The Many Measures of Hillary Clinton

The former secretary of state has long held progressive economic views—but that's only one aspect of her political identity.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP
Hillary Clinton’s advisors are annoyed by accusations that she’s only adopted economic populism to keep up with Elizabeth Warren. “Mrs. Clinton was the original Elizabeth Warren, her advisers say,” reports The New York Times, “a populist fighter who for decades has been an advocate for families and children.” In the Clinton administration, boasted Democratic Strategist Anita Dunn, “she had this reputation as being the very left-wing, liberal, Elizabeth Warren type.”
That’s true. In the 1990s, Hillary was considered further left on economic issues than her husband, and for good reason. Carl Bernstein has reported that in 1993, when Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen and National Economic Council head Robert Rubin wanted to prioritize deficit reduction over new spending, Hillary told Bill that, “You didn’t get elected to do Wall Street economics.” In 1995, according to Sally Bedell Smith, Labor Secretary Robert Reich convinced Hillary that the Clinton administration should make an issue of CEO pay, something Bill refused to do. George Stephanopoulos called Hillary “the most powerful liberal in the White House.”
But there’s an irony here. If Hillary’s advisors are angry that the press doesn’t describe her as “left-wing” anymore, they themselves are partly to blame. That’s because they, and she, have spent much of the last two decades trying to overcome exactly that reputation. In 1993, when journalists suggested that her college thesis on Saul Alinsky proved she was a big government liberal, Hillary insisted that it proved the opposite. “Even at that early stage I was against all these people who come up with these big government programs that were more supportive of bureaucracies than actually helpful to people,” she told The Washington Post. “You know, I’ve been on this kick for 25 years.” In a 1993 interview with The New York Times, she praised an article by Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “Defining Deviancy Down,” in which the scholar-senator argued that liberals had become too tolerant of anti-social behavior among the poor. Hillary made Mark Penn, among the most centrist of her husband’s political consultants, the architect of her 2000 Senate run and 2008 presidential campaign. And in 2005, she affiliated herself with the Democratic Leadership Council, the New Democratic group with whose views many pundits assumed she disagreed.     
So is Hillary a left-winger who, having masked that reality during her days as First Lady and in the Senate, is now coming clean? It’s more complex than that. Terms like “left” and “right” lump together a variety of subjects. To the extent Hillary has an ideological core, it’s economically progressive, culturally moderate and hawkish on foreign policy. She’s just stressed different aspects of this political identity at different times.
In the 1990s, for instance, while working behind the scenes, often unsuccessfully, to push Clinton administration economic policy to the left, Hillary tried to publicly overcome her lefty reputation by insisting that she wasn’t a cultural radical. In 1994, she said she was “not comfortable” with the distribution of condoms in schools and in her 1996 book, It Takes a Village, she promoted abstinence and criticized easy divorce.
That wasn’t dishonest. As one Clinton administration aide put it, “She’s a very judgmental Methodist from the Midwest.” But today, with America’s cultural debate having moved left, Hillary is downplaying her judgmental, moral side and emphasizing her progressive economic views instead.
Similarly, after 9/11, Hillary trumpeted her hawkish foreign views. She not only voted to invade Iraq in 2002; the following year, she called for expanding the US military. That wasn’t dishonest either. During the 1990s, Hillary had been strongly influenced by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who championed military intervention in the Balkans. And in October 2000, almost a year before 9/11, she had given a speech at the Council Foreign Relations denouncing the refrain, then-associated with Albright’s nemesis, Colin Powell and now-associated with Barack Obama:

That we should intervene only when we face splendid little wars that we surely can win, preferably by overwhelming force in a relatively short period of time. To those who believe we should become involved only if it is easy to do, I think we have to say that America has never and should never shy away from the hard task if it is the right one.

But now, with Democratic voters less sympathetic to hawkish views, Hillary doesn’t talk that way either.
So was Hillary the original Elizabeth Warren? The problem with the question is that Warren is ideologically one-dimensional, while Hillary is not. Warren’s political identity is defined almost entirely by her economic views. Hillary, by contrast, looks different depending on which issues you emphasize. When her advisors say she’s held progressive economic views for a long time, they’re right. She’s also held a lot of other views, which they’d rather not talk about.