How the Left Wing Learned to Love Hillary Clinton

In 2008, progressives knocked her out of the race. This time, they're lining up behind her -- a product of disillusionment with Obama and a perceived inevitability.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

In October 2007, Glenn Hurowitz, an environmental activist in Washington, formed a political action committee with a few friends who supported John Edwards for president. Rather than trying to boost the former senator, who had positioned himself as the most unabashedly liberal major candidate in the race, Hurowitz decided to focus almost exclusively on stopping frontrunner Hillary Clinton from winning the Democratic nomination.

The plan was to call her out for how she engaged the political system, buckling too often to pressure from business interests and the GOP, like when she backed off a proposed $5,000 “baby bond” in the face of conservative attacks. They named their group “Democratic Courage,” and figured that with plenty of experience in progressive politics and contacts in and around the Beltway, raising cash and going up on the air in early primary states would be a breeze.

But they ran into a few roadblocks along the way.

“We couldn’t find a prominent consultant to help us produce ads in D.C. because everybody was afraid of angering Hillary,” Hurowitz told me. “She was considered such an inevitable candidate that nobody would even accept money to make an ad."

After some initial struggles, he had better luck. But what really ended Clinton’s supposedly unstoppable nomination push was Barack Obama’s insurgent campaign, which brought together the support of Wall Street and labor unions (among other strange bedfellows) and hauled in more cash than any campaign in American history. By the summer of 2008, Clinton was vanquished. Obama’s nomination seemed to herald a new era in Democratic politics, with the charismatic outsider from Chicago poised to purge Washington.

Six years later, the money and activist energy for such an insurgency is nowhere in sight – and neither is that new progressive era. And even erstwhile archenemy Hurowitz is on board with the former secretary of state, U.S. senator, and first lady. Now executive director of Catapult Campaigns, a D.C. consulting firm, he -- like many of the left-leaning Democrats who opposed her last time around -- now expects Clinton to be a more progressive president than Obama.

"The difference between Hillary and Obama in retrospect is she may compromise at times, but for her compromise is always a necessary evil, whereas for Obama compromise has often seemed like a goal in and of itself,” he told me, voicing a common sentiment among the politicians, operatives, labor officials, and progressive movement leaders with whom I spoke.

It’s telling that someone like Hurowitz is on the Clinton bandwagon. Her early strength seems to be the result of the party’s left wing having lost many of the key policy fights that animated Obama’s primary challenge. Yes, U.S. troops are out of Iraq and the Afghanistan war is winding down, but the modest scope of health-care and financial reform and the continued presence of Wall Street insiders at economic posts throughout the federal government stick out like a sore thumb. The Bill Clinton-Chuck Schumer strategy of teaming up with the financial sector and savaging Republicans has won the day, despite Obama lambasting transactional centrism to great rhetorical effect on the trail in ’07 and ’08. Occupy Wall Street inspired a leftward tack that gave Obama’s reelection campaign a shot in the arm, but as soon as he won, the president went right back to appointing Wall Street vets (some of whom were major campaign donors) early in the second term.

Conversely, Obama’s failure to lead a bold progressive movement has dulled the appetite for another anti-establishment, outsider campaign. Time and again, leaders say they still feel burned by the experience and will have a hard time getting “fired up” again. It doesn’t help matters that none of the men who might challenge Clinton -- including Vice President Joe Biden, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo -- are in position to offer up much of a contrast with her ideologically. Perhaps the most interesting thing about any of them is that O’Malley inspired The Wire’s Tommy Carcetti.

“Obama by definition has lowered the bar of expectations for progressives,” says Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor of California, who backed Clinton in 2007 and plans on supporting her again. “It’s clear to me she’s running.”

Clinton seems to have largely rehabilitated her image in the eyes of liberal primary voters and interest groups, a remarkable feat given just how bitter things got in 2008. Back then, many on the left flank of the party villainized her husband as a reckless narcissist who foisted NAFTA and financial deregulation on the nation, and skewered her as a calculating hawk who had cheered the Iraq War and helped pass George W. Bush’s regressive 2005 bankruptcy bill, among other alleged evils.

