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Hillary Clinton's Identity Crisis

Her focus on issues that excite her base is coming at the cost of issues that could win her a broader appeal.

Hillary Clinton sits in on a round table discussion as she visits the Kikis Chicken and Waffles restaurant on May 27, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. (National Journal)

Hillary Clinton belatedly offered her rationale running for president last weekend, making the case that she's an experienced fighter who will forcefully advocate progressive-minded policies to raise the fortunes of disaffected Americans. It was a well-delivered and necessary speech to counter the endless reminders about her entitled status—from her secretive home-brew email server as secretary of State to the avoidance of the press and regular voters during her initial presidential launch.

But at the same time, the speech underscored what will make Clinton's campaign a challenging endeavor—it was detached from the political realities of the moment. She assiduously sidestepped controversial issues dividing her party, avoided others entirely, and sounded like a born-again populist despite being one of the wealthiest women in the country. She barely mentioned her role as secretary of State or her service as a senator from New York. Far from being confident that the country has moved sharply to the left, as one of her super PAC's top advisers pronounced, Clinton sounded as if she was hedging her bets, sprinkling liberal shout-outs over taking firm positions on specific issues.

In classic Clinton fashion, she railed against income inequality while arguing that a growing economy will lift all boats. She tweaked Wall Street for excess, while praising other companies' long-term investment in benefits. She referenced progressive priorities, like climate change and expanded voting rights, without making them the core of her address.

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This is a candidate in the middle of an identity crisis, trying to appeal to the Democratic Party's myriad constituencies while forging an overall message that can appeal to "all Americans," as she put it. It will be awfully tricky for her to triangulate all the way through a lengthy campaign without suffering through the inconsistencies in her message.

In Clinton's world, President Obama isn't responsible for any of the economic maladies she outlined. Only Republicans are. Her speech takes an all-too convenient detour from her last presidential campaign to the present day, entirely sidestepping the current president's role in the growing gap between rich and poor, and why his policies haven't created enough opportunities for the growing number of Americans left behind.

In Clinton's thinking, the world is a pretty safe place. She sparingly mentioned national security in her 45-minute address, focusing more on the "good news" from abroad than the growing threat that terrorist groups are posing. She spoke as much about her Nixon-era work as an attorney at the Children's Defense Fund as she did about her leadership as secretary of State. It's becoming increasingly clear that foreign policy is a serious vulnerability for her campaign, even as growing numbers of voters rank it as a top priority for the next president. (It's telling that Clinton's advisers don't think foreign policy will play much of a role at all in the general election.)

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In Clinton's perspective, the debate over free trade that's dividing her party in Washington is totally irrelevant to her campaign. She didn't reference it at all in New York, and gave a tortured response in Iowa and New Hampshire. Her campaign has made an art form out of avoiding the question of whether she supports the president on one of his legacy-making initiatives. For a candidate positioning herself as a fighter, her fear of tackling the issue directly runs against that carefully-crafted image.

All this issue avoidance badly undermines her campaign's argument, pithily framed by Priorities USA pollster Geoff Garin, that "the center of US politics has moved left on many key issues." That's certainly true on gay marriage. But on trade, it's the liberal base that's becoming out of step with public opinion. Last month's NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that, for the first time in 15 years, more Americans believe that free trade helps the United States rather than hurts it.

On national security, a recent Pew Research Center survey showed Republicans with a double-digit lead over Democrats as the party viewed as best-equipped to deal with terrorism. The same survey showed Republicans with a narrow three-point lead over Democrats on who's best equipped to handle the economy, and—contrary to conventional wisdom—barely behind on immigration (2 points).

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That's hardly an endorsement for an aggressively liberal campaign. There's also an opportunity cost in tackling secondary, base-ginning issues at the expense of an overall message on the economy and national security. Up until Clinton's speech Saturday, her campaign has seemed content to energize small slices of the electorate on side issues—early voting, campaign-finance reform, and climate change. To rally Hispanics, she promised that she'd legalize more undocumented immigrants through executive orders than President Obama. (I'm not arguing the importance, or lack thereof, of any of these issues; merely pointing out that they rank low among voter priorities.)

The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus called this "pandering with a purpose," arguing there's little downside in taking stands on these side issues that majorities of Americans agree on. But the real risk for Clinton is that by focusing on issues that few Americans prioritize, she's getting sidetracked from tackling the central issues that most Americans care about. Go too far down that looking glass, and there's a point of no return.

Clinton's challenge is avoiding the small-ball thinking that befell another Democrat, former Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, in his unsuccessful reelection bid last year. Udall's campaign focused so much on microtargeting single, female voters by accusing his opponent of supporting contraception restrictions that he forgot to aggressively make the case for his own record. He actually succeeded in boosting turnout among single women to the polls and winning their support by a landslide 36-point margin, but at the expense of turning everyone else off. Udall won just 46 percent of the vote in one of the country's most important battleground states.

To her credit, Clinton aimed much higher with her Roosevelt Island speech, tying her biography and generations of Democratic Party history to the call to fight for those left behind. "I'm not running for some Americans, but for all Americans," she said. The big question going forward is whether her campaign strategy will match the lofty rhetoric, or whether she'll remain content to stay in the echo chamber as she marches towards the nomination.