Clinton and Sanders shake hands before the start of the Univision/Washington Post Democratic presidential debate at Miami-Dade College, March 9, 2016, in Miami. (Photo: AP/Wilfredo Lee)
At the CNN Democratic debate in Flint, Mich., earlier this month, Bernie Sanders used his opening statement to call for the governor of Michigan to resign over the city’s lead crisis, a position Sanders staked out months ago.
“I believe the governor of [Michigan] should understand that his dereliction of duty was irresponsible. He should resign,” Sanders said.
When Hillary Clinton got her turn to open, she echoed Sanders’ stance for the first time.
“Amen to that,” she said. “I agree. The governor should resign or be recalled.”
This new position was a surprise to anyone who tuned in to the debate’s preshow, where Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that if the governor stepped down, it wouldn’t “make a difference in the everyday lives of the people” of Flint.
But the change shouldn’t have been too shocking, since Clinton has matched Sanders’ positions on a whole host of issues during the unexpectedly hard-fought Democratic contest between them — a tactic that has implications for the former secretary of state as she attempts to move past Sanders and position herself for the general election. Clinton calls Sanders a “single issue” candidate on the stump, but the 74-year-old senator from Vermont has pushed Clinton to the left on far more than Wall Street reform, his most high-profile campaign agenda.
“Bernie has had great success in getting Hillary Clinton to adopt his issues and his rhetoric during the course of this campaign,” Sanders’ chief strategist Tad Devine said after the Democratic debate in Miami last Wednesday. “Let’s talk about the [Trans-Pacific Partnership], for example, which she evolved from someone who praised it on the record 45 times and calling it the ‘gold standard’ of trade agreements to opposing it.”
Clinton says she changed her mind on the TPP after it evolved into a deal she couldn’t support. Her run against Sanders has put her in the awkward position of opposing free trade, when she has a long record of supporting trade deals. In the Miami debate, Clinton boasted that she “voted against the only multinational trade agreement that came before me when I was in the Senate.”
Devine also flagged the Keystone Pipeline, which Clinton initially supported and then later joined Sanders in opposing on environmental grounds. And then there’s Wall Street. Clinton has attempted to tap into the same populist anger that fuels Sanders’ campaign by talking tougher on big banks and America’s culture of corporate greed.
Clinton often reminds people that she called for better regulating of Wall Street starting at least in 2007, and that she’s not new to the issues of fighting income inequality and reining in corporate excess. But there’s no question that her rhetoric on the issue has sharpened in response to Sanders. After her victory in Nevada, Clinton delivered a tough message to “the men and women who run our country’s corporations.”
“If you cheat your employees, exploit consumers, pollute our environment, or rip off taxpayers, we’re going to hold you accountable,” she said. (Clinton added, however, that when CEOs contribute to the economy, she will stand with them.)
“I think that clearly she has responded to a lot of [Sanders’] statements and his focus, which moves her somewhat to the left. I don’t think there’s any question about that,” said Richard Riley, the former governor of South Carolina and education secretary under Bill Clinton. Riley is supporting Clinton.
“Saturday Night Live” recently spoofed this dynamic with a mock Clinton ad aimed at winning over Sanders’ young supporters. As the ad goes on, Clinton picks up more and more of Sanders’ verbal and physical tics. First, wire-rim glasses appear on her nose. Then, she’s in a dark blue suit, waving her hands next to her face and saying she’s “sick and tired of hearing about my own damn emails” in Sanders’ signature old-school Brooklyn accent.
“I’m whoever you want me to be, and I approve this message,” a physically transformed Clinton says at the end of the spoof.
To be fair, Sanders has also been forced to shift emphasis on certain policies by his opponent, particularly to court black and Latino voters, more natural constituencies for Clinton. His recent emphasis on criminal justice reform and Flint followed Clinton’s deeper commitment to those issues. Still, it is Sanders’ populist progressive challenge that is largely responsible for pushing the Democratic discourse to the left, even as the Republican candidates stake out positions further and further to the right.
In Miami, both candidates agreed they wanted to give all undocumented immigrants in the country citizenship, and both vowed to never deport children. Clinton said she didn’t want to deport any immigrants unless they were committing crimes or plotting terrorist attacks, insisting that she would not be as tough as the Obama administration on enforcing immigration law. Meanwhile, the Republican frontrunner supports mass deportation.
It’s conceivable that some of these Sanders-influenced positions could alienate more moderate Democrats or independents during the general election should Clinton beat Sanders (or that some Sanders supporters will not want to support Clinton even though she’s adopted some of his issues). But if Clinton faces off against Donald Trump, it’s likely that the controversial candidate will galvanize the left and center-left and soften the doubts of those lukewarm on Clinton. (Sixty percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of Trump, compared with 53 percent who don’t like Clinton, according to RealClearPolitics’ polling averages.)
And if she faces off against Trump, some of her more populist positions on trade could actually help her. “She probably would have had to move against free trade to a certain degree even without Sanders,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “The Republicans seem to be questioning trade policy.”
Several of Clinton’s surrogates said they do not agree that Sanders has pushed her to the left, and they insist that there’s no position she’s staked out that will hurt her during the general election.
“I think everything that she’s proposed will be seen rightly as squarely in the mainstream as what Americans think are the big problems, and that includes reining in Wall Street. It includes getting big money out of politics,” said David Brock, founder of the pro-Clinton Correct the Record PAC.
Clinton has also hugged Obama tightly in the primary, painting Sanders as a critic of the president. Obama remains extremely popular with Democrats, so embracing his policies should also help in a general election.
“I think her alignment with the president is in keeping with most Democrats’ alignment, and she’s certainly not going to put at risk her base,” said Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, a Clinton supporter. “I don’t think she’s been caused to move as far left as some people might assume.”
“Every poll that I’ve seen, position by position, her position has been the majority position,” Malloy said. “So why should she change that?”
Perhaps more important, a single, populist-fueled primary season is not enough to erase the Clintons’ brand as center-left Democrats. One of the reasons the “SNL” skit is funny is that no one actually believes in the “radical” Hillary in the ad.
“You could still categorize her as center-left. She’s in the center, always. She always has been,” Riley said.