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Clinton’s Greatest Challenge: Is She Democrat Enough for the Job?

Photo: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank, Flickr
Photo: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank, Flickr

Hillary Clinton is not your traditional left wing darling. She voted for the Iraq war when she was a Senator, she has traditionally close ties to Wall Street, and she’s lukewarm at best on civil rights issues such as gay marriage. A year and a half away from the general election in November 2016, it looks like she may have to make a push to the left, though. With socialist Bernie Sanders, and soon-to-be-announced progressive Martin O’Malley in the campaign game, she might have to make more of an effort to reach the left of her party than the right. If she wants to move into the White House in January 2017, that is.

When an establishment candidate is faced with ideological opposition within their party, they have a choice – fight it, or lean into it. So far, Clinton has not really been pushed to make a choice by recently announced competitor, Bernie Sanders. In his presidential announcement, Sanders only slammed the GOP, and has since stayed away from the obvious left-wing anti-Clinton talking points that he could very well bring up to distinguish himself from her.

Martin O’Malley, former Governor of Maryland, has not been so kind, however. He is expected to announce a presidential bid on May 30th, and has already started speaking out against Clinton’s establishment ties. With a solid progressive track record as Maryland Governor – gun control, same-sex marriage, ending the death penalty – he might be a figure to rally around for the progressives disappointed by Elizabeth Warren’s repeated insistence that she is not running.

Hillary Clinton first met Elizabeth Warren, now a Senator from Massachusetts, during the second half of the Bill Clinton Administration. Warren, who was a Harvard Law School professor specializing in bankruptcy law at the time, was briefing the First Lady on a bankruptcy bill that was making the rounds in Congress. The half-hour meeting consisted of Warren making an impassioned case against the bill, which she accused of essentially being written by the credit-card industry, to fit their needs rather than those of the people. Hillary was convinced by Warren’s argument, and used her considerable sway over Bill’s policy decisions to convince him to veto it as it reached his table. Flash forward to just a few months later, in 2001, when George W. Bush is president, and Hillary Clinton is a New York Senator, as a very similar bill reaches Congress. This time, Hillary votes in favor of the bill, infuriating Warren. Warren’s interest in cooperating with Clinton politically has been limited ever since, and her endorsement for a Clinton 2016 campaign is not going to come cheap.

Most likely, Hillary will not actually be at risk of losing the Democratic nomination. Bernie Sanders, as a self-declared socialist, is clearly a no-go in the general election, and the primary voters know that. Incidentally, so does Sanders, and most likely he does not harbor any actual presidential ambitions. He’s just there to pull some progressive promises out of Clinton, which she will have a hard time backing down on later.

Martin O’Malley, however, has presumably set his sights on the White House for real. It has yet to be seen if his campaign is going to pick up any momentum, but he doesn’t look like a likely contender, either. As a Warren knock-off without the grassroots movement, he is probably more likely to help the Clinton campaign than to hurt it.

But the big problem has never been how to tie up the organized left wing of the party. While the Warren fan base may not especially enjoy the prospect of Hillary Clinton in the White House, they’re going to like it a lot more than if Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio were to move in. For the already politically active, a Presidential election is more often than not about choosing the lesser evil, and they generally accept that.

The Clinton campaign have kicked off. Picture: Mike Mozart, Flickr
The Clinton campaign has kicked off. Picture: Mike Mozart, Flickr

The real problems are going to arise when it comes to bringing potential voters out to actually vote. This is always the Democrats’ biggest problem, since they consistently own a huge percentage of the non-voters of the nation. Part of what made Barack Obama’s campaign for president so successful was that he brought out the people who typically wouldn’t vote. In 2008, exit polls found that 68.7 % of first-time voters had cast their ballots for Obama. Polls from the 2012 election showed that 59 % of non-voters preferred Obama, while only 24 % said the same for contender Mitt Romney.

If Hillary is not the kind of political superstar that gets the politically fatigued excited, like Obama did, she is going to risk losing the election simply because the people who would typically support her don’t feel that it’s worth showing up on election day. There’s reason to believe that moving slightly to the left – at least rhetorically – and scoring some populist points for civil rights, or against Wall Street, would be worth it for Hillary Clinton. She’s already started turning her back on some of the positions she took when she was a Senator, as well as many of her husband’s policies from his presidency. If her seeking policy advice from progressive oracle Warren is any indication, Hillary is giving her “people’s champion” campaign slogan all she’s got, in her push for the White House.

Klara Fredriksson

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