Clinton’s Identity Crisis

Kathryn Cui, JHU:

Hillary Clinton made a feeble but revealing attempt to set some kind of tone for her presumed 2016 presidential campaign in Santa Clara, California, last week, in the heart of a region notoriously inequitable in its distribution of wealth and prosperity.

Mrs. Clinton rattled off a list of populist items to a crowd of female technology professionals. “Restore economic growth with rising wages,” she said, and “equal pay for women… a higher minimum wage… better wages.”

Undoubtedly there will be tweets and statuses, not only in direct response to this but in the next year, praising Mrs. Clinton for fighting for women, and much enthusiasm will follow for the Clinton, First Female President™ brand, and less for the minimal substance of her bare minimum feminism and paltry leftward totter.

While a slew of Republican potential nominees duke it out on the other side of the aisle twenty months before the 2016 election, Mrs. Clinton towers above her own party’s competition. But it increasingly appears as though, despite her presumed campaign and (less definite but still reasonably likely) presumed nomination, she is a candidate with a good liberal brand but no actual message.

Every candidate will inevitably be compared and contrasted with Mrs. Clinton by their own campaign calculations, or by commentators, by voters, and perhaps by Clinton’s own team, who will look for ways to incorporate the best aspects of other candidates’ messages in order to create the ultimate amalgam Super-Candidate. And since her policies and overall tone are still ill-defined, at least as demonstrated to voters, Mrs. Clinton may end up little more than a loose mass of half-hearted messages.

Take Senator Elizabeth Warren, for example, and her impassioned anti-establishment, anti-elite rhetoric. Warren has stated repeatedly, even heatedly, that she is not running in 2016, but that does not stop her message from appealing to voters outside her own immediate constituency. Lately, commentators have cast Senator Warren as the other female Democrat – not necessarily in opposition to Mrs. Clinton, but certainly a more defined and progressive alternative, whose presence looms significantly over Mrs. Clinton’s own campaign. Despite Warren’s apparent lack of presidential ambition, she brings to the campaign stage the kind of issues that appeal to progressive Democrats, a group Mrs. Clinton may have to address in some way. A New York Times article wrote of a meeting between the two women as an attempt on Mrs. Clinton’s part to “cultivate the increasingly influential senator.”

But the Clintons’ legacy of centrism, as the business-friendly Democratic alternative, looms equally large and ensures that a Clinton campaign could not adopt Warren populism wholesale. Take Mrs. Clinton’s consideration of “inclusive prosperity” as a tenet of her economic policy. It manages to, in two words, sound like an incredibly clumsy attempt to reconcile the Clinton legacy of neoliberal growth-centered policy with the current wave of populist rhetoric.

It would clearly be safe to build a message centered on the middle class, especially since President Obama laid the groundwork in his state of the union for such a message. However, a middle class-centric message from a Clinton campaign would have other shortcomings: first, the fact that, despite Americans’ support for higher wages and the Democrats’ consistent promotion of those kinds of broadly-appealing policies, the Republicans still prevailed during the midterm elections and the fact that the GOP is also pursuing a middle class-centric approach both prove problematic. As with Senator Warren, another Democratic candidate offers an alternative – Jim Webb, one-term Virginia senator, argued last year that the Democratic Party must win back its white, working-class and working poor base.

The DNC hypothesizes that even though the average voter supports their policies, they do not support their core values – because they have no idea what Democratic Party values are. Even if the party were to “find itself,” what is Mrs. Clinton’s place in a renewal? More than any other individuals Hillary and Bill Clinton are ingrained in the minds of American voters as the centrist Democrats. Some will argue that the America that put Bill Clinton into office over twenty years ago was a different America than ours, which faces a new host of issues that require different approaches, and that Mrs. Clinton’s struggle now to define her run reflects her adaptability, not her lack of values altogether.

As of now, Mrs. Clinton’s observable brand seems to be: default nominee; surname Clinton; a woman, and not a Republican, so by these two virtues she appeals to certain demographics of Beyoncé-social-media feminists, whose massive electoral clout will undoubtedly decide the election; and a liberal, whatever that actually means policy-wise. By 2016, she will have bathed in a pool of other politicians’ messages and may emerge coated in layers of more progressive rhetoric, populist messages, with the always safe champion-of-the-middle class spiel layered on for good measure, with a let’s-all-grow-together message on top, or something else altogether.

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