Last Tuesday, when it became clear that Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee for president, she gave a victory speech that contained numerous olive branches to Bernie Sanders supporters. She assured them that “there’s much more that unites us than divides us,” that “Wall Street can never again be allowed to threaten Main Street,” and that together they would “get unaccountable money out of our politics” and “expand Social Security.”
But she didn’t only have her eye on her left flank. She also gave a nod to swing voters and Republicans horrified by the likelihood of a Donald Trump nomination. “My friends,” she said, “if you are a Democrat, an independent, or a thoughtful Republican, you know [Trump’s] approach is not going to build an America where we increase opportunity or decrease inequality.”
So began Clinton’s great six-month balancing act, trying to simultaneously win over skeptics on the left and political nomads on the right. And how exactly she walks that line could well determine how she governs.
Clinton begins the general election in the post position. She has led in every head-to-head poll against Trump over the last two months, with an average margin of 9.6 points. Five Thirty Eight’s Nate Silver produced an Electoral College projection based on a ten- to eleven-point win, showing Clinton adding Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina to President Obama’s winning 2012 map. Recent polling shows Trump behind in Utah and barely holding on to Mississippi.
Even if you believe Trump’s vicious ways and lunch bucket appeal will eventually narrow the gap, the current state of the race, at minimum, broadens her playing field. She can compete in more states and pursue a wider ideological and demographical range of voters than any Democratic presidential candidate since 1964.
However, she doesn’t begin the campaign with a fully unified Democratic Party, as many Bernie Sanders supporters routinely disparage Clinton as a war-mongering tool of Wall Street. And right-leaning voters are swinging her way not because they love her but because Trump would literally be the worst person ever to be nominated president in all of American history (and no, I have not forgotten John Breckinridge).
Since she can’t lock down the pro-Bernie left and woo the anti-Trump right with the same message, she has some big strategic decisions to make.
Does she want to pursue a 55 percent-plus coalition? An enormous landslide is sorely tempting and could produce a big governing mandate. But if she reaches too far right she could lose the skeptical left. (The Green Party’s Jill Stein, for one, is hungrily eyeing Sanders voters) If she campaigns on a vague all-things-to-all-people message, she risks being skewered by Trump as a typical politician. And if she wins anyway, the big vote total won’t translate to a specific mandate.
But for a proud pragmatist like Clinton, a muddled mandate may be a feature, not a bug. To win by replicating Obama’s sturdier if narrower low-50s coalition would require more tending to the populist left. Broadening her coalition means freeing herself from the left and expanding her governing latitude. We need not assume that’s what she wants; but her choices going forward will be telling.
While Sanders has pulled her left in several areas, she was careful not to go places she thought would make her vulnerable in the general or pin her down once in office. She often leaned on a preference for local decision-making—on a $15 minimum wage and a ban on fracking—to avoid embracing rigid federal standards that might not fly in certain swing states.
She rebuffed Sanders’s pressure to back a “carbon tax,” clearly envisioning the Republican attack ads that would swamp coal-friendly, economically strapped Ohio. She talked up her Wall Street regulatory plan but wouldn’t match Sanders in calling for the big banks to be broken up. She opposed the Keystone pipeline, but has not embraced the “keep it in the ground” mantra that would halt any further fossil fuel extraction. She drew a line against Sanders on taxes, saying, “I will not raise taxes on the middle class.” Later, they seemingly reversed roles, as she was alone in supporting a soda tax proposed by the mayor of Philadelphia to fund universal preschool, although, yet again, she supported it as a local measure, not for national policy.
And from the beginning, she lightly salted her rhetoric with general election pivot points. Back in April 2015, she was telling small business owners she wanted to get rid of “more expensive, more red tape, unnecessary regulations that have really put a damper” on their growth. In September she said in Ohio, “I get accused of being kind of moderate and center. I plead guilty.” (Clinton took the Ohio primary by winning handily the “moderate” vote and edging Sanders in the “somewhat liberal” vote.)
All that is run-of-the-mill general election positioning, useful for pursuing the usual swing voters in the usual swing states. But the #NeverTrump movement opens the possibility of unusual voter targets. National security hawks like Max Boot, who has said he would support Clinton over Trump because “at least Clinton is informed and serious on foreign policy issues.” Economic conservatives like Charles Koch, who ripped Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country, then opened the door to supporting Clinton if “we … believe her actions would be quite different than her rhetoric.”
Of course, Clinton has little incentive to land a Koch endorsement, which would only fuel the worst suspicions of Sanders’s supporters. But his comments are a sign that many in the business world, as well as other ideological free-marketeers, will be inclined to back the stability provided by a President Clinton over the havoc one can expect a President Trump to wreak on global markets.
So how far can Clinton go to run up the score? Fortunately for her, there won’t be much need to stretch on policy specifics.
She already marked her middle ground on foreign policy. Despite Sanders’s attacks on her “judgment,” she did not flinch from defending her role in the U.N.-backed Libya intervention and her support for a no-fly zone in Syria. There’s no incentive for her to drift rightward on trade when free-traders already prefer her to Trump (perhaps thinking “her actions would be quite different than her rhetoric”), and she won’t want to give him an opening in the Rust Belt.
On taxes, she has proposed a mainstream Democratic package of increases on the wealthy and reduction of corporate loopholes. Yet the financial newspaper Barron’s concluded, after interviewing various Wall Streeters, that her overall agenda and style is “more investor-friendly” than Trump’s because his budget numbers are “fiscally impractical” and “his aggressive tariff threats could cause turmoil with our trading partners.” While wealthy investors may not love her tax plans, they don’t consider her proposals to be so radical that they couldn’t be “easily processed by markets.” Significant domestic policy concessions to the investor class don’t appear necessary.
Where the terrain gets tricky for Clinton is tone and emphasis. During the primary, the ratio of her defining herself as a “progressive who gets things done” to pleading guilty to being “moderate and center” was about 1000 to 1. How much can she reduce that ratio without triggering Sanders voters’s suspicions and turning them Green?
And what issues will she choose to emphasize, if any? In the primary, she had a position paper for almost every issue, tied together by the theme (road-tested since 2013) of “breaking down barriers.” But she hasn’t relentlessly pounded two or three issues the way Sanders pounded breaking up the banks and ending corporate money in politics. That could change in the general. If so, which issues she picks would indicate which camp of voters she’s most concerned about impressing.
Or, she could elevate issues that have the potential to transcend ideology, such as expanded access to preschool, which has attracted support from some Republican governors. She could focus on foreign policy, but avoid choosing philosophical sides by using Trump’s own words to hammer him as too unstable to be commander-in-chief (replicating the Lyndon Johnson strategy against Barry Goldwater).
A somewhat more daring move would be to stick with her gun control message, which she leaned on heavily to get to Sanders’s left on something, even though it’s an issue Democrats have downplayed for years in order to compete (successfully) in swing states with above-average gun ownership. But after Sandy Hook, Clinton may have concluded that modest gun control is no longer a third rail.
When a candidate starts a race ahead by nearly 10 points, it’s hard to argue she needs to do X, Y, or Z in order to win. The strategic choices before her probably will not affect the outcome of the race more than the second quarter economic data and the rock-bottom unfavorability ratings of her opponent. But the choices she makes with her political rhetoric and her issue priorities will speak volumes regarding the kind of presidency she envisions and the coalition she believes she needs to succeed.