Will Hillary Show up to Netroots Nation?

04/13/2015 07:59 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015

And so it begins. Hillary Clinton is now officially in the race for the White House. Her announcement, like pretty much everything else about her upcoming campaign, will be microscopically analyzed within an inch of its life. Was she too generic? Was she appealing enough? Where were the specifics? What about Bill? And what was up with that laughably 1970s campaign logo? Most of these deep-dive analyses won't make a tiny bit of difference, in the long run (well, OK, that logo is pretty bad, hopefully that's the first thing Team Hillary decides to change...). But it'll certainly give all the pundits something to do in the meantime.

As campaign rollouts go, Hillary is obviously going for the lowest key she can manage. She hasn't even scheduled any big rallies or events for the first few months, and her announcement video didn't even show her face until the minute-and-a-half mark. She has, obviously, learned her lesson about the whole "inevitability" thing from the last time around. She is going to start campaigning by going on a "listening tour," starting in Iowa. This worked wonders for her as a senator, and it could be valuable if she meets some interesting people and does actually listen to their concerns along the way. The most interesting thing about her launch is that she's actually driving from New York to Iowa. Well, not personally driving (she's still got a Secret Service escort, like all former First Ladies), but still -- traveling the country's Interstates is a lot better way to reconnect to the common man and woman than chartering an airplane. Sure, it's a stunt, but it could turn out to be more than that, depending on the people she meets in the rest stops of the Midwest.

Hillary Clinton, like all presidential candidates, is going to have to perform a balancing act. She's got to reach out to the undecided voters that will be crucial for the general election, and she's also got to shore up her base. Right now, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is somewhat leery of Clinton (and that's putting it politely). Hillary is seen as being much more hawkish than the base is really comfortable with, and much closer to Wall Street than any Elizabeth Warren fan wants to see. That first one is pretty much of a given -- Hillary can transform herself in many ways out on the campaign trail, but she'll never be able to go back and erase her vote for the Iraq War. In her recent book, she stakes out a more aggressive foreign policy stance than President Obama, so it's pretty hard to see her walking this back all that much. But then again she's still going to have to work hard to be an acceptably-tough president for some voters, seeing as how she is the first woman to ever have a decent crack at winning.

Many Democrats are ready and willing to, if not actually forgive her for her hawkishness, at least accept it as part of the Clinton package. But when the subject turns to domestic issues, progressives are going to push a lot harder for Clinton to champion the causes of progressivism. Giving either Robert Reich or Elizabeth Warren a prominent place among Hillary's close economic advisors would go a long way towards quelling progressive fears that Hillary is but a reluctant progressive, at best.

But there's one other big thing Hillary could do to build bridges with the left of the Democratic Party -- attend this year's Netroots Nation conference. Because if you're going to woo liberals, the best way to do it is to travel to where the liberals will all be, in mid-July.

Eight years ago, the second annual Netroots Nation conference was held in Chicago (it was actually called YearlyKos back then, the name wouldn't change until 2008). Seven of the eight Democratic candidates appeared at the 2007 conference, including both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It was a different time, of course, since the primary race was a lot more openly contested than it likely will be this year. Since that time, the conference has grown into the premiere event for the "netroots" -- liberal bloggers, progressive activists, Unions, progressive politicians, and many other lefty influences (and influencers). It's the one time of year all of them can be reliably found under one roof.

This is why it is almost imperative for Hillary Clinton to attend this year's Netroots Nation in Phoenix. There is already some degree of controversy about the choice of site this year (some people are still boycotting Arizona over the anti-immigrant law they passed a few years back). But that shouldn't deter Hillary, who (after all) is going to have to campaign in all 50 states.

Hillary Clinton is not the netroots' favorite candidate. That's about as politely as I can put it. Instead, many progressives are putting a whole lot of time and energy into what is almost guaranteed to be a futile effort: convincing Senator Elizabeth Warren to run and be their champion. Warren has said -- over and over and over again -- that she is not going to run. Sooner or later, her fans are going to have to come to grips with this. If Hillary Clinton truly is the only viable candidate from the Democratic side ("viable" meaning "polling above ten percent," say), then the only real option is going to become trying to influence Hillary to be the most progressive candidate possible.

That's a disappointing prospect for many. Other Democrats may become favorites of the progressives who will be looking for "anyone but Hillary," but the question will become whether they'll get any real traction beyond the halls of Netroots Nation. A much more possible outcome is trying to get Hillary to see that progressive ideas are popular ideas, and indeed the ones she should be eagerly running on.

The differences between Hillary Clinton (and even Bill) and the netroots are not as great as some may think, however. After all, it is not radically leftist to be in favor of a higher minimum wage -- it's in fact been a standard Democratic position for decades. Most of the real friction comes over how to treat Wall Street and the big banks, where progressivism becomes downright populist in nature. Hillary Clinton may get a little squishy on the question of taxing hedge fund managers and the one percent, and on strictly policing Wall Street in general. But her positions on women's rights and equal pay should be completely in tune with progressives. So while she's got some work to do to convince the netroots that she hears their issues and supports most of their agenda, it doesn't mean she has to completely reinvent herself to do so.

Ignoring the netroots (and skipping Netroots Nation), though, would be a big mistake for Hillary. Because she's going to need not only the independent voters in the general election, she's also going to need a big turnout from the coalition that Barack Obama put together -- the same coalition that largely didn't show up at the polls in 2014. What 2014 proved is that when the base shows no excitement, Democrats can lose elections in a big way. The people who attend Netroots Nation are, to a large extent, the people who can actually generate this excitement. These are the people who walk precincts and get heavily involved in Democratic politics, after all. They need convincing so that they can go out and convince others, to put this another way.

Personally, I will be attending Netroots Nation this year. I truly hope to see Hillary Clinton there as well. I think it's the best thing she could do to shore up those in the Democratic base who still have reservations about supporting Hillary wholeheartedly. Sure, not everything she'll have to say is going to be wildly applauded -- she might even get booed a few times. Hillary Clinton is already a known quantity, and parts of her political persona aren't going to be in line with everyone in a Netroots Nation audience. The question for her is whether she can get beyond that and get the crowd a little fired up on the issues where Hillary does see eye-to-eye with progressives. Hillary needs the netroots to be not just begrudgingly for her, but to actually get excited about the prospect of four (or eight) years of her in the Oval Office. The best way for her to accomplish this is to show up, explain her positions, and let people see she's listening not just to people along the Interstates of America and in Iowa living rooms, but also to the folks in the big keynote hall of Netroots Nation.


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