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The Next Big Fight Between Hillary Clinton and Liberals

Lisa Lake/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton’s appearance at the liberal Take Back America conference in 2007 is primarily remembered for the boos and hisses she garnered when she said, "The American military has succeeded. It is the Iraqi government which has failed to make the tough decisions that are important for their own people.” The anti-war attendees had wanted the New York senator to renounce her support for the war; instead they got a careful calibration by Clinton, who called on President George W. Bush to seek new congressional approval to keep boots on the ground. 

It’s accepted political lore now that Clinton’s intransigence on her 2002 Iraq vote was a fatal miscalculation that helped facilitate Barack Obama’s rise and, consequentially, cost her the presidency. Now, with Clinton once again positioned as the incontrovertible Democratic front-runner for the White House in 2016, the organized left have their sights set on another cause they believe will resonate with activists as potently as Iraq did five years ago.

“Social Security in 2016 could be the Iraq of 2008, meaning a definitive issue that primary voters make decisions based on,” said Adam Green, co-founder of Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is leading a concerted charge for expansion of the FDR-era program. Roger Hickey, director of the Campaign for America’s Future, characterized the coming battle over reforming the nation’s safety-net programs as a seminal moment for Democrats. “It’s a real point of conflict and battle within the Democratic Party. It endangers the Democrats’ ability to win elections. You don’t want to go into a presidential election saying, ‘I’m going to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits.’ That’s the formula for making sure there’s not the first woman president.” And Justin Ruben, the head of the eight-million member, has been even more unequivocal, saying in April, “Any Democrat who is voting to cut Social Security benefits is probably kissing his or her presidential aspirations goodbye.”

As heartfelt as their hard-nosed beliefs are, these liberal operatives can also read the polls. They understand the potency and historic nature of a potential Clinton candidacy. That’s why they’re assembling an agenda now, to press their case. Being neither fully on board nor wholly against Hillary 2.0, they realize a primary campaign without a real conversation would only hasten a runaway coronation—and perhaps obscure their cause.

They also know little about where Clinton currently stands on entitlements, which can breed both unease and overinterpretation. For instance, these operatives’ ears perked up when she spoke at Colgate University last month. Clinton, who has sprinkled her post-administration addresses with consistent calls for nonpartisan, evidence-based, compromise-seeking governance, appeared to flirt with supporting the idea of trimming entitlements in order to reach the infamous grand budget bargain: “What has worked is a compromise where yes, we raise revenues for a certain period, we go and look at entitlements to see what is fair and can be done without really disadvantaging either existing beneficiaries or people who are going to rely on those programs.”

She certainly wasn’t committing to one position or another—and that causes worry among liberals who believe it’s just the type of issue that, if left unaddressed or poorly finessed, could spoil another Clinton candidacy. If she cracks the door on benefit cuts, some argue, then that in itself would guarantee a primary challenger. Clinton is likely to draw some type of primary challenge regardless, but some on the left believe the opponent could become competitive if she falls on the wrong side of this issue. “Nothing will raise more flags than if she signals an intent to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits,” Green promised. “That opens up the door for an insurgent.”

For those outside the liberal sphere, it’s almost comical that Hillary Clinton—who spearheaded a progressive health-care plan as first lady, has fervently championed women’s rights around the world, and famously coined the phrase “right wing conspiracy”—isn’t liberal enough for the time. “Good Lord, if Hillary Rodham Clinton is too moderate, whom do they want nominated?” asked Drew Nettles, an unaligned political consultant and energy lobbyist. “Katrina vanden Heuvel? The original Castro Brothers?  A taller Kucinich?” 

And there’s a suspicion among more skeptical operatives that Clinton would solicit liberal backlash purely for political positioning. Holding her candidacy hostage over demands to expand Social Security could, in the eyes of the voters who decide general elections, make the left seem petty and Clinton seem clear-eyed. If President Obama’s popularity continues to deteriorate over the next two years, Clinton may find the sweet spot is directly in between the twilight of a liberal administration and the torrent of the Tea Party.

