Clinton embraces the left

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Hillary Clinton is embracing the left.

The Democratic presidential front-runner has long come under fire from liberals for what they consider a hawkish approach to national security and a too-cozy relationship with banks and other well-heeled interests.

{mosads}But on the campaign trail this year, Clinton has adopted a tone — and rolled out policy after policy — that seems straight from the playbook of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the benchmark of liberal thinking on Capitol Hill.

The trend leftward reached a new level last week, when Clinton introduced a sweeping $350 billion proposal to reduce the burden of exploding tuition debt for millions of college students and graduates — a provision included in the Progressive Caucus’s budget for the first time this year.

Clinton has also adopted proposals on immigration, education, voting rights and criminal justice that are winning strong reviews from leading liberal Democrats.

The leftward tilt comes as Clinton faces an unexpectedly strong challenge from liberal stalwart Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who overtook her in one recent poll of New Hampshire voters. Clinton is also seen as vulnerable because of the controversy surrounding the private email server she used as secretary of State, which she is now turning over to the Department of Justice.

The problems have led to discussions about whether Vice President Biden or even Al Gore, the Democrat’s 2000 presidential nominee, could enter the race to challenge Clinton, the overwhelming front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

As such, Clinton’s shift to the left could help her with a restive base.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a co-chairman of the Progressive Caucus, said Democrats have been, for too long, “trying to walk a thin line” of centrism that’s bucked their base. Clinton, by backing strong liberal policies, is sending the message that the party is ready to veer in another direction.

“The platform is for a large part dictated by the nominee,” said Grijalva, who has not yet endorsed a primary candidate. “It stresses who we are as a party, and I think it’s good.”

Clinton’s embrace of the liberal agenda is not universal.

Liberal Democrats are eager to see her endorse universal childcare for working families, take a stronger position on efforts to combat climate change and adopt their push to expand Social Security, which both Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, another 2016 White House contender, are advocating.

Also causing some consternation on the left, Clinton has largely declined to enter the high-profile fights over Obama’s trade agenda and the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Sanders, for one, has repeatedly criticized her silence on those issues, trumpeting his strong opposition to both in an effort to draw distinctions between his populist policies and those of Clinton.

“Secretary Clinton and I disagree on a number of issues,” Sanders said last month.

Yet liberals are also seeing in Clinton’s policy proposals an acknowledgement by the Democratic establishment that the party needs stronger champions of core Democratic ideals, which many feel have been too often neglected under President Obama and previous Democratic administrations.

Clinton’s embrace of a liberal agenda began early. In her first major policy speech in April, she called for sweeping reforms to the criminal justice system — an issue that’s gained national prominence over the last year amid a rash of killings of young unarmed blacks by police officers.

“It’s time to change our approach,” Clinton said at the time. “It’s time to end the era of mass incarceration. We don’t want to create another incarceration generation.”

On immigration, Clinton has taken a similar tack, pushing for comprehensive reforms that include a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants and vowing to expand President Obama’s highly controversial executive actions freeing many of those same immigrants from the threat of deportation.

“If Congress continues to refuse to act, as president, I would do everything possible under the law to go even further,” Clinton said in Nevada in May.

That platform, a virtual wish-list for immigration reformers on and off Capitol Hill, marks a clear shift left from the more moderate views Clinton adopted in the 2008 race for the White House.

But the college-debt proposal is perhaps the firmest indication that Clinton is making her campaign a liberal one, at once drawing sharp distinctions between herself and the Republicans while stemming fears on the left that she would run as a centrist alternative to the conservative-leaning GOP field.

Unveiled Monday, the proposal aims to free current college students of their mounting debt by providing federal money to states to eliminate the need for tuition loans. It would also benefit graduates by reducing interest rates on existing obligations. The plan would cost $350 billion over 10 years, paid for largely by eliminating tax deductions for the wealthiest Americans.

Liberals wasted no time praising the proposal.

“Glad to see Hillary Clinton adopting the @USProgressives framework for debt-free college,” tweeted Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the other co-chairman of the Progressive Caucus. 

Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal advocacy group that’s criticized Clinton in the past, said she’s hopeful the college debt proposal is a sign of more to come. 

“The way for Democrats to win in 2016 is with big, bold, economic populist ideas that impact people’s lives, and Hillary Clinton is smart to pay attention,” Taylor said in an email. “It’s been good to see Hillary Clinton taking up progressive issues like debt-free college. Let’s hope we see more policies from her campaign that challenge power.”

Some liberals are looking the other way on trade and Keystone, saying her work as Obama’s secretary of State puts her in a uniquely awkward position to oppose those projects while the president is still in office. They’re encouraged by her strategic decision not to endorse either.

“The fact that she hasn’t said anything [on trade or Keystone] is actually pretty telling,” said one liberal Democratic aide.

Leaders of the Progressive Caucus have often felt they were shouting into the wind under the Obama administration. They howled when Obama proposed a cut to Social Security as part of his 2014 budget proposal, and they’ve long argued that the president has been too willing to compromise liberal principles in the name of reaching across the aisle to GOP leaders, especially in the search for big deficit-reducing budget plans.

In their annual budget, CPC leaders have promoted sweeping reforms designed to bolster the middle class, arguing that efforts to dabble at the edges of economic policy have only benefited the wealthy while workers’ wages have stagnated. They’re pushing proposals to establish wage equality between the genders, mandatory paid leave, universal childcare, an expansion of Social Security benefits and a higher minimum wage.

Clinton, perhaps influenced by pressure from Sanders, has largely heeded the calls by adopting liberal positions on a host of issues. She’s pushing for a higher (though yet unspecified) minimum wage; she’s calling for universal voter registration; she’s endorsed Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran; and she’s floated the idea of adopting a constitutional amendment to limit the influence of money in political campaigns.

Equally as important, liberals say, she’s framing her campaign with the tone of an economic populist, declining to join the effort — supported by even some moderate Democrats — for lower corporate tax rates and an elimination of certain provisions of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law.

Grijalva said Clinton’s shift is simply “common sense.” Not only has she embraced positions that are popular with voters, he argued, but she’s also sending the message that she’s an independent thinker who would lead differently from her husband, former President Bill Clinton, whose legacy on issues such as trade and Wall Street reform have long been panned by the left.

“Asserting that independence … distinguishes her,” Grijalva said. “I think she’s done the smart thing.”

Tags Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Hillary Clinton Martin O'Malley Raul Grijalva

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