How Does HRC Define Success?

There an interesting thumbsucker on Hillary Clinton from Patrick Healy and Maggie Haberman at the New York Times today which seeks to frame her entire campaign in terms of what she can reasonably expect to accomplish as president.

The positive thing for her is that the piece offers the first major MSM acknowledgement of something that was axiomatic twenty years ago: HRC was the leader of the liberal faction in her husband’s administration. Interestingly, the chief witness called to testify to that fact is none other than DLC Founder Al From, who was on the other side of the barricades from HRC in more than one internal Clinton Era argument. But in any event, remembering her history is helpful in constructing a non-cynical interpretation of what everyone is calling her “move to the left” in the current campaign, and also in reminding voters she is not simply a surrogate for Bill.

But then Healy and Haberman proceed to measure Clinton’s economic agenda against its acceptability by the public and by Republicans, and find it too ambitious:

The question is whether the lofty vision she is articulating as a candidate for the Democratic nomination is one that can be turned into a mandate if she is elected president.

“The problem for Hillary is that the country itself isn’t hungering for liberalism,” said Jeremy Mayer, an associate professor of politics at George Mason University. “Republicans will be well-positioned to say to Hillary, ‘Great, and how are you going to pay for that?’”

Large majorities of Americans say in opinion polls that the federal government is too big or too powerful, creating a risk that Mrs. Clinton’s proposals could overreach and turn off some voters.

As I’m sure these writers know, polls perpetually show voters agreeing with conservatives on abstract assessments of the size and power of government and with progressives on most individual policy initiatives. Part of the former “consensus” revolves around the periodic failure of “big government” to redeem the promise of the latter initiatives. If the hostility to “big government” was as large and clear as this article makes it sound, Barack Obama would not have won the last two presidential elections.

But whatever; I suppose “balance” in campaign coverage these days means letting some dude from George Mason articulate the “center-right nation” hypothesis.

My bigger concern is that we are being told HRC cannot “succeed” unless she is somehow offering an agenda a Republican Congress can embrace. Near the end of the article Chuck Schumer is quoted expressing the hope that a third straight presidential defeat will finally (to use the president’s term) break the fever of GOP radicalism and create potential partners for HRC on a items like universal pre-K or paid family leave. That would be nice, and it’s theoretically possible, but I sure wouldn’t bet the farm on it, particularly if Republicans continue to control Congress.

And so we come to the big missing ingredient in the Healy/Haberman analysis of HRC’s ability to “succeed:” the accomplishment of preventing the demolition of everything accomplished by the last two Democratic presidents, and perhaps others dating back to the New Deal, by a Republican president and a Republican Congress. Isn’t that worth mentioning? It sure will be in the back of the minds of Democratic voters as they decide the presidential nomination, and I’d be shocked if Team Hillary doesn’t use electability as a concern about Bernie Sanders if he continues to do relatively well in early-state polls. Beyond that, HRC can pretty easily present herself as someone offering a progressive but realistic agenda at best, but at worst a firm line against some sort of conservative counter-revolution. Bipartisan gestures in her Senate days notwithstanding, Hillary Clinton has never displayed the sort of hungry need to please that sometimes pushed her husband into deals with Republicans he should probably not have executed. And one good thing for her about a competitive primary competition is that it will enable her to make it clear that while she’s not going to please activist audiences by plumping for single-payer health care or jailing bankers or cutting the defense budget by 20%, she’s not going to give an inch on existing progressive commitments just in order to “get things done.” It’s the bad things undone that in the end could be her, or any Democrat’s, legacy in the next few years.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.