Safe Change

An awful lot of the argument about HRC’s positioning–and her launch, for that matter–involves her relationship to two things, one a person–Obama–and one a concept–change. I think Greg Sargent has captured where Team Hillary comes down on these entwined issues:

[I]nternal Clinton polling shows frustration with Washington gridlock but not necessarily a desire for a wholesale break from Obama’s policies. Public polling has shown a desire for such a break, but Clinton’s pollster, Joel Benenson, is known to put much more stock in his own nuanced, fine-grained research.

I strongly suspect the Clinton campaign has concluded that Americans are exhausted by the ideological death struggles of the Obama presidency, and that swing voters and independents don’t see the Obama years as quite the smoking apocalyptic hellscape Republicans continue to describe. With the GOP hoping to terrify voters with the prospect of Hillary-as-Obama-third-term, and with the 2016 GOP hopefuls zealously vowing to roll back the Obama presidency, Republicans will likely continue re-litigating how awful the Obama years have supposedly been. The Clinton gamble is that swing voters don’t want to hear this argument anymore; that they agree Obama’s policies have not turned the economy around fast enough, but think this was understandable given the circumstances and don’t see those policies as an utter, abject failure.

Here’s a corollary of what Greg is saying that progressives who want HRC to come out all Elizabeth Warren need to think about: they may be asking for more of a “change” message than the campaign is willing to undertake independently of how they feel about Wall Street or “populism.” In this context, it’s important to remember that an awful lot of people in Hillaryland–probably including the candidate and her husband–think Al Gore blew the 2000 election (at least by failing to put away Bush to an extent that the Supreme Court could not reverse it) by running a populist “change” campaign when the status quo was popular. Indeed, George W. Bush, with a radical agenda, was allowed to present himself as the candidate of “safe change,” much as Bill Clinton did in 1992 and 1996. No, Obama is not as popular today as Clinton was in 2000, and the economy isn’t nearly as strong, but still: it’s not easy to calibrate how much “change” one should embrace against the record of a two-term president, especially when the opposition is highly vulnerable to the charge of promoting unsafe change.

If I had to guess, I’d figure the HRC campaign is going to be constantly measuring and recalibrating the degree of “change” it should embrace, quite possibly right down to November of 2016. If the economy tanks, then she’ll have to take some much bigger risks, though hopefully not of the type chosen by John McCain in 2008 when he faced a collapsing economy managed by his own party’s unpopular two-term president. But if that doesn’t happen, and then Republicans have another clown-car nomination process that produces an extremist nominee or a nominee in thrall to extremists, it’s probably not going to make a lot of sense for HRC to emphasize the “change” part of her message over the “safe” part. And no, that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s sold out to Wall Street.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.