Obama leaves Clinton with a Democratic Party moving left

Getty Images

Hillary Clinton is entering uncharted political terrain as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, with President Obama leaving behind a more liberal party than the one he inherited in 2009. 

On hot-button social issues from gay marriage to gun control to immigration, the Democratic Party has been transformed during Obama’s eight years in office.

{mosads}The leftward shift is ongoing, with liberal activists pressing Obama and Clinton to move in their direction on trade and the expansion of entitlement programs such as Social Security.

The shift poses a challenge for Clinton, who is set to become the Democratic nominee after surviving an unexpectedly strong primary challenge from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-proclaimed democratic socialist.

“She is someone who is very progressive and a proud liberal,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, who backs Clinton. “But the issue is that many in the party have moved even more left in recent years. … She can’t afford to antagonize these folks as we move closer and closer to the general election.” 

On several issues, the Democratic Party is unrecognizable from the one that existed when Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, came to power in the 1990s. 

At the time, Bill Clinton’s brand of centrism was ascendant. He won reelection in part on a strategy of “triangulation” that capitalized on issues popular in the center, including welfare reform and criminal sentencing laws, solidifying the influence of so-called New Democrats. 

The Clinton brand of centrism is now in danger of dying off. Not only is the party more liberal than it was in the ’90s, it’s more liberal than it was in 2008, the first time Hillary Clinton ran for the White House.

Forty-seven percent of self-identified Democrats describe themselves as economic and social liberals, according to a Gallup poll released last June. That’s up from 39 percent in 2008 and 30 percent in 2001, the year Bill Clinton left office. 

The rapid change in the party has alarmed some centrist Democrats, who fear the party risks defeat in November by moving too far out of the mainstream on economic issues.

“Democrats, from the progressive left to the center, are mostly united on these social issues. That wasn’t the case 20 years ago, and we’re very, very happy about it,” said Jim Kessler, senior vice president for policy at the center-left think tank Third Way. 

“But on these economic issues, if the party moves too far left, Donald Trump will be president.” 

Facing a tough challenge from Sanders, Hillary Clinton was forced during the primaries to prove her progressive bona fides and craft a political identity separate from her husband’s.

She did so by abandoning her support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal negotiated by Obama; by embracing calls for gun control; by endorsing an expansion of Social Security benefits; and by championing LGBT rights and immigration reform.

Now she must pull off the high-wire act of appealing to general election voters while energizing the liberal base.  

Centrist Democrats argue it would be a mistake for Clinton to stray from a core message focused on middle-class jobs, education and economic growth. Sanders-style rhetoric on income inequality, they say, will do little to expand the party’s appeal. 

“I don’t think talking about those things is sufficient for us to win back majority status in Congress as well as the White House,” Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) told The Hill. 

“We have to have a message for the suburbs and the exurbs … that’s about economic growth, not just about economic grievance,” he said. “A message about economic grievance only goes so far. I am not denying the legitimacy of the grievances. But to go out and win, we have to have a broader message for the suburbs.” 

But it remains to be seen whether the style of populism championed by Sanders will be a liability in November. Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, has tapped into the same vein of economic discontent as Sanders with calls to renegotiate trade deals that he says have betrayed American workers.

“We’re living in an economic populist moment,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “The winner of the general election will be the candidate who has the volume highest on populist ideas.”

The Democrats’ left-hand turn is likely to be remembered as a hallmark of the Obama era, even though the president was often caught playing catch-up.

Obama supported stricter gun laws, such as an assault weapons ban, during his first run for president. But he was more likely to stress his support for the Second Amendment on the stump instead and sidestep the divisive debate over gun control. 

One of the lowest moments of his campaign came when he was caught on tape saying voters in Pennsylvania and the Midwest “cling to guns or religion … as a way to explain their frustrations.” 

Clinton, then-Obama’s primary opponent, criticized his comments and fondly recalled how her grandfather taught her how to shoot.  

Obama didn’t make a serious push on gun control in his first term. But after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in late 2012, which followed his last campaign, Obama became an unapologetic champion of gun control 

Similarly, Obama opposed same-sex marriage during his 2008 campaign but endorsed it in May 2012, an announcement that came a year after public support for gay marriage eclipsed opposition for the first time. 

Obama’s Justice Department is also suing the state of North Carolina over a controversial transgender bathroom law, the same state where Obama will campaign with Clinton for the first time this week.  

The shifts on gay marriage and guns have pleased liberal groups, who often groaned about Obama’s penchant to shy away from social issues during his first term.  

But much to their chagrin, Obama has dug in his heels on the Pacific Rim trade deal.  

Connolly, who supports the deal, conceded that Clinton’s shift on the trade deal — combined with Trump’s opposition — would make it nearly impossible to ratify the agreement if she is elected. 

“Given her position and given how Democrats are going to get elected … that portends ominously for the future of free trade agreements any time soon,” he said. “If the TPP is not brought up and addressed in the lame-duck [session of Congress], I think its prospects in the next Congress are very dim.” 

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video