Bruce Jenner is not the only person trading identities. Hillary Clinton’s recent march to the left is one of the more remarkable political transformations in recent years, not least because she’s exploiting the public’s nostalgia for her husband’s presidency while repudiating the policies for which he is famous. Maybe this is how she plans to finally get revenge on Bill.
“If the centrist policies of the Bill Clinton years were known for stepped-up policing and prison building, deficit reduction, deregulation, welfare overhaul, and trade deals,” writes Amy Chozick of the New York Times, “Mrs. Clinton is steering her early candidacy in the opposite direction, emphasizing economic populism, poverty alleviation, and, in the criminal justice system, rehabilitation.” Despite a widespread gauzy attitude toward the 1990s as a time of peace and prosperity, a golden age, a holiday from history, Clinton is rejecting the president she married for the one she worked for—an implicit acknowledgment that the Bill Clinton of 1992 and 1996 could no longer win the nomination of his party.
Buzzfeed.com gleefully unearthed articles Clinton wrote in support of the 1994 crime bill, which her husband signed and which contributed to the decline of violent crime. But the turns of phrase associated with that bill—“broken-windows policing,” “more cops on the street,” “three strikes and you’re out,” “tough on crime”—have long been held in contempt by hard-left activists, whose influence in the Democratic Party has grown immeasurably since the Clintons last lived in the White House, and who now dominate intraparty and media debate. In the 1990s, Rudy Giuliani marginalized Al Sharpton, deprived him of influence; now Sharpton is—amazingly—one of the most important voices in the Democratic Party. Clinton needs to be on Sharpton’s good side, which she seems to have accomplished in April by vowing to “end the era of mass incarceration.”
PBS has an informative “Timeline of Hillary Clinton’s Evolution on Trade,” which details her gradual, self-imposed, ambivalent servility to the unions. Clinton’s husband championed the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993, and Hillary Clinton was quoted in 1996 as saying that NAFTA was “proving its worth.” By the time she ran for Senate in 2000, however, she was calling NAFTA “flawed.” She supported free trade while in the Senate, but qualified that support when she ran for president the first time, even opposing a deal with Colombia that she later endorsed as President Obama’s Secretary of State. Trade being an issue that divides Democrats more than Republicans—it pits the unions that fund and staff Democratic campaigns against the Wall Street and Hollywood plutocrats who actually control them—Hillary is moving away from a deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that she herself called “the gold standard in trade agreements” as recently as 2012.
There’s a panicky quality to Clinton’s maneuvers, a feeling of being rushed as she tries to catch up with the latest cause of the left. So there’s something especially annoying about those who are suggesting Clinton’s reversals aren’t flip-flops—that they are something nobler than mere expediency. “There is a difference between flip-flopping and a transition that takes place for people,” a New Hampshire Democrat recently told CNN. He’s referring to Clinton’s position on same-sex marriage: She didn’t support it in 2008, changed her mind in 2013, said it was an issue for the states as recently as 2014, and now says it’s a constitutional right, like freedom of speech or religion—well, maybe not religion.
This is the sort of policy zigzag the press loves to track and analyze and mock—the same sort that damaged John Kerry in 2004 and Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012. But the press holds Clinton to a different standard, one that seems to apply only to her and her husband, and under this standard there is no presumption of the consistency or basic honesty one normally expects from public figures. With the Clintons, flip-flopping, question-dodging, casual lying is—since we’re talking weddings—baked into the cake. “I don’t see it as flip-flopping,” said the New Hampshire Democrat. “I see it as progress.”
Ah, progress, the last refuge of a liberal scoundrel. It’s an advantage the left has over the right: Tossing aside long-held beliefs can be puffed up into somehow joining the winning side, bending the arc of history toward justice, accommodating the Geist of the Zeit. That CNN interview was headlined “Flip-flop or not: Hillary Clinton’s 8-year political evolution,” and by the end of the piece, it’s obvious that, to CNN at least, the answer is “not.” The evidence? Well, “during a closed-door, 30-minute meeting at the Iowa statehouse,” where she took no questions and delivered focus-grouped sound bites calculated to appeal to her base, Clinton “seemed to win” the affections of a lady who’d been “on the fence.” Only 60 million more voters to go.
Clinton’s ideological ballet has short-term benefits, but it may also have long-term costs. She is the overwhelming favorite in the Democratic primary, and her newfound policies are popular with Democratic voters (and in some cases with the country at large). She reaps a double benefit from her ideological transition—not only does she only appease the Democratic grass roots, but she also distracts the press from stories of influence-peddling and self-dealing at the Clinton Foundation.
The “evolution” narrative carries the whiff of serious journalism while not being all that serious—you don’t go to jail for changing your mind—and comes at the perfect time to supplant the findings of Peter Schweizer in his blockbuster book Clinton Cash: a pattern of shady donations the media have to cover—even kind of, sort of, like to cover—but also really, really, really don’t want to cover.
Still, presidential elections are decided less on policies than on the state of the economy and the personal qualities of the two candidates, and on these measures Clinton is in a much weaker position. What we know about the business cycle is just that—it’s a cycle—and the shallow recovery that began in mid-2009 has to end. Clinton’s favorability and trustworthiness, moreover, are in decline—and it’s more than a year before the election and the Republicans don’t have a nominee. Only 25 percent of registered voters said they see Clinton as “honest and straightforward,” according to a recent Wall Street Journal?/?NBC News poll, and Republicans will be playing crosstab limbo in the coming months to see just how low that number can go.
It’s Clinton’s ongoing transition to a populist of the left that will provide material for ads criticizing her as a dishonest and untrustworthy and unethical flip-flopper—things some of us already know. This attack on character is sure to annoy liberal commentators, but against past nominees it’s proved effective. It might even guarantee that Hillary Clinton’s latest political identity will also be her last one.