October 7, 2015
Hillary Clinton is now officially opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Following on the heels of her Keystone XL pipeline opposition, she has now taken two progressive-friendly positions on controversial issues after many months of stalling.
Keystone was tricky, as most of the Democratic base is opposed, but organized labor is in favor. One way or the other she was going to offend someone. Ultimately, Hillary decided to piss off the smaller group.
You may wonder if her personal thoughts about the pipeline being a good idea or not had anything to do with her decision. Maybe, but given it took her multiple years after her own State Department completed their review to take a public stance, I’m thinking this was a mostly political decision.
TPP is different. Most primary voters will agree with Hillary’s stance. President Obama has relied on Republican votes to move approval through Congress. Especially with Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley on record against, it’s easy to see why she would not want to defend it next week in the debate.
There’s another possible bonus. Rumor has it Joe Biden is making his final decision over the weekend. Observers tend to think he’ll enter the race (after predicting this for a couple months, I’m staying silent until it actually happens).
It is extremely unlikely the Vice President will part ways with the President on this. It’s safe to assume Biden will continue to support TPP and avoid taking a firm stand on Keystone, as the administration is officially still reviewing it. Biden is also banking on an endorsement from the AFL-CIO.
So, in a year that seemingly favors outsiders and where Democrats are definitely leaning more leftward than any election in recent memory, Hilary is attempting to leave Biden outside the party mainstream while limiting Bernie’s room on the left.
Sounds great, right? Hillary shows her independence from an administration many Democrats think isn’t going far enough, while leaving herself right in the center of what it looks like primary voters want.
She can say Sanders is being unrealistic, proposing $18 trillion in new spending over the next debate. She can say Biden is insufficiently progressive. Beyond TPP, she has a possible wedge issue on education, having just won the endorsement of the national teacher’s union (NEA).
The NEA nod came right after President Obama replaced Education Secretary Arne Duncan with someone else the unions don’t like. If Biden stays close to current policy, it means he’ll advocate more for testing, charter schools and other reforms than traditional Democratic orthodoxy would prefer.
If it works, Hillary is the proverbial Goldilocks candidate, pushing Sanders and Biden to the margins while she racks up the delegates. Bernie could only compete in the most liberal of states, where Biden would only put up a fight in the most moderate places.
By establishing her opponents as too hot or too cold, she could leverage herself back on to safe ground as the presumptive front-runner. Combined with her well-received SNL appearance and Kevin McCarthy’s mega gaffe on Benghazi, you can almost imagine Hillary stabilizing the ship.
With the exception of New Hampshire, Hillary has led every poll over the past couple/few weeks. Bernie hasn’t moved much lately. You can make an argument that stabilizing where he was at is a positive, but regardless, there’s still a gap.
Though Biden has made noticeable polling progress over the past couple months, he doesn’t lead Hillary anywhere yet, and even in his best states (North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan) still trails by 7 to 10 points.
But, as Scott Walker can tell you, it’s very hard to play Goldilocks. Trying to pacify activists while waiting for your more moderate opponents to commit apostasy can easily become a reactive approach. Waiting to see what position makes sense makes a candidate transparently political.
For voters looking for a truly liberal progressive candidate, it’s still very clear Sanders is the more committed ideologue. Hillary will never out-progressive him, even by moving well to his left on gun control.
Bernie has a brand, he has money, he has volunteers, and even his biggest detractors believe he means what he says. Unless someone is a single-issue anti-gun voter, there’s no reason to choose Hillary over Bernie if you’re strongly progressive.
Meanwhile, if you support President Obama, which most Democrats do, if you are petrified of losing next November and having a Republican president and GOP congress repeal Obamacare, break the Iran nuclear treaty and pick a couple Supreme Court justices, you might prefer friendly Uncle Joe, the guy who is polling better in match ups with Republican contenders.
Assuming Biden participates, beginning to break with the administration on key issues gives Obama even more reason to favor his loyal VP, either overtly or covertly or both. A direct endorsement would harm Hillary significantly, especially among the African-American voters she’s counting on to protect her.
In 1968, Richard Nixon successfully threaded this needle to win the nomination. More conservative than Nelson Rockefeller, more moderate than Ronald Reagan, Nixon managed to win the support of the party.
Hillary does not have Nixon’s political skills. While Rockefeller dithered about running and did not actively challenge Nixon in primaries, if Biden runs, he’ll be on the ballot everywhere. He’s also the sitting VP with more access to the national committee than Rocky had.
Meanwhile, while Reagan inspired plenty of activists, he too was a late entry and nowhere near as organized as Sanders. He also avoided most primaries.
It’s logical and understandable that Hillary is taking this approach. It’s quite possibly the best or only way to play her cards. Just don’t expect it to work. She simply doesn’t have the political skill and deft touch necessary to play Goldilocks.