It’s not that Clinton has moved that far to the left in the intervening four years. Her role in overseeing the expansion of the national-security state, encouraging construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and backing approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership have raised a few eyebrows, but her allies have at least for now largely succeeded in sweeping those concerns under the rug – along with questions about her six-figure speaking fees and a highly lauded but arguably rather mediocre tenure at the State Department.

Already, two major super PACs have sprouted to back Clinton’s still-undeclared candidacy. One of them, Ready for Hillary, is staffed by a familiar cast of Clinton loyalists but has also begun locking down top field staffers from Obama’s presidential campaigns, an indication of where the major talent in the progressive movement is headed right now. If nothing else, the hires -- assumed to be the core for an official campaign staff down the line -- should help Clinton avoid a repeat of her 2008 primary mechanics meltdown, which allowed Obama to rack up delegates in caucus states even as Clinton was winning the popular vote.

Veteran operative Tad Devine says Clinton would enter the race with the status of an incumbent president seeking reelection. But unlike Jimmy Carter -- for whom Devine tracked delegates as the president fended off Ted Kennedy’s primary challenge in 1980 -- Clinton doesn’t seem to have much of a leftist bloc threatening her. “There is no organized opposition to her within the Democratic Party,” he says.

If she does run, Clinton will be wooing a party whose most assertive constituency in recent years, the LGBT community and its allies, has made cooperation with Wall Street a central part of its model for political change. In what will likely go down as her first speech of the Democratic primary a few months ago, Clinton formally embraced gay marriage, clearing the way for the money to start rolling in and signaling to gay-rights advocates and financial elites in both parties who have thrived during the Obama years not to seek out another candidate.

“She'll raise a gigantic amount of money from Wall Street, and she'll probably pay lip service to the need to make sure Dodd-Frank is implemented fully,” predicts Jeff Connaughton, a former lobbyist and aide to then-Senator Joe Biden who teamed up with Biden’s successor, Ted Kaufman, in a failed bid to break up the biggest banks. He adds a warning, though: “She's going to have to think very carefully about how she finesses this, because if it looks like she's Bob Rubin Part III, then it creates a real populist opening.”

Connaughton’s comment hints at the weakness that could wreck a second Clinton bid that for now looks just as inevitable as the first did. The ferocious pushback against the prospect that Obama might appoint Larry Summers -- the protégé of former Treasury Secretary Rubin, and Obama’s former economic adviser -- to lead the Federal Reserve highlights the ascendance of a wonky, economically populist crowd within the progressive fold.

Last time Clinton ran for office, the phrase “99 percent” wasn’t part of the national lexicon. But financial reform is among the few bright spots for the left on Capitol Hill these days, where Democrats like Senator Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alan Grayson are actually finding Republicans to partner with on their crusades. Put another way, Clinton will eventually have to come face to face with the growing skepticism of big money coursing through some corners of the country, which in many ways has only grown stronger during the Obama presidency as income inequality has continued to rise.

So even if the next presidential election is still years away, disillusionment with the administration’s inside-game strategy of securing the business community’s support for major policy initiatives -- whether Obamacare, gay marriage, or immigration reform -- has many lefties looking to the horizon for the next big thing in Democratic reform politics. Clinton would do well to beware: Sending ominous signals on issues like Social Security cuts and Wall Street reform is likely to invite a familiar kind of insurgency.

It’s not hard to see Warren, who hinted at her own model for political reform when she helped organize the liberal grassroots behind the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, filling the void left by frustration at the lack of transformational change during the Obama years. How Clinton negotiates thorny issues like Glass-Steagall reinstatement, deficit reduction, and reining in NSA spying over the next year will go a long way toward determining just how formidable she is come 2016.