Hillary Clinton's Problem Isn't That She's Not Progressive, It's That She's Cautious

Many of her struggles stem from the political calculations she's made in her career.
Hillary Clinton has been fending off attacks that she's not progressive enough.
Hillary Clinton has been fending off attacks that she's not progressive enough.

DERRY, N.H. -- Back in May 2015, when Hillary Clinton's status as a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination seemed slightly more secure, a few of her former aides came to The Huffington Post to discuss what she truly was like as a person and politician.

One of the misconceptions that Patti Solis Doyle, one of her closest aides since the 1990s, and Tracy Sefl, her former campaign aide and staunch supporter, sought to dispel was that she was not actually progressive. And the specific topic they addressed was same-sex marriage, since Clinton had just given an interview to NPR that was, at best, awkward in explaining her views on the issue.

HuffPost asked Doyle if she believed Clinton was always comfortable with same-sex marriage, despite her previous public opposition.

"Yes I do," Doyle said. "Like so many people, views have evolved, right? We are moving with the times, but she has always been comfortable with gay people and gay couples."

Eight months later, Clinton is no longer the solid front-runner she once seemed to be. And her struggles are owed in large part to the political calculations she's made in her career and that Doyle's comments illustrate.

The former first lady and Secretary of State is currently under assault from Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) campaign for not being sufficiently progressive.

"Most progressives that I know really do not raise millions of dollars from Wall Street," Sanders said Wednesday.

On several issues, her record has indeed run more to the ideological center than a pure progressive would like. But the charge glosses over a larger point: Clinton's vulnerability, longtime observers insist, is a tendency towards caution and incrementalism and a willingness to occasionally suppress beliefs out of perceived expediency.

"I'm a progressive who likes to get things done," Clinton responded Wednesday during the CNN town hall to address the criticism.

Indeed, throughout much of her husband's career, she was viewed as an interloping hippie. The attacks were often gendered -- going after Clinton for keeping her maiden name -- but some of them were ideological as well. 

"The right started its 20-year jihad against Hillary precisely because she was an advocate for progressive causes and a champion of equal rights," said Neera Tanden, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress.

Clinton often clashed against the centrists in her husband's White House. One famous example was successfully pushing then-President Bill Clinton to veto bankruptcy reform legislation in the late 1990s, when she joined forces with Elizabeth Warren, who was then still a law professor at Harvard University. A 1998 Warren op-ed moved her to request a meeting examining how the legislation -- pushed by credit card companies -- would disproportionately affect women trying to collect alimony and child support from their ex-husbands.

"I never had a smarter student," Warren recounted in a 2004 interview with PBS host Bill Moyers.

"When I first started covering her, people would be like, 'She is the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate,'" Politico's Glenn Thrush, a longtime Clinton chronicler, said at that same HuffPost discussion.

Of course, that wasn't entirely true -- either in the Senate or before it. During her husband's administration, she advocated for welfare reform, a policy that Peter Edelman, a longtime Clinton friend, called “The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done" in a 1997 article for The Atlantic.

And when she got to Congress, Clinton showed a tendency to work within the system, rather than against it. She did a complete flip on the bankruptcy reform legislation. Clinton said the measure had been modified to address her concerns about alimony payments, but Warren believed that the "pressures" were simply different for her as a senator from New York. She also voted for the Patriot Act, although nearly every other senator -- besides Russ Feingold -- did as well. But the biggest sin was her support for the invasion of Iraq.

Still, it's frequently forgotten that during the 2008 presidential campaign, Clinton was often more progressive (on the domestic policy front at least) than President Barack Obama. In late December 2007, Obama trailed Clinton by 22 percentage points among self-described liberal voters. It was her health care plan that called for the universal individual mandate that Obama adopted once in office.

I think it's because folks just equate her with her husband, which ... is either sexist or absurd. Neera Tanden, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress

So why does Clinton continuously get the centrist tag?

Part of it is her associations. During the 2008 campaign, Clinton took a real hit when news broke that her top adviser, Mark Penn, was also working for the Colombian government lobbying for a trade agreement, and when it was revealed that Bill Clinton had taken $800,000 in speaking fees from a Colombia group trying to bring business to the country. From there, it was largely assumed that she, too, was supportive of trade agreements. But the actual record was more complicated. When HuffPost tried to uncover Clinton's position on the North American Free Trade Agreement -- which was the subject of fairly relentless attacks from the Obama campaign -- it found people vouching for her skepticism.

"Honestly, I think it's because folks just equate her with her husband, which, in my view, is either sexist or absurd," Tanden said. "She's a thinking, breathing person with different views and to just equate her is ridiculous. Would we ever do that to a man?"  

Her support for the Iraq War has also been cited. As Tommy Vietor, a former Obama aide and veteran of that campaign noted, whenever there was a hard argument about ideology, they would be able to "trump everything with Iraq."  

But part of it, truly though, is that "progressive" and "centrist" labels are impossible to apply to politicians like Clinton, or, really, to many other politicians outside a handful of senators on the far ends of their parties.

"Left versus center, progressive versus moderate -- those are constructs that simply don’t exist outside of the beltway and the activist class anymore," said Mo Elleithee, a former Clinton aide and executive director of Georgetown University's Institute of Politics. "No one gives a shit about those labels. They want to know who is going to wake up every morning fighting for them and fighting to level the playing field."

Clinton certainly has steadfast beliefs. But she's also more of a tactician than your full-hearted ideologue. Her theory of governance involves an implicit tradeoff: more legislation will get done but bolder stances -- like coming out for marriage equality before it is more politically safe to do so -- will be sacrificed. And whereas Sanders promises to commit to a position and negotiate from there, Clinton pledges to negotiate her way towards that position.

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