Commentary Magazine


What Hillary Learned in 2008: Lean Left

Few doubt that Hillary Clinton is already gearing up to run for president in 2016, but her speech yesterday at the American Bar Association conference in San Francisco made it clear that the former First Lady and secretary of state is not only preparing for that race but that she is thinking about the one she lost in 2008. While Clinton’s remarks attacking the Supreme Court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act was pure liberal boilerplate material, it is a sign she understands that the only possible danger to her candidacy is leaving too much room to her left, as she did five years ago.

Right now it appears as if Clinton will win the 2016 Democratic nomination by acclamation. After serving as President Obama’s loyal and largely ineffectual soldier at the State Department, there is a widespread expectation in her party that Clinton has earned the nomination. Moreover, Democrats also believe, not without reason, that Clinton could win the presidency largely on the strength of being the first woman to be elected to it. But unlike an incumbent like Barack Obama, Clinton is aware that some Democrat(s) will take a flier on opposing her and that while another upset like 2008 is utterly unlikely, there could be an opportunity to make a splash by running to her left as the true progressive in the race. As Richard Cohen pointed out today in the Washington Post, Clinton has always lacked an overriding message in her political career. The only point to it has been her ambition and sense of entitlement. That didn’t work in 2008, and if she has learned anything from that shocking defeat it will be that she must work harder at convincing her party’s base that she will please them.

That’s where her rhetoric about the Voting Rights Act comes in. Her arguments about it gutting the achievement of the civil-rights movement are as nonsensical as any others coming from the left. So, too, is her attempt to chime in with the racial huckster crowd by labeling voter integrity laws as racist. Most Americans, including most minorities, have no problems with voter ID procedures, including the comprehensive bill passed and signed recently in North Carolina. It’s not an issue that has much traction with the general public, but it plays well with Democratic primary voters and the African American community.

Securing her left flank is an important aspect of her presidential strategy because while it is difficult to envision a liberal insurgency stopping her from being the first female major-party presidential candidate, there is a clear opening for someone on the left to raise a ruckus by providing an alternative to Clinton in the primaries and the caucuses. That probably won’t be Vice President Joe Biden, even if he is sniffing around Iowa this week. But you can count on someone on the left being smart enough to know that being the Democratic gadfly in 2016 will be a good way to lay down the foundation for a future run for the presidency.

The problem for Hillary is that it won’t be enough for her to play the adult in the race, as she did in 2008 with her famous 3 a.m. phone call ad (a campaign theme that seems highly ironic given the fact that she was apparently MIA when the phone call came in from Benghazi last September). What Democratic primary voters want is left-wing red meat. Barack Obama gave it to them in 2008 by being the anti-war candidate and you can bet that there will be someone willing to hound Clinton from the left in 2016.

That’s why she has to work harder to pander to liberals and blacks now with misleading speeches about voting rights to ensure that the window on the left is sufficiently narrow to ensure that her opposition is a token liberal rather than someone with the ability to chip away at her. She wants to spend 2016 running for a general election win (as did Obama in 2012), not fending off ideological challengers from within her own party, as Mitt Romney had to do last year.

That’s why we can expect more of the same when she speaks next month in Philadelphia on national security issues and, in particular, the furor over the National Security Agency’s monitoring of communications. We should expect her to use that speech to tilt again to the left rather than to defend the policies of the administration she served. That will be irresponsible and illustrate the same lack of principle she has shown throughout her career. But Clinton remembers 2008, and if she fails next time it will not be because she was insufficiently liberal.

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