Liberal Democrats feel the wind is at their backs, making it all the more irksome for them that Hillary Clinton could be their presidential nominee in 2016.
For many on the left, Clinton is the woman who supported the Iraq War, ran to the right of President Obama and is associated with the Wall Street-friendly centrism espoused by her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
Progressives feel they are in a political golden age in which questions about income inequality are growing louder, anti-gay marriage laws are falling and the growing Hispanic electorate regards the GOP with skepticism. Given all that, they don’t want to be stuck with a standard-bearer they see as too centrist.
But some are making it clear they will seek to push her to the left.
“If Hillary Clinton embraces the rising economic populist tide in America, there will be little political space for a credible primary challenger,” said Laura Friedenbach of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “But if she sides with big corporations against everyday people, there will be a huge amount of political space for some insurgent to run on an economic populist platform.”
“Every candidate who thinks about running will be faced with a whole set of questions, on holding Wall Street accountable, on combatting student debt, on expanding social security,” said Ilya Sheyman, the executive director of MoveOn.Org Political Action. “Whether it’s Secretary Clinton or Sen. Warren or others, all of them are going to have to address the issues that progressives really care about.”
Many progressives yearn for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to run, though she has been adamant she will not.
If she were to run, she would be the leading candidate on the left. With her out, others are auditioning for the role of the un-Clinton.
“I am prepared to run for president of the United States,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told The Nation, perhaps the closest the left has to an in-house publication, in March.
Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) caused a stir last week, when he was the subject of a lengthy Wall Street Journal profile assessing his 2016 chances.
But neither figure possess the star power that would make for a real risk to Clinton, assuming she runs.
Democratic strategists are deeply skeptical that candidates other than Warren could have the financial or logistical support to mount a meaningful challenge.
“To be in the running, you have to have a national network [and] enough money to put together a ground operation in Iowa and New Hampshire,” said New York-based Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. “You need the money, the organization and the national network. And the only person who has evidenced all three is Secretary Clinton.”
The left can point to hard data, not just wishful thinking, when it comes to its current optimism.
In a New Republic article late last year headlined, “Elizabeth Warren is Hillary Clinton’s worst nightmare,” liberal journalist Noam Scheiber noted a spate of polls that showed Democratic voters are “more attuned to economic inequality than before the Obama presidency and more supportive of Social Security and Medicare. They’ve grown fonder of regulation and more skeptical of big business. A recent Pew Poll showed that voters under 30 — who skew overwhelmingly Democratic — view socialism more favorably than capitalism.”
Those are the kind of findings that buoy the left.
Still, other voices on both sides of the political spectrum wonder if liberals might be overstating their dominance.
President Obama, elected with the left's full ardor (and with a Democratic Congress) in 2008, has achieved much of his agenda but has still left many progressives disappointed.
Conservatives do not believe that heightened awareness of economic inequality axiomatically leads to support for the left’s preferred solutions.
“They argue for redistribution of wealth. Well, there are two major ways to do that — by massive tax increases or by more social programs,” said veteran GOP consultant Ed Rollins. “That’s a very tough sell, politically. There are constituencies within the Democratic Party that have benefitted from those things, but I don’t think they are issues that are going to win them elections.”
Democratic strategists simply doubt that Clinton is vulnerable, no matter the left’s discontent.
Chris Lehane, who worked in the Clinton White House, argues that Beltway chatter considerably underestimates the former first lady’s popularity among Democrats of all ideological stripes.
“Ask anyone outside of Washington D.C. about her, and you’ll see there is a reason why she is so extraordinarily high in all these polls. Whether you are left or center, there is a tremendous amount of support out there.”
Contemplating the possibility of a true leftist emerging to defeat Clinton and then win a general election, Sheinkopf put it just as pithily.
“There is no question that the issues of income inequality and lack of educational opportunity for those on the lower end of the income scale have become more pronounced,” he said, “In a general election now, is there a higher theoretical probability that someone focused on those issues would win? Probably, yes.
“But that doesn’t mean it’s gonna happen.”