We're told that Hillary Clinton is spurning something her advisors call the "anti-Wall Street" movement and will run instead on a platform of "working across the aisle" with Republicans. Her camp is suggesting, without much evidence and against the lessons of recent history, that she will be more effective at this endeavor than her predecessor. And now they're using that claim to fight against the Democratic Party's rising populist wing.
Is Hillary Clinton about to repeat Barack Obama's biggest mistake?
In the first two years of his presidency Obama spoke of compromise, protected Wall Street, and resisted the populist wing of his own party. Democrats lost the House of Representatives, but Obama kept offering "Grand Bargains." The GOP rejected most of his overtures, even the Social Security benefit cuts they had long championed, and didn't hesitate to use them against Democrats on the campaign trail.
By selling himself as someone who could get things done with Republicans, Obama gave them the power to make him a success or failure. Unsurprisingly, they chose the latter option. Is Hillary Clinton about to make the same mistake -- and will voters buy it if she does?
An "anti-gridlock" movement?
In an article in The Hill headlined "Clinton quiet as Warren rises," Amie Parnes reports that unnamed Clinton associates aren't concerned about the public's frustration with Wall Street or the rising expressions of populism in her own party (as seen in the fight against the "Cromnibus" bill's "Citigroup amendment").
"I don't think she would have considered the legislation deeply flawed," a Clinton "ally" is quoted as saying of a measure which threatened the pensions of an estimated 1.5 million Americans, increased the influence of big money in politics, and extended taxpayer protection to big banks gambling on derivatives.
"Clinton allies ... think that a bigger movement than the anti-Wall Street camp favors her candidacy," reports Parnes: "the anti-gridlock movement."
What the polls really say.
These sources are probably basing their conclusion on polls like this one, which found a 31-point swing since 2010 toward candidates who are willing to compromise. The Wall Street Journal reported on that poll a couple of weeks before this year's election, under the headline "Gridlock Could Prove Costly at the Polls." In fact, there were a number of headlines like that in the weeks leading up the voting. ("Voters finally fed up with gridlock," opined USA Today.)
Voters then promptly opted for a whole lot more of it.
Democrats who adopted the "across the aisle" line now being touted for Clinton either went down to larger defeats than expected (Alison Lundergan Grimes, Mark Pryor) or found themselves eking out unexpectedly narrow victories (Mark Warner).
Gridlock doesn't appear to be a "valence issue," one which sways voters. Only 33 percent ranked it as their first or second priority, a figure which edged out concerns about ISIS but fell well behind the 44 percent whose priorities were jobs and growth.
A tactic, not a value
Nevertheless, Clinton insiders are quoted in The Hill as saying things like:
Voters are tired of a dysfunctional Washington and want leaders who can make the government work.
When she was in the Senate, she worked across the aisle. And she knows she's going to have to do the same thing should she become president.
Barack Obama took the same tack. The result was more Republican obstructionism, more Republican threats -- and, eventually, more Republicans in Congress.
The messaging is as problematic as the governance. A focus on "gridlock" emphasizes process over policy. Compromise is a tactic, not a value. Campaigning on tactics is likely to be seen as a way to avoid sensitive issues, and that will undermine trust in the candidate.
It's still the economy.
Voters' top priority, according to the same polling which addressed gridlock, remains what it's been since 2008: "job creation and economic growth." And it's in the economic arena that the comments from Clinton's unnamed "allies" and advisors raise the most alarm.
For one thing, we're told that Clinton insiders view Sen. Elizabeth Warren (rather dismissively) as an "anti-Wall Street crusader."Said a former aide:
There's a perception out there that (Clinton) is Wall Street's biggest champion. That's not true. She's just more moderate. And she thinks that we've got to support Wall Street within reason.
But "supporting Wall Street within reason" is not a sentiment that's likely to be well-received by the public.
The polls (aggregated here) tell the story: 80 percent of voters believe politicians already do too much to support Wall Street, 79 percent of Americans view Wall Street unfavorably, and 60 percent of likely voters favor stricter regulations on banks and other financial institutions.
The presumed candidate has yet to speak out on this issue. She would be well-advised to do so soon -- and to join the "anti-Wall Street" camp, instead of relying on vague and platitudinous pronouncements about "making government work."
Right-winger Jennifer Rubin did Hillary Clinton an unintended favor by writing that the former Secretary of State "sits on the sidelines, or in a cushy chair fielding softball questions from corporate hosts in exchange for $200,000 speaking fees."
Rubin's words offer the Democratic candidate fair warning: the right will almost certainly hammer away at this over the next two years, running to Clinton's left (at least in perception) by emphasizing her ties to Wall Street and other corporate interests. Many on the left will echo these criticisms, especially if she fails to offer any evidence to the contrary.
These perceptions can't be fought with unsupportable promises about ending gridlock. And a candidate who "supports Wall Street within reason" -- offering only unsupportable tactical promises while most Americans fret about the economy -- is a candidate in danger of losing, no matter what the polls may say today.