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Hillary Clinton's Grand Strategy to Beat the GOP: Take Bold Positions Early and Often

Thomas Shea/Getty Images

For the better part of 20 years now, Bill Clinton’s presidency has been synonymous with a hazy political concept called triangulation. Since his advisers made the term famous, it has been used to describe everything from standard-issue compromise, to the willingness to confront reactionary elements in one’s own party (think Sister Souljah), to the appropriation of another political party’s policy ideas. The latter is as close to a proper definition as there is.

One big concern bedeviling progressives is that Hillary Clinton’s candidacy will mark the return of triangulation—the preemptive ceding of ideological turf, at a time when, thanks to partisan polarization, such concessions amount to outright victories for the Republican Party. But the early days of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy suggest these fears are overblown—that she is engaged in an entirely different kind of political positioning, one that carries the promise of significant progressive victories or at least of clarifying the terms of key policy debates dividing the parties.

The nature of the strategy involves staking out a variety of progressive issue positions that enjoy broad support, but it’s not as straightforward as simply identifying the public sentiment and riding it to victory. The key is to embrace these objectives in ways that makes standard Republican counterspin completely unresponsive, and thus airs out the substantive core of their ideas: Rather than vie for conservative support by inching rightward, Clinton is instead reorienting liberal ideas in ways that make the Republican policy agenda come into greater focus.

Most recently, Clinton has adopted an aggressive position in support of expanded voting rights. “We have a responsibility to say clearly and directly what’s really going on in our country,” she said in her latest campaign speech Thursday, “because what is happening is a sweeping effort to disempower and disenfranchise people of color, poor people, and young people from one end of our country to the other.”

This is standard Democratic boilerplate, but in service of something new. Most Democrats have been engaged for some time now in rearguard actions to protect voters from disenfranchisement efforts, and promote a remedy to the damage the Supreme Court did to the Voting Rights Act. These are important efforts, but easily countered. It isn’t unpopular to argue that voters should have to show ID, for instance, or to rail against phantom voter fraud, and it's easy to gloss over the complex nature of the Voting Rights Act in ways that obscure the real goal of these policies, which is to systemically reduce turnout among disproportionately Democratic constituencies—the poor, the young, and ethnic minorities.

Clinton’s plan, by contrast, demands clarity from her opponents. She has proposed that every American, except those who opt out, be automatically registered to vote when they turn 18, and that every state offer at least 20 days' worth of early voting. Republicans can’t easily oppose this—and oppose it they must—without being explicit about the fact that they want to keep the voting rolls as trim as possible.

Most Democrats likewise support President Barack Obama’s administrative efforts to liberalize immigration enforcement, and want to create a citizenship track for unauthorized immigrants. Republicans oppose both aims, but have been able to muddle that fact using vague procedural language. Generally speaking, it’s not the liberalization of immigration law they oppose, but the unilateral nature of Obama’s actions. They oppose amnesty, but keep the door to a nebulous “legal status” ajar. Both positions are malleable enough to allow the Republican presidential nominee to tack dramatically left in the general election, and gloss over the hostility the GOP has shown to immigrants since promising to liberalize after Obama’s reelection.

For over a year, Democrats humored the GOP’s wordplay in order to preserve the possibility of striking a legislative compromise that includes something Republicans could call “legal status.” Now that the immigration reform process has collapsed, Clinton has dispensed with the niceties. In promising to preserve Obama’s immigration policies, she called out “legal status” as a ruse. “When [Republicans] talk about legal status,” she said, ’“that is code for second-class status.” She has taken the standard Democratic position and weaponized it. Republicans can’t pretend there’s no daylight between their views and Democrats’ views, because Clinton has defined the Republican position for them, by contrast.

Because this kind of obscurantism pervades the GOP’s substantive agenda—through tax policy, social insurance reforms, workplace regulation—Clinton should be able to deploy the tactic across a wide array of issues. Seizing the first-mover advantage is one of the undiscussed upsides of Clinton’s dominance in the Democratic primary field. It doesn’t guarantee her victory over a Republican opponent, but it will assure that the debate between the two of them occurs mostly above board.