While Clinton rides atop most presidential polls, continues to accumulate unsolicited Senate endorsements, and earns regular fawning praise and encouragement by party honchos to run in 2016, her relationship with the organized left is more delicate and complex. Leading progressives aren’t openly hostile to Clinton, but they’re cautious about hopping on a bandwagon so early and without preconditions. “Since she hasn’t declared yet, it’s not fair to ask whether someone supports her,” said Florida Rep. Alan Grayson, one of the most liberal members of the House. “The question that I would like to ask her is to name the five most important specific things that she hopes to accomplish during her first term.” 

A Clinton spokesperson enlisted Democratic operative Donna Brazile to respond to questions.  Brazile said she wasn’t familiar with Clinton’s platform on Social Security but praised her for fighting for progressive beliefs all of her life. “If she runs, she will make every corner of the party proud in her lifelong desire to make America a better and fairer place,” Brazile emailed.

Yet if Clinton runs and is able to maintain her front-runner status and scare away any potentially formidable primary challengers, the tension with the left could very well metastasize. “If she just coasts to the nomination, the country then is put in a position of not knowing where she stands on regulating the banks, on corporate trade deals on how much she’s going to invest in creating jobs as opposed to the deficit fixation,” said Hickey. “A populist candidate who stirred a useful debate would probably move Hillary in a progressive direction and help her get more explicit and help her appeal to the activists in the party. In the absence of another candidate, progressives are going to try to influence Hillary Clinton.” 

For a woman who has had a banner two-decade career in national politics—as first lady, U.S. senator, presidential candidate, and secretary of state—it’s striking that her core philosophy is still an enigma to many in liberal circles. They view her positions as being frozen in a mid-2008 context, which preceded the Wall Street meltdown, the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, and the ascendance of the Tea Party—three factors that have drastically altered the economic debate in the country. “She has a tendency to go to the conventional corporate Democratic center, what she thinks of as the center,” said Hickey, who warns the left is considerably larger, more vocal and energized than it was in 2008.  “Hillary Clinton is running in a completely different era.” 

And while they welcome her moves this year to catch up on touchstone issues like gay rights and voting rights—she recorded a video coming out for gay marriage in March and in August slammed the Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate a portion of the Voting Rights Act—they are taking a wait-and-see approach on the issue of economic populism. They see a tax system that is rigged to favor the wealthy, an austerity agenda that threatens long-term benefits that curb poverty and a laissez-faire approach to Wall Street that risks crumbling the foundation of the American economy. The news that Clinton recently delivered a pair of paid speeches to Goldman Sachs employees does little to assure liberals she views those economic issues in the same light they do.

Jim Dean, the head of Democracy for America—founded by his brother, 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean—said he’s more immediately focused on growing a grassroots army in the states that will solidify public opinion on issues of economic security and enhancing Social Security and Medicare. But he’s also concerned that a Clinton coronation would preempt a clash on how to enhance benefit programs, which he refuses to call “entitlements.” “I am interested in other candidates because we need other candidates to have a debate to push this forward,” Dean said. “We will be pushing the envelope on this. We’re going to press that debate.  We’ll fight back against it if she doesn’t.”

Liberals know they face demonstrable hurdles and risks in pressuring the ever-cautious Clinton.  Asserting too hostile a position against the possible first woman president could seem premature and even turn off some of their own foot soldiers. So they’re diligently compiling reams of data, organizing events, and corralling like-minded pols to bolster their case. It’s more a soft-power approach than an overt campaign directed at Clinton. “Our goal is create an atmosphere that puts all politicians on notice—including Hillary Clinton,” said Green. (Green’s PCCC has partnered with Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin to push legislation that would expand Social Security benefits, and plans to soon ramp up organizing support for the move in early primary states.)

At the Center for American Progress’ 10th anniversary gala last month, Clinton used the word “progressive” repeatedly in her speech, but—as Hickey noted—steered clear of specifics.

Wasn’t her appearance before the group evidence enough that she’s a blue-blooded progressive? 

“I think that’s to be determined,” Green said.