Friday, July 31, 2015

The 800-pound professor in the room

HILLARY CLINTON called today for Congress to end the 53-year-old trade embargo against Cuba. Her comments, made at a speech at the National Urban League conference in Miami, were more predictable than provocative; the Obama White House ordered restoration of diplomatic relations with Havana last year, so Clinton calling for an end to the formal trade embargo amounts to calling for the logical, eventual next step in what’s already underway.

Clinton did herself no harm in seeking an end to this national embarrassment. But other news about Clinton wasn’t predictable or provocative. Just problematical. McClatchy reported Thursday that classified emails stored on Clinton's private computer server held data from five U.S. intelligence orgs, including the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. Clinton has denied ever knowingly sending anything that was classified. McClatchy said the email matter has put Clinton “in the crosshairs of a broadening inquiry.”

If the recent drip-drip-drip of such bad news, the optics around that news and the prospect for more of it don’t slow down or stop, the Democrats — from party leadership to rank and file — may have to get their heads around that which up to now would have been considered unthinkable: With Clinton hampered (if not actually wounded) in her bid for the White House, the time for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as a candidate may be now, or certainly soon, more than ever.

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Rest assured, few or none of the party leaders can say that out loud, but they have to be concerned in the face of Clinton’s already poor traction with progressives and independents. Now the email mess. And of course, there’s the distaste felt by many Democrats and independents who see Clinton as another archetypal pol making a quarter million dollars for one speech, an insider tainted by the process in spite of herself. That distaste registers where it counts (or soon will count): opinion polls in Iowa.

In March, while the media and mainstream Dems focused on Clinton’s campaign, the Boston Globe threw its weight behind the idea of a Warren campaign, in an editorial that was striking in its urgency (hometown-girl motivations notwithstanding). But The Globe also paid homage to the Clinton resume, and played devil’s advocate to say why Warren shouldn’t run. From the piece: “Clinton’s deep reservoir of support, from her stints as first lady, New York senator, 2008 presidential candidate, and secretary of state, no doubt poses a formidable obstacle.”

True enough. But that runs both ways. That well of experience makes people view you as someone who knows the game by either playing it or running it. Hillary Clinton’s done both. But her big challenge, in this respect, is to reintroduce herself to the American people — and meet for the first time the millions of new voters, the ones who’ll being voting for the first time next year.

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FOR THESE millennials, half of the Clinton biography might as well be from the Peloponnesian War. She was first lady? First-time voters next year weren’t around for nearly all of that. New York senator? Great, if the millennial cohort all lived in New York 10 or so  years back. Oh those younger voters do remember her 2008 campaign, and her more recent period as secretary of state should certainly resonate for the globally inclined millennial.

But the problem with Hillary Clinton doesn’t stop with the millennials, who may be actually declining in their importance as a reliable voting cohort. For those voters who fully remember the Clinton era more commonly understood to be named for her husband, her candidacy is as much to be feared as celebrated.

Yes, she’s been at the forefront of the championing of the civil, reproductive and economic rights for all Americans, and, more widely in her role as secretary of state.

She also supported the Iraq war, supported sending arms to the rebels fighting Assad in Syria, and, as recently as a year ago, appeared to invite speculation that Washington neoconservatives, presumably Republicans, might find common cause with her Democratic presidential campaign.

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For mainstream Democrats, then, Clinton arouses the queasy feeling of uncertainty about her liberal positions. And for them and others, she’s the Queen of Inside Baseball, too readily identified with (and comfortable with) working the levers of power to come off as a believable reformer of those levers ... and reform will be a major watchword for the 2016 campaign.

That’s been happening already. President Obama has been pressing to reform the student loan process, using executive orders to liberate students from crushing economic burden. Jeb Bush is talking in strategically general terms about reforming Medicare; the Republicans have been relentless about rebranding (reforming) themselves and their image; and Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders has taken point as the candidate whose call for reform is more than rhetorical window dressing.

Reform may be the watchword for 2016. And if the Democrats are serious about winning the White House for the third time in as many presidential election cycles, it may require getting serious about reforming the very idea of which candidate gives them not only the best chance of winning the election, but also the best opportunity to advance a populist Democratic agenda for the turbulent years to come.

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FOR PROGRESSIVES, that means a party that backs a candidate with a track record of afflicting the comfortable and working to comfort the afflicted. This campaign season, that suggests a former Harvard Law professor, consumer advocate and current Massachusetts senator might have a legitimate shot at the nomination.

“Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t,” goes the saying, that folksy concession to fear of the unknown. And that would be fine ... if this were any other time, with an electorate less restive, less sick and tired of devils altogether, less ready for the kind of seismic political and social change that an Elizabeth Warren presidential campaign could mean in 2016.

But that folksy bromide isn’t enough anymore. Elizabeth Warren could still turn this whole thing way up, and voters know it. And Elizabeth Warren knows it. And Hillary Clinton knows it too.

Image credits: Warren: Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press. Clinton: Jim Cole/Associated Press.

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