Hillary Clinton must look to the left to succeed in 2016
The US presidential hopeful will try to satisfy both her friends on Wall Street and the core values of the Democratic Party base
The launch of Hillary Clinton’s second presidential campaign has been accompanied by a cacophony of analysis focusing mostly on the practical details of her operation – the rollout of her candidacy; the honing of her image; the composition of her team; its use of data and technology; and her appeal to key demographic groups. But if she is to succeed where she failed in 2008, her policies are likely to be more important than her personality or even the efficiency of her campaign organisation.
It was a policy issue – her senate vote to authorise the 2003 Iraq war – that opened up a flank on her left in the Democratic primary race eight years ago and created the space for Barack Obama to emerge as a serious challenger. The war in Iraq was the great animating issue for much of the Democratic Party’s activist base, especially for younger, more radical activists, and Clinton found herself trapped on the wrong side of it. Afraid to admit her vote had been wrong in case she would be perceived as weak, she allowed the war to become a rallying point against her. In Obama, her opponents found an unusually gifted, charismatic politician, whose disciplined, adaptable campaign outmanoeuvred an increasingly dysfunctional Clinton machine. But without the galvanising issue of opposition to the Iraq war to distinguish him so sharply from Clinton, it is at least possible that his campaign would not have gained sufficient traction to dislodge her as the frontrunner.
Today, the issue that drives Democratic activists more than any other is income inequality and its impact on middle- and lower-income Americans who have seen their living standards decline under both George W Bush and Obama, and who see little prospect of sharing in the fruits of economic recovery. Here, Clinton is much closer to her party’s base than her chumminess with Wall Street and her vast speaking fees from investment banks like Goldman Sachs might suggest. Always to the left of her husband on economic and social issues, she has made a number of recent speeches on issues related to income inequality, such as social mobility and paid parental leave for workers.
Chastened by 2008, Clinton’s team plans to fight for the Democratic nomination as if she is the underdog, channelling her experience when she first ran for the senate in New York in 2000. Dismissed as a carpetbagger, she faced New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was such a runaway favourite that he hardly bothered to campaign in upstate New York, the more conservative part of the state. Clinton went there, immersing herself in the issues that mattered to its communities and attending every agricultural fair and shaking every hand she could find. Giuliani bowed out and Clinton defeated his replacement, Rick Lazio. We can expect a similar campaign for the Democratic nomination this time, emphasising humility over celebrity and avoiding any appearance of a sense of entitlement. Denis Staunton is Deputy Editor and a former Washington Correspondent