Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at her official campaign launch rally in New York City. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)
Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy last weekend with what some reporters described as a “policy-laden” speech. Which was true, I guess, in the same sense that Apple Jacks is an apple-laden cereal. It’s marketed with apples, and it almost tastes like apples, but it’s mostly just sugar and empty calories.
Clinton’s speech offered a lot of vague positions, like making taxes fairer and college affordable. If that’s what passes for policy-laden, then Donald Trump’s vow to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico should earn him a MacArthur Foundation genius grant.
In fact, when it comes to the policy where her opinion matters at the moment, which is the president’s imperiled free trade pact with a dozen Asian nations, Clinton remains calculating and opaque. And this offers a window not just into Clinton’s dilemma on trade but also into the larger dilemma that faces any candidate vying to win a third term for her party.
I’ve made this point about our recent political history before, but it’s worth repeating: In 1951, the states ratified the 22nd Amendment, which limits a president to serving two consecutive terms. In the 60-plus years since then, spanning 16 elections and six in which a party was seeking to hold the White House for more than eight years, only once has either party managed to score a third consecutive presidential term. That was in 1988, when Michael Dukakis outlasted a weak Democratic field and narrowly missed making history as our first android president.
The reason for this, most likely, is that candidates in Clinton’s position inevitably find themselves caught between powerful and conflicting currents that are all but impossible to navigate without a good bit of luck.
For one thing, after your party has governed for eight years, your ideological base is almost always dispirited and resentful of compromise. That’s the nature of governing, as Barack Obama now knows; the higher the expectations among purists coming in, the more betrayed those purists ultimately feel when the other party isn’t stamped out of public life forever and their own president makes concessions to political reality, instead.
At the same time, the broader electorate tends to tire of a president and his endless bickering with Congress after eight years (note Obama’s 45 percent approval rating), and voters hold out hope that a change of agendas will somehow bring with it a change in the political climate, too. The last thing the majority of voters want is a new president who’s more strident and less pragmatic than the last one.
Somehow then, as a party’s third-term candidate, you have to be both more ideologically pure and more flexible than the incumbent president, and you have to disown that president without appearing to be a rank hypocrite.
Take, for example, Al Gore. (And yes, I know, Gore actually won, but I’ll deal with that in my soon-to-be-written novel of alternative history, titled “President Gore and the Lockbox That Beat al-Qaida.”)
Gore had to simultaneously hold off a serious challenge from the left, in the person of Bill Bradley, while also taking credit for Bill Clinton’s economy and, at the same time, distancing himself from the president’s moral failing. In this jumble of conflicting imperatives, what should have been an easy argument for another Democratic presidency became obscured by questions about what, if anything, Gore really believed.
Then there’s John McCain, who had to reassure his own restive base that he would be as reliable a culture warrior as George W. Bush, while also trying to prove himself a different kind of conservative to the rest of the electorate. McCain tried to do both by choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate, which might have been the worst hiring decision since William Bligh brought Fletcher Christian aboard the Bounty.
For Clinton, the first real test of this dynamic comes with the debate over the Asian free trade pact, in which the administration she served finds itself at odds with the populist base of the party, even as polls show that most Americans support trade. For weeks, Clinton’s answer was to say nothing, while her declared opponents — Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley — gleefully hammered away at the trade pact as a betrayal of all that is holy in the world.
Then, last weekend, after House Democrats dealt Obama a stinging defeat in his effort to get so-called fast-track authority to finish negotiating the treaty, Clinton finally weighed in. Pointedly declining to endorse the trade deal, she instead told Obama he should listen to the wisdom of Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader who opposed the pact, and she advised Obama to use the defeat as leverage to extract even more concessions from our Asian trading partners — “kind of turn lemons into lemonade,” in Clinton’s words.
This, as you can imagine, was immensely helpful advice for the president. Because there’s nothing any of us like more, when we’ve suffered some crushing setback in our careers or personal lives, than to have our friends lay the whole lemons-into-lemonade thing on us.
But leaving that aside, Clinton’s carefully worded betrayal raised some serious questions about her intellectual courage, to put it bluntly. After all, it’s not as if she was Obama’s housing secretary during the time when this trade deal was being negotiated; she was his secretary of state, which is a rather important job in the negotiating of foreign treaties. White House aides went to some pains this week to remind reporters that Clinton was a “key part” of Obama’s Asian trade team.
If she really felt an Asian trade deal would damage American workers, why did she continually promote the idea overseas? Why didn’t she take a page from the great populist William Jennings Bryan, who resigned as secretary of state rather than follow President Wilson down the path to war with Germany?
More likely, Clinton did support the deal and still does. In which case, you have to wonder why she can’t just say so. As I wrote recently, probably no Democratic candidate of the modern era has enjoyed the same opportunity to really level with voters; the biggest thing standing between Clinton and the nomination at the moment is Bernie Sanders, for crying out loud.
If Clinton can’t summon the wherewithal to defend the deal she helped negotiate now, how many principled stands can we really expect her to take when the politics of the moment aren’t quite so favorable?
My guess is that the comity between Clinton and Obama won’t last through the year and that, by the time the primary campaign is over, their relationship will more closely resemble what it was during their standoff in 2008 than the way it seemed to evolve afterward.
I’d also guess that Clinton is ultimately going to find the whole third-term conundrum more challenging than she or a lot of the people around her think it’s going to be. You can’t really run a persuasive, “policy-laden” campaign if you’re not willing to tell your own voters where you agree with the president — and disagree with them.
If trade is an early indicator, Clinton isn’t there yet.
Clinton arrives at the “Hillary for America” campaign launch event at Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island in New York. (Photo: Greg Allen/Invision/AP)