Hillary Clinton, her aides will tell you, is focused solely on winning the Democratic primary. Hillary Clinton, Democratic strategists with ties to the campaign will tell you, has one eye planted on the general election in everything she says and does.
Making sure that both statements are accurate means a lot of needle-threading for the front-runner, who must fend off Bernie Sanders on her left while keeping herself electable in November.
Her record so far is mixed. On economic issues, centrist Democrats are relieved Sanders’ stadium crowds of true believers have not sent her lurching too far leftward — Clinton is not proposing to reinstate Glass-Steagall; she does not advocate for universal free college or a single-payer health care system; and she does not support expanding Social Security benefits for all.
“Hillary has kept her powder dry,” said Jonathan Cowan, a former Clinton administration official who is the president of the moderate think tank Third Way, “refusing to embrace the most liberal ideas, like more Social Security benefits for all and raising taxes on the middle class. She is wisely avoiding [Mitt] Romney’s fatal error of tacking so far towards the base that you win the nomination but lose the general election.”
But Clinton has still provided Republicans with a share of positions and moments this year that could haunt her in 2016:
1) “We now finally are where we need to be” on ISIL: Defending herself against attacks from her Democratic rivals on the debate stage earlier this month, Clinton gave those eager to paint the “Obama-Clinton foreign policy” as weak on terrorism some catnip. “We now finally are where we need to be,” Clinton said of fighting ISIL, also known as ISIS. “We have a strategy and a commitment to go after ISIS, which is a danger to us as well as the region.”
Republicans pounced. “No @HillaryClinton – We are not ‘where we need to be’ in fight against ISIS,” Jeb Bush tweeted during the debate. Clinton’s campaign stood by the comment — campaign chairman John Podesta said afterward in the spin room that Clinton was referring only to the United Nations resolution authorizing the start of peace talks on the Syrian civil war. But it’s a sound bite with teeth, one that will be damaging to Clinton.
2) Republicans are my enemies: Clinton often talks about reaching across the aisle in the Senate and working with Republicans after the attacks of Sept. 11. But during the first Democratic debate, when asked which “enemy are you most proud of,” she smiled, and added to a litany of foes like the National Rifle Association and drug companies, “probably the Republicans.”
Vice President Joe Biden, who was still mulling his own bid at the time, saw the opening she created and jumped in. “I don’t consider Republicans enemies,” he said at the time. “They’re friends.” The idea of a president who will come into office ready to fight with a Republican House and Senate is not an inspiring vision for voters sick of Washington politics — and it doesn’t quite jibe with Clinton’s other message, that what politics today needs is less Donald Trump and more “love and kindness.”
3) “What, like with a cloth or something?” The email controversy appears to be in Clinton’s rearview mirror, for now. But Democratic strategists said they expect it to remain a gateway for Republicans to dissect Clinton’s trustworthiness — a big obstacle that many supporters still cite as a potential barrier to her election.
While voters don’t cast their ballots based only on trust, the knocks on her honesty will affect how much voters like her and how motivated they feel to cast a vote for her at the polls. And Republicans still have damaging sound bites to choose from. Before Clinton was finally persuaded by her campaign to apologize for relying on a private email server while she was secretary of state, she dug her heels in. When asked whether she had wiped the server last August, she feigned ignorance, “What, like with a cloth or something?” The line is memorable enough to stick.
4) Guns: Gun control has become a defining cause for Clinton in the wake of more horrific mass shootings that have resonated on the campaign trail. It’s an issue that animates the Democratic base and provides Clinton with an issue where she’s actually succeeded in pushing Sanders to the left. She’s highlighted the issue in a campaign ad and even at a rally deep in the gun-toting red state of Texas.
Her campaign says it expects no blowback from her positions to close the gun show loophole and to support an assault weapons ban, citing polls that show the majority of the country is now in line with those positions. But Clinton has gone further on guns than any presidential candidate has been willing to do in the past — in 2008, she pitched herself as a duck hunter and a staunch protector of the Second Amendment who even accused her rival Barack Obama of being too weak on gun rights. Gun ownership restrictions are sometimes a third-rail issue for Democrats, so if her move to the left on the issue doesn’t come with a backlash in a general election, it will mark a paradigm shift.
5) Charter schools: The American Federation of Teachers took heat from its members for its early endorsement of Clinton last July. But AFT president Randi Weingarten so far is the only union leader who can point to a policy shift in the candidate after she endorsed.
At a town hall in South Carolina last month, Clinton took a markedly new tone when discussing the charter schools that she has voiced support for in the past. “They don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them,” she said. “And so the public schools are often in a no-win situation, because they do, thankfully, take everybody, and then they don’t get the resources or the help and support that they need to be able to take care of every child’s situation.” If there’s room for an education debate in a general election that’s shaping up to be about terrorism and economic growth, Republicans could seize on her flip-flop. The conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page telegraphed the criticism, asserting that her “reversal suggests her Education Department would be a wholly owned union subsidiary.”
6) Not My Abuela: A quick attempt by Clinton’s campaign to turn one of her favorite topics — being a grandmother — into an appeal to young Latino voters recently took a negative turn. Just before the holidays, the Clinton campaign posted a lighthearted list of “7 things Hillary Clinton has in common with your abuela,” a listicle illustrated with GIFs and a reminder that even entertainer Marc Anthony has endorsed her campaign.
The list went viral, but not the way the campaign might have hoped. #NotMyAbuela began trending on Twitter, with comments like: “#NotMyAbuela because she didn’t have to live in poverty with 14 kids and suffer because over half were separated over a border.” Clinton’s campaign, which is counting on Hispanic votes to win a general election, was accused of “Hispandering” — and she can’t afford to alienate those young voters by seeming out of touch or pandering.
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