What the Left Wants From Hillary

If Clinton hopes to excite liberals, she'll have to embrace their priorities.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Liberal activists who tried and failed to draft Elizabeth Warren into the presidential race have moved into the acceptance phase in their grief over her refusal to run. And with that new attitude comes a new goal: Pressuring Hillary Clinton to adopt a Warren-esque policy platform at the center of her fledgling campaign.

Clinton has said little about the specific new proposals she would offer as a candidate in 2016, and her announcement video was notably light on substance. Sure, she'll undoubtedly back a higher minimum wage (but how high?), equal pay for women, comprehensive immigration reform, action on climate change, increased spending on infrastructure, and other Democratic Party pillars in the Obama era. Yet beyond the rhetoric of taking it to Wall Street and tackling income equality, what would an unabashedly liberal Clinton agenda look like? What policies could she support that would set her apart from Obama and excite the contingent of Democrats that has been lukewarm to her candidacy?

Progressives have a few such priorities in mind. First, they want Clinton to embrace an expansion of Social Security benefits. It's an idea that seemed unthinkable during the period of fiscal austerity from which Congress has slowly been emerging, but it has gained steam among Democrats in recent months. Championed both by Warren and by the significantly more conservative Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the proposal earned support from all but two Senate Democrats when it came up during last month's budget vote-a-rama. "She says her focus is on economic security. There's no question Social Security is a key part of economic security," said Nancy Altman, co-director of an advocacy group dedicated to boosting the public-pension system. "So it's hard to understand why she wouldn't do it."

Liberals are also pushing Clinton to back a national goal of debt-free college at public universities, either through huge increases in federal aid to states or in grants made directly to students. Both ideas seem unlikely, given that Republicans are likely to still control one or both chambers of Congress in 2017, when the next president takes office. Yet the test for Clinton, as some activists view it, is not so much the conventional question of whether she will tack left or right during the campaign, but whether she will shed the cautious approach to politics many of them have found so frustrating. "I don’t think the debate within the Clinton campaign or nationally will be about going left or going right. It will be more about going big versus going small," said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a group that has backed Warren but was not part of the organized movement to draft her into the presidential race. The PCCC launched a "Ready for Boldness" campaign within hours of Clinton's announcement on Sunday, and another coalition of progressive groups mounted a similar push to get the former New York senator to adopt a populist agenda on Wednesday.

Clinton likes to style herself as "the fighter"—first battling the "vast right-wing conspiracy" in the '90s and then presenting herself as the more combative alternative to Obama's message of hope and change late in the 2008 Democratic primary. Yet before launching her candidacy this year, she spoke in more conciliatory, almost Obama-like terms of creating "a nice, warm, purple space" and bridging the partisan divide. With Clinton apparently facing no serious primary challenge, which message will win out? Green, for one, told me that he's not worried about Clinton repeating what liberals view as Obama's key error: chasing Republican support that will never come. "I just don't think compromise will be her mantra," he said.

Clinton did offer a rhetorical nod to the Warren wing in her announcement video, echoing the Massachusetts Democrat as she said "the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top." And during her first swing through Iowa as a candidate, she endorsed a constitutional amendment on campaign finance reform, another oft-cited, if difficult-to-achieve priority for liberals. Other items on the progressive wish list include support for proposals to break up big banks and to significantly increase taxes on the wealthy and on businesses.

There's plenty of time for Clinton to release a detailed set of policy plans, and without much Democratic competition so far, she may not be in any rush. Yet party activists aren't exactly known for their patience. The decision of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio—Clinton's one-time campaign manager—to go on Meet the Press and withhold his endorsement may have struck some as disloyal, but at least he had a reason. A candidate wouldn't earn his endorsement, he said, "until I see a vision of where they want to go." The mayor put a finer point on it the next day, when he referred to Clinton's long absence from domestic politics when she served in the State Department. "This is a different country we’re living in right now," de Blasio said, "and I think we need to hear a vision that relates to this time, not eight years ago–this time."

Trade provides another, more immediate flashpoint for Clinton and the left. Working with Republicans in Congress, the Obama administration is aggressively lobbying Democrats to support "fast-track" authority. It wants the president to be able to negotiate deals in Asia and Europe that Congress would have to approve or reject, but couldn't revise. Progressives overwhelmingly oppose the measure, as do Warren and at least two of Clinton's potential primary challengers, Senator Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley, the former Maryland governor. Trade has been a sore spot for liberals ever since Bill Clinton signed NAFTA, and it will be telling if Clinton tries to take a nuanced position on the issue, as she did in 2008, or if she makes her first major break with Obama by coming out strongly in opposition to fast track.

Already, O'Malley is treating the progressive priorities as a road map for his potential challenge to Clinton. While he's shied away from criticizing a candidate he strongly supported in 2008, he is trying to position himself as bolder and more liberal on Wall Street, trade, and taxes, and he's voiced support for expanding Social Security. For Clinton, the wish list may be more of a menu. She may have drifted back to the left over the years, but she's no Warren clone, and liberals don't expect her to be. They just want some daring, some boldness, and maybe even a few risky moves from a candidate who has rarely shown a desire to take them.