Hillary Clinton, Uniter?

With talk of bridging partisan divides, the Democratic frontrunner is adopting a tone she once mocked in 2008.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/The Atlantic

Answering questions at a women's conference in Silicon Valley earlier this week, Hillary Clinton told Re/code's Kara Swisher that if she ran for president, she wanted to "bring people from right, left, red, blue, [and] get them into a nice, warm, purple space where everybody is talking and where we're actually trying to solve problems." At first glance, it's just a twist on a standard throwaway line from an all-but-declared candidate. Few politicians are really against bipartisanship, and everyone wants to solve problems.

Yet it's a striking message coming from Hillary Clinton, and not just because she has spent much of the last 25 years as one of the most polarizing figures in American public life. Transcending "right, left, red, blue" and creating "warm purple spaces" is the kind of talk that formed Barack Obama's political identity. And when he was offering that platform to voters in 2008, Clinton was the one rolling her eyes. He was the uniter in that campaign, and she was the fighter. “Now, I could stand up here and say, ‘Let’s just get everybody together. Let’s get unified,'" she began a particularly memorable riff in Rhode Island in February of that year, at a time when her chances to win the Democratic nomination were deteriorating. There was no doubt she was mocking Obama's message of hope-and-change, and she continued:

"The skies will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect. Maybe I’ve just lived a little long, but I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be. You are not going to wave a magic wand to make special interests disappear."

After losing 10 primary contests to Obama in a row, this was Clinton at her most desperate. She would soon drop the sarcasm in favor of a more populist pitch that would recapture a feeling of good will among the Democratic base, if not the nomination. But the irony is that Clinton was never more right about Obama than she was during that campaign appearance in Rhode Island, which occurred seven years to the day before she spoke of finding a "warm, purple space" in Silicon Valley. Perhaps the most widely shared disappointment of the Obama presidency is that he was never able to deliver on his promise to bridge America's partisan divide. As Michael Grunwald, Robert Draper, and others have written, that failure can be traced to the decision of Republican leaders to obstruct Obama's agenda even before he took office. But the idea that the relatively inexperienced president was naive about the challenge of reshaping Washington is hardly disputed anymore.

Enter Hillary. With the economy gaining momentum and Obama's approval rating ticking up a bit, the early signals are that she won't distance herself too far from his policies (and the gap back in 2008 wasn't that wide, either). Now she is suggesting she may adopt his rhetoric as well. Yet after a generation of division, isn't it just as naive of Clinton to suggest that she can forge that "warm, purple space?" It's not as if Obama hasn't tried, over and over again, to strike deals with the GOP, without much success. Republicans, for their part, will surely accuse Clinton of opportunism and empty rhetoric.

On the other hand, it may not be as far-fetched as it once seemed. For one, Clinton has been out of the political rough-and-tumble for six years, much to the dismay of Republican operatives who are trying to drag her back in. Her time as secretary of state made this easy, as the position has traditionally been removed from domestic politics. That allowed her to avoid the divisive debates over healthcare, economic stimulus, deficit reduction, and the other thorny issues of Obama's first term. As a result, her approval ratings rose to their highest level in more than a decade, although they have softened somewhat since she left office in 2013, and following GOP criticism of her response to the Benghazi terrorist attack in September 2012. When Swisher asked her if she believed she had become less polarizing over the years, Clinton replied, "Obviously, I think I have."

Pew Research Center

Clinton also enters the 2016 campaign with far deeper relationships with congressional Republicans than Obama had when he launched his presidential bid after just two years in the Senate. As a senator for eight years, Clinton won accolades from Republicans like Lindsey Graham and John McCain (there's that famous story of them downing vodka shots together in Estonia), and just two voted against her nomination for secretary of state. Many in the GOP praised her performance at Foggy Bottom, although some changed their minds after the Benghazi attack. They won't endorse her candidacy, of course, but she can argue that she would take office in a much stronger position to work with Republicans. That takes on more importance because the GOP has such a wide majority in the House; Clinton would almost certainly face a divided government at the start of her presidency, unlike Obama in 2009.

The "warm, purple space" remark wasn't the only hint of a new message from Clinton. She also borrowed a line that Bill Clinton had used repeatedly on the campaign trail last year, lamenting that people don't even want to associate with those who don't "agree with them politically." An unnamed Clinton associate told National Journal's Ron Fournier last month that she didn't want to be "the third president of polarization." That's a bit of revisionist history, since when you include Hillary's once-impeached husband, we've already had three in a row. More than a simple response to an electorate clearly fed up with gridlock, Clinton's let's-work-together rhetoric is also a reflection of her singular status in the Democratic Party at the moment. If someone like Elizabeth Warren were seriously challenging her from the left, you can bet we'd be seeing more of Hillary the fighter. Yet unless a Bernie Sanders, Martin O'Malley, or Jim Webb gains traction, Clinton will be running a general election from the moment she enters the presidential race.

So expect to hear more purple talk from Clinton, even if it's accompanied by staunchly Democratic policy proposals. With Obama heading home, and a dozen Republicans racing to the right, she wants to be the unity candidate this time around.