Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire. Probably no nonincumbent of the modern era has started a presidential campaign in as strong a position. (Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty)
My colleagues in the media keep insisting that Hillary Clinton take a position on the proposed free-trade pact that has riven her party. Which is just ridiculous, because she made her position perfectly clear during a swing through New Hampshire last month, when she said: “Any trade deal has to produce jobs and raise wages and increase prosperity and protect our security.”
Well, there you go. Were you guys just not listening?
Trade deals that help workers and make us safer — check. Trade deals that crush workers and benefit terrorists — thumbs down. No wonder she called her book “Hard Choices.”
If you ask me, the central question Democrats should be asking themselves isn’t whether Clinton can get behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership that President Obama discussed with me last week. What they should wonder is: If this isn’t a convenient time for Clinton to level with voters, then what exactly is a convenient time supposed to look like?
Because let’s be clear: Probably no nonincumbent presidential candidate of the modern era, and certainly no Democrat in my lifetime, has started a campaign in as strong a position as the one in which Clinton now finds herself.
Bill Clinton was, at the outset of his campaign, an unknown governor who had to hope his better-known rivals for the nomination would stand down (which they did). Al Gore was tested by a serious challenge from Bill Bradley. In a crowded field, John Kerry had to work long and hard to overcome, you know, being John Kerry.
Hillary, on the other hand, can see from here to the convention without so much as a wisp of cloud blocking her view. I’ve written about Martin O’Malley’s potential, but he makes for a more convincing establishment fallback, should Clinton stumble hard, than he does a populist crusader. And the rest of her potential challengers are only nominally Democrats to begin with.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has potential as a candidate, but as an establishment fallback rather than a populist crusader. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Bernie Sanders? A walking protest vote. Jim Webb? Hard to imagine. Lincoln Chafee? He could get himself hurt.
So there will never be a moment when Clinton should feel more liberated to actually lead her party in one direction or the other, as her husband once did, even if it means saying a few things that everyone might not already agree with. There will never be a more risk-free opportunity for Clinton to do what her advisers are endlessly saying she will do, which is to show us that backstage Hillary who’s so fearless and charming and blunt.
Seriously, we already know what she thought about the trade deal that Democrats just effectively blocked in the Senate — at least right up until the moment she announced her candidacy. As secretary of state (a rather important position when it comes to global affairs), she called it the “gold standard” of trade deals. She lobbied for it overseas, without giving any sense that she was crossing her fingers behind her back.
If she reiterates that position now, powerful unions and leftist activists will be very angry and agitated, and they will threaten to send a lot of emails around about how angry and agitated they are.
OK. And then what? Make a TV ad about it? Invite O’Malley to their next potluck dinner? What exactly is the mortal risk here?
I know, there’s always the Warren factor. Clinton’s team must fear that if she needlessly incites an uprising on the left, Elizabeth Warren will allow herself to be drafted, and all of these overtures Clinton’s been making to the populist wing of her party will have been wasted.
But here’s a basic truth of presidential politics: If someone really wants to run, he or she is going to run, whether you force the issue or not. There are exceedingly rare moments in the life of the country when reluctant candidates feel called by history to save the republic, like Abraham Lincoln in 1860 or Robert Kennedy in 1968. Trust me: This isn’t one of them.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has said she is not going to run for president. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Do we really think Warren will feel duty bound to run because the very fabric of our society is irreparably rent by the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement? If Warren wants to enter the ultimate political arena (and it appears she doesn’t), she won’t need any more reason than she already has.
Clinton may yet face a more serious challenge for the nomination than most of these political seers think she will, but if so, it won’t be because she inflamed the tension over trade.
The way Clinton and her advisers are thinking about this, apparently, is that there’s nothing forcing her to take a controversial stand, on trade or anything else. As long as no one who appears to be an overly serious threat is competing for support among the party’s various factions, then there’s no percentage in volunteering opinions that will inevitably create some ill will and give the media some conflict to write about.
So instead, she goes around telling Democratic audiences that she’d do even more for immigrants than Obama has, or that she supports alternative sentencing for drug crimes. This is like telling Republicans you believe in God.
But in fact, the Clinton people have the whole thing backward. This glide path toward the nomination that they assume they’re on isn’t an opportunity to hide from controversy; it’s an opportunity to show you can lead, clearly and thoughtfully. And that’s because, even if you get through the primaries unscathed, you’re going to have to confront your biggest vulnerability among general-election voters, which is this idea that Clinton does only what’s expedient.
As it is, voters could be forgiven for wondering if, after almost 25 years on the national stage, Clinton doesn’t really know what she believes anymore, or at least doesn’t know how to articulate conviction without going through a complex process of calibration first. And being close to invulnerable in her own party gives her the chance to dispel that impression — with some discomfort, maybe, but at very little cost.
Clinton’s patronizing evasion on the trade deal, on the other hand, reinforces that impression. And if she waits until the summer of 2016 to actually choose sides on anything contentious, it may well be too late to turn that perception around. Remember that Clinton is trying to win a third term for her party, which is an exceptionally difficult task under any circumstances.
There was an irony this week in watching Obama and Clinton, once again the two-headed hydra of Democratic politics, navigating their way through a decision point for their party. When it came to trade, he was direct, genuine and competitive. She was cautious, noncommittal, playing not to lose.
That was precisely the contrast between them in 2008, and it didn’t work out for Clinton then. That Obama isn’t running against her doesn’t mean it will ultimately work out better this time.