New Dem rulebook: Don’t criticize Hillary

New Dem rulebook: Don’t criticize Hillary

Liberals on Capitol Hill are showing a reluctance to criticize Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Democrats fear Ohio slipping further away in 2020 Poll: Warren leads Biden in Maine by 12 points MORE, even when the Democratic presidential front-runner refuses to take a position on their priorities.

Clinton has been slammed by primary opponents and outside liberal groups for declining to take sides in several prominent fights, including over the Keystone XL Pipeline, the $15 minimum wage and President Obama’s nascent trade deal with Pacific Rim nations.

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Yet liberal lawmakers, who are not usually shrinking violets when it comes to promoting their agenda, have largely given Clinton cover.  

That dynamic was on full display last week, when Clinton avoided weighing in on the Keystone debate by telling reporters, “If it’s undecided when I become president, I will answer your question.” 

Her answer was denounced by the environmentalists fighting tooth and nail against the pipeline but endorsed by even the staunchest Democratic critics of the project.

Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyState Dept. official told to 'lay low' after voicing concerns about Giuliani: Dem lawmaker Democrats see John Bolton as potential star witness Top State official warned of Trump pressure campaign against Ukraine: report MORE (D-Va.), a Clinton backer who has opposed GOP efforts to approve the pipeline ahead of the administration’s drawn-out review, said Clinton is under no obligation to assert a position. 

“The only people who think that are media. Voters don’t think that,” said Connolly, who cited Clinton’s role as secretary of State and her recent unveiling of a climate change agenda in defending her silence.

“There may be voters who want her to do it, but the fact that you want her to do it, or you have the expectation that she ought to do it, doesn’t mean she has to, or will, or that voters care.”

The trade debate has followed a similar arc. Liberals on and off Capitol Hill have hammered the administration’s negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a sweeping 12-nation accord that would affect as much as 40 percent of the global economy — as a boon for corporations that would devastate the environment and clobber American workers. 

But Clinton, who backed the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement that was anathema to labor unions, largely steered clear of the debate.

“Any trade deal has to produce jobs and raise wages and increase prosperity and protect our security,” Clinton said during a New Hampshire campaign stop earlier this year.

She also declined to take a firm position on whether Obama should be granted fast-track trade powers, saying only during the Senate debate that she would not vote for it unless she was “absolutely confident that we would get Trade Adjustment Assistance.” That program was later reauthorized.

Even so, some of the fiercest opponents of Obama’s trade agenda — including Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) — have already endorsed Clinton as their choice for president.

There are several likely reasons for the wariness of Democrats to criticize Clinton on contentious issues. 

For one, she’s in agreement with the lawmakers on the vast majority of the party’s agenda.

Indeed, the Democrats were all praise after Clinton swept through the Capitol last month, meeting with the full Democratic conference and carving out smaller audiences with black, Hispanic, progressive and Asian-Pacific lawmakers.

The Democrats who attended those meetings almost universally hailed Clinton’s strong advocacy for an overhaul of the immigration system, education reforms, tougher environmental standards, new efforts at urban renewal, and criminal justice reforms among a long list of other issues. 

“She’s speaking very much about the values of the Democratic Party and the priorities of the Democratic Party, which I think she’s enthusiastically supporting,” Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) said after one of those meetings. “There was a terrific energy around the stuff that she’s committed to.”

Second, Clinton is not only leading the Democratic primary pack, but she’s also a part of a powerful political family that many lawmakers don’t want to alienate — and that some fear.

Bill and Hillary Clinton are known for their long memories, and aides to Hillary have boasted about how they crafted a political hit list after her defeat in the 2008 primary race that included Democratic lawmakers.

Finally, and perhaps most trenchantly, liberal lawmakers don’t want to highlight any Democratic divisions during a primary season when they’re facing a GOP field and a Republican-led Congress rife with infighting and disagreement over the most pressing issues of the day.

Politically, Democrats have every incentive to hold their tongues while the Republicans battle among themselves.

Not every liberal, though, is ready to give Clinton a pass. 

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio New study: Full-scale 'Medicare for All' costs trillion over 10 years MORE (I-Vt.), who’s challenging Clinton with a presidential bid of his own, has repeatedly gone after the former New York senator for her reluctance to take a clear stand on Keystone, trade and the federal minimum wage.

Positioning himself as the populist alternative to Clinton, Sanders has strongly opposed both the pipeline and Obama’s Trans-Pacific trade pact. And last month he introduced legislation increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.

“I think the secretary,” Sanders said last month, “has not been quite so clear on those issues.”

Devin Henry contributed