 2014 article for Politico Magazine.
In 2014, a Pew Research Center survey found that rank-and-file Democrats were almost twice as likely to describe themselves as “mostly or consistently liberal” as they were in 1994 (56 percent in 2014 vs. 30 percent in 1994). The party’s activists and leaders are even more left-leaning, with 70 percent of them pronouncing themselves consistent liberals in 2014, as opposed to 35 percent in 1994.
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Sosnik identified the improved funding and organization of left-wing groups, as well as the electorate’s increasing demographic diversity and leftward drift on cultural issues, as factors favoring the liberal Democratic ascent. To that list of factors should be added the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the financial crisis, which damaged public confidence in U.S. foreign policy and U.S. capitalism, respectively.
Alas for Hillary, the record of her husband’s administration — and even her own record as a senator and as a secretary of state sympathetic to the use of force abroad — reflected the lessons of older events — specifically, the defeat of Michael Dukakis by George H.W. Bush in 1988 and the loss of the House of Representatives to Newt Gingrich’s Republicans in 1994, both of which taught Democrats to fear getting outflanked on the right.
As a result, she now faces the Sanders challenge. Indeed, so discredited is centrism within the Democratic Party that former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who planned a similar left-populist campaign against Clinton, finds himself on the defensive over his law-and-order policies as mayor of Baltimore in the early ‘90s. In tune with those different times, O'Malley’s approach is now being blamed for police brutality in Charm City.
Oh, the ironies. Hillary figured in conservative demonology as the radical power behind her husband’s throne and got blamed for the failure of an allegedly overly liberal Clinton administration health insurance proposal; so she remade herself as a centrist.
Now that’s inconvenient, so she must recast herself as a true progressive. On Wednesday, Clinton offered criminal justice reforms that implicitly repudiate tough federal sentencing laws that her husband signed, and she lavishly praised David Dinkins — the one-term Democratic mayor of New York whose perceived failures to control crime paved the way to his election defeat by Republican Rudy Giuliani in 1993.
Meanwhile, she has almost been silenced on President Barack Obama’s proposed free-trade agreement with 11 Pacific Rim nations — itself possibly a last vestige of Democratic pro-business centrism. She supported it as secretary of state, and it’s a lineal descendant of her husband’s North American Free Trade Agreement. Yet labor and other liberal interest groups are trying to establish opposition to free trade as the post-Obama party line — it’s a key issue for Sanders. So Hillary is reduced to noncommittal platitudes.
She seems always to be zigging when history zags. Whether this costs her the nomination, though, is another question. She enjoys the backing of a vast network of elected officials, donors and hangers-on; the chance to elect the first female president will induce many Democrats to swallow their ideological misgivings.
The likely effect — and intent — of a Sanders challenge is to push both Clinton’s campaign and her administration, if there is one, further left, thus consolidating liberal control of the party.
The risk, for Clinton and the Democrats generally, is that they over- interpret the country’s mood, which is increasingly culturally liberal — but still deeply skeptical of federal competence and trustworthiness. “Democratic activists will need to reconcile the public’s desire for smaller government with their own progressive impulses,” Sosnik warned.
Almost 20 years have passed since President Clinton declared, “The era of big government is over.” If Hillary hopes to be the next President Clinton, that’s one part of her husband’s legacy she may not want to repudiate.
Charles Lane is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial board.
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