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Is Hillary Clinton a Real Populist? It Doesn't Matter.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Progressive distrust of Hillary Clinton goes back a long way. Much of it stems from her husband’s centrist presidency, and still more of it from her own record as a senator, which included early and sustained support for President George W. Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq (she has since renounced that support). Some liberals fear that both Clintons lack deep ideological convictions, and thus can’t be depended upon to govern in liberal fashion.

Yet in the earliest days of her presidential campaign, Clinton has committed herself to several progressive positions. Even in absence of a committed primary challenger, Clinton is sawing off all the illiberal limbs that, to the dismay of committed liberals, she had climbed upon in the past.

In the past two weeks, Clinton has embraced a constitutional amendment to govern campaign finance, a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, and drivers’ licenses for unauthorized immigrants, neither of which she supported in 2008. If you’re a liberal Democrat with presidential ambitions, like former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, this seems all too convenient.

"I’m glad Secretary Clinton’s come around to the right positions on these issues," O’Malley told reporters. “I believe that we are best as a party when we lead with our principles and not according to the polls. And every election is about the future. And leadership is about making the right decision, and the best decision before sometimes it becomes entirely popular."

Fair enough. Clinton hasn’t exactly covered herself in glory by wading behind the tide of public opinion. But is she, to quote the headline of a recent piece by the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, “a populist of convenience?”

The truth is it doesn’t matter—not in any meaningful, lasting way. Whatever heuristic you use to explain it—necessity, expediency, or conviction—Clinton's movement to the left is unalloyed good news for liberals. Because if she wins the presidency as a result, that would change American politics in perpetuity.

There’s an ongoing debate in American politics over the extent to which the Obama coalition is unique to Obama, who is himself a unique historical figure. Are the younger, more progressive Democrats who swept him into office ready to do the same for a candidate who doesn’t check all of the same characteroliogical boxes—youth, charisma, diversity?

Recent scholarship on this basic question suggests the answer is yes—or rather, that partisan tendencies are fairly fixed, and largely driven by ideological antipathy.

Perhaps more importantly, Hillary Clinton also thinks the answer is yes—if, that is, you buy the cyncial (but possibly accurate) interpretation of her leftward shift. In fact, this might be the most hopeful interpretation as far as liberals are concerned. Because if Clinton doesn’t have any core convictions, and is only saying whatever she thinks she has to say to win—if indeed she's merely betting that things like campaign finance reform, same-sex marriage, and immigration reform will add up to a winning platform—then it's a nod to her belief that the Obama coalition is stable, loyal, and larger than the Republican electorate. 

“[T]his movement is an outgrowth of a broader Democratic Party shift towards the cultural priorities of the coalition that powered Obama victories in the last two national elections — nonwhites, millennials, socially liberal college-educated whites — and away from a reliance on culturally conservative blue collar whites,” the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent wrote recently. “Clinton’s movement on gay rights and immigration is probably less about making the left happy, and more about keeping pace with what has become broad Democratic Party consensus — it is inevitable, and part of a much bigger story.”

That story is a big part of Barack Obama’s legacy. But it can just as easily be framed as a story about the rising electorate, the national political divide, and which side ended up with more people on it. 

If Clinton believed Obama’s most loyal voters were unlikely to support her candidacy in great numbers irrespective of her campaign platform, she wouldn’t tailor her candidacy to suit to them but rather to suit blue collar white voters. She clearly hopes to improve on Obama’s dismal performance with the latter, but her leftward tack on issues like immigration and same-sex marriage suggest she knows she can win even if that doesn’t happen. And if she does win, it will make Obama the Reagan-like figure he's always hoped to be, but for Democrats.

It would also, finally, undo the rightward shift that Clinton's husband initiated more than 20 years ago.

“This new party consensus,” writes National Journal’s Ron Brownstein, “has allowed—and even required—both Obama and Hillary Clinton to replace Bill Clinton's cultural centrism with reliably liberal positions on social issues, including immigration and gay rights.”

And if those reliably liberal positions turn out to be reliably winning positions with the national electorate, that would mean America itself has moved durably to the left.