Hillary Clinton laid out a policy vision in her official campaign kickoff last week that was boldly and unapologetically progressive.
That alone might have been surprising for pundits who have speculated that she’s being fatally cautious on the trail, taking too much for granted as she plays not to lose and therefore opens up the possibility of doing exactly that. But this Hillary Clinton was on the offensive, relishing the contrast with her GOP rivals as she laid out her views and mocked theirs.
She did what any mainstream Democrat needs to do to win in America today.
This is the Hillary Clinton that any poll-crunching liberal should be pining for. She proudly cast herself with past Democratic visions, most notably mentioning President Obama’s name before her more popular husband. She cast herself as an heir to the Democratic Party’s progressive wing that took hold under FDR, noting that this vision had inspired every Democratic president since, including “the man I served as Secretary of State, Barack Obama.”
She credited him with pulling the economy back from the brink of a Great Depression and saving the auto industry, not to mention presiding over a green energy boom. The fact that she portrayed herself as a friend and ally of President Obama before her speech had run for two minutes tells us something about her 2016 strategy. Hillary Clinton isn’t afraid to align herself with the President who is on track to have presided over the creation of 11 million new jobs in his two terms, in contrast to George W. Bush’s 1.2 million. Good for her!
But the most interesting line was her declaration that Marco Rubio felt he had to respond to. “Now, there may be some new voices in the Republican presidential choir,” she said to laughter. “But they’re singing the same old song, a song called “Yesterday.” You know the one. All our troubles look as though they’re here to stay.”
Rubio’s campaign released a video showing footage of Clinton making the quip. Then it quoted the candidate, calling her “a leader from yesterday, promising to take us to yesterday. Yesterday is over,” Rubio said to cheers, “and we’re never going back.”
But if yesterday is the growth seen under the Clinton years, Americans wish we could go back. Bill Clinton’s presidency delivered all of the economic goods Republicans claim to want, from a balanced budget to robust job growth to spending cuts that helped bring in a federal budget surplus. Rubio himself accused Hillary Clinton of wanting to tax and spend like it’s 1999, seemingly unaware that the U.S. government was running a budget surplus at that time.
Part of the accusation of being the candidate of yesterday may be rooted in ageism – Hillary Clinton will be in her late sixties while Rubio would take the oath of office at 45 if he triumphs. But Hillary Clinton seems aware of the unspoken charge, and had a good line to undercut it. She didn’t sound like the candidate of anyone’s yesterday when she joked that she would be the youngest female President in America’s history. And as Ronald Reagan (two years her senior when he was sworn in) proved in 1984, a good line for the age question can diffuse the issue beautifully.
But there’s an even more powerful response to any charge of representing yesterday. By political definition, no one does it more reliably than conservatives… and in 2015 they’re doing it on more treacherous ground than ever before. America’s undergoing a cultural revolution that the social conservatism of today’s GOP just doesn’t fit into. Just think: In 2004, gay marriage was seen as so radical a concept that not even Howard Dean would endorse it, and Karl Rove cunningly placed anti-gay marriage referendums on the ballots of swing states to draw evangelical voters to give President Bush a lift at the polls. But now, with more than 60 percent of Americans in support of marriage equality, those gambits of the culture wars are a distant memory. Or as Marco Rubio might put it if he were being honest, “we’re never going back.”
But Marco Rubio can’t be that honest if he wants to win over Iowa conservatives he’ll need for the nomination. So recently on the offensive in the culture wars, he and every other Republican candidate are in a cultural catch-22. Few of them got into politics with a burning desire to deny gays the right to marry (though they’ll gladly do so, if that’s the price for power). But the pandering that will be necessary to advance to the general election is the very thing that could make them radioactive in that same election. Think about Mitt Romney, who limped through the Tea Party gauntlet after promising to make life for undocumented immigrants so miserable they would self-deport. He surely wished he’d never felt pressured to say that after he did worse with Hispanic voters than John McCain. But 2016’s crop of Republicans will feel the pressure all over again, in an America that’s had four more years to evolve and diversify in a new era of social tolerance. They’ll feel especially hard-pressed to keep up with Donald Trump, who’s such a champion of traditional marriage he’s on his third one.
As the more strategically-minded Republicans agonize over the balancing act that will help them win over their party base and later enough of the super majority of Americans who can’t even fathom the case against marriage equality, Hillary Clinton will be basking in her position to give everyone the freedom to marry. But it won’t stop there. When it comes to immigration, she can offer more generous promises for reform than any Republican. Polling shows that the majority of Americans don’t want to deport 11 million immigrants, including parents of American children. But that’s the very policy that the GOP base will demand of its eventual nominee. Anything else is amnesty, as Rubio painfully learned.
Gay rights, immigration… the list of damaging stances that the GOP nominee will feel pressured to take keeps growing. Then we get to climate change. Hillary Clinton pulled no punches in this arena. She called for bold action on carbon emissions, and noted that her opponents all just say they aren’t scientists when asked about the issue. “Well, then why can’t they listen to those who are?”
Again, we all know the answer. GOP candidates in 2016 can’t accommodate the 60 percent of Americans who favor immigration reform and gay marriage for the same reason they can’t listen to the 97 percent of scientists who assert climate change is real, man-made, and merits immediate action. To do so would offend their far-right base, which has strengthened its hold on the party since 2008 when John McCain won the nomination with a platform that included a carbon tax. Now there’s just one Republican running who will publicly admit climate change is real: Lindsay Graham polls under 2 percent in polls.
Of course, climate change is especially important to young voters, who will bear the consequences of what rising sea levels will do to our irreplaceable Earth. By November, if they want a President who will even acknowledge the mortal threat to the world they’ll grow old in, they’ll have only one option.
Clinton’s alignment with a changed America makes her the candidate of the future, whatever her birth date. It’s very hard to see the party that will be against gay marriage in 2016 managing to tag her as a relic of the past.
Now on the losing side of marriage equality, the fight to raise the minimum wage, public opinion on immigration, and a host of other issues, the GOP is fast running out of topics to turn to as America evolves. When GOP strategist Lee Atwater vowed to run ads to make a violent black criminal Mike Dukakis’s running mate in 1988, almost half of Americans disapproved of interracial marriage. When George W. Bush’s campaign tapped into fear and prejudice against gays to pad his margins in Ohio, almost two in three voters opposed gay marriage. But America’s political landscape has changed immensely since then. And as a more liberal, open-minded, and secular electorate disarms the far right of cultural weapon after cultural weapon, it’s hard to see where they make their last stand. They might be tempted to surrender the culture wars and focus on their economic and foreign policies – though as I think we’ll all find out, those are even more deadly for them.
William Dahl is a recent graduate of The College of William and Mary, where he majored in Government and studied abroad in La Plata, Argentina. He has worked for community foundations in Argentina and Miami dedicated to community engagement and prosecution for human rights abuses. A native Virginian, he moved to Baltimore in 2013 to join a financial research firm, where he enjoys being able to write on the side.