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Hillary Clinton's Plan to Prevent a Left-Wing Challenger

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News

Hillary Clinton is a bigger favorite to be the next president than any non-incumbent in history at a comparable time in the election cycle. But she still faces several challenges, from concerns about her health and age, to a sense among some commentators that she is not in step with the Democratic Party's activist base. The challenge for her, at least in the 2016 primary, will be to prevent an opponent from filling the space on her left flank that Barack Obama captured five years ago.

Not incidentally, according to The Washington Post, Hillary and Bill Clinton are each talking about the need for a new era of change and compromise in Washington.

At campaign rallies and other recent appearances, both Clintons have called for soothing partisan tensions and have espoused a vision of governing by compromise.

Such themes of change and comity are particularly ironic for the Clintons considering that one or the other has held public office in Washington for the past two decades. Bill Clinton’s tenure in office was also marked by fierce partisan battles that roiled the nation, including an impeachment fight and two government shutdowns.

The last point is probably irrelevant, since voters always look back on previous eras with harmony-tinted glasses (and, indeed, because today’s Republicans are doing whatever possible to induce nostalgia in even the staunchest anti-sentimentalists). Moreover, Clinton will not be laughed out of town for selling herself as a change agent: George W. Bush, despite being the son of a former president, made “changing the tone in Washington” one of the constant themes of his campaign, and he was able to sell this message relatively well even if he did lose the popular vote. To the degree that Clinton needs anything, it is stronger support from liberal Democrats, and this message may be the best method of getting it.

During the 2008 campaign, Obama spoke frequently about the horrors of Washington politics, and promised to move beyond the squabbles of the previous generation. If this rather simplistic analysis of partisanship had a grain of truth to it—certainly in the Clinton/Bush years it often felt like people were refighting battles of the 1960's--it has nevertheless done nothing to increase comity. It turns out that Republicans hate Democratic presidents even when they are not Baby Boomers.

Still, Obama's rhetoric in 2008 was effective because it seemed to mark him off as anti-establishment, which was helpful against both Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Crucially, Obama could speak of compromise without sacrificing his left-wing credibility; indeed, compromise and change can go together nicely as a message if that message comes from someone who doesn’t appear to be a typical Washington politician.

Obama managed to accomplish a healthy amount as president, but almost entirely in his first couple of years, when he had Democratic majorities in Congress. If 2009-2010 seem a long time ago, Obama’s campaign themes from 2008 seem like an even more distant memory; it’s easy to imagine him watching certain speeches he gave about the tone in Washington and wincing a little today.  

And now here we are, with a looming Clinton candidacy. The Post oddly calls the new Clinton themes an "implicit rebuke" to Obama, but they have virtually nothing to do with the president. These types of comments are normal for non-incumbents (see George W, Bush, above), and The Post's attempt to turn the story into one about a Clinton-Obama rivalry does not convince. It is impossible to imagine any president actually “changing the tone” in Washington, and thus a failure to do adds up to, well, nothing. Still, the Post piece inadvertently gets to the heart of what Clinton wants to do in the next primary:

The Clintons have been careful to distinguish between promoting bipartisanship and ceding ground on core values. Hillary Clinton, for example, has been busy advocating for traditionally liberal issues such as minority voting rights, gay marriage equality and women’s rights.

This appears to be an effort by Clinton, following a four-year hiatus from domestic politics, to cement ties to the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. If she runs, Clinton would want to avoid a repeat of the 2008 campaign, when Obama built support among liberal activists by running to her left on the Iraq war.

The article is trying to draw a distinction here: On the one hand, bringing change and bipartisanship to Washington. On the other hand, advocating "traditionally liberal issues" so the base doesn't desert you. In fact, these are two sides of the same coin. Hillary Clinton can't reinvent herself as an Elizabeth Warren–type populist, and I doubt she will be running against big banks. But she can still run on “change,” channeling a streak of populism and appealing to a disgruntled left-wing of the Democratic Party. Much of the appeal to one’s base is about attitude. Howard Dean's popularity among the netroots could coexist with his relatively moderate record as governor because he seemed angry. The point isn't that Clinton is angry; rather, it is that you can appeal to different groups with non-policy related appeals.

In 2008, Clinton chose to run as the grown-up candidate—someone adept at getting things done, and immensely qualified for the task at hand. The overwhelming problem for her was the vote she made to authorize the use of force against Saddam Hussein’s regime. There was also the sense that American had already just undergone a dynastic experiment, and the result was eight years of poor governance and disastrous policies. And Clinton was a sitting senator. For all these reasons, Obama's pitch was especially effective.

Will Clinton’s new rhetoric succeed? It’s probably smart of her to embark on it relatively early in the campaign, and there is reason to think it will be more effective than it would have been had she tried a similar strategy in 2008. She isn’t currently in government, for starters, and she has four years as Secretary of State behind her. This is the one cabinet job that seems to distance you from petty politics, and may go some way to making her seem like a figure who can rise above the fray.

Whether the strategy works might be the single biggest question about Clinton and the left in 2016. The answer will probably determine whether she faces a serious challenger in the primary.