It may be a new year, but not everything has changed. Particularly when it comes to the question that dogged Hillary Clinton all last year: Will she or won’t she run for president?
2013 started with Clinton’s resignation as secretary of state, a move that heated up already simmering speculation about her future political ambitions. Was she really stepping down because she was exhausted from all the travel? To spend more time with her family and write a book? Or was this the unofficial start of her 2016 campaign?
The conjecture continued unabated throughout the year. And while Clinton and her inner circle remained tight-lipped, her every speech, tweet, trip, meeting, and interview only seemed to invite more speculation.
As 2014 begins, Clinton may still be unwilling to discuss her plans, but her actions – and those of her husband – on just the first day of the New Year spoke volumes.
The year began with Hillary Clinton looking on while her husband braved the bitter cold to conduct the swearing-in ceremony for the new mayor of New York City, their good friend, Bill De Blasio.
How unusual is it for a former president to swear in a local or state official? Very.
Why, then, did Bill Clinton spend New Year’s Day center stage at City Hall, not just administering the oath, but taking the time to publicly and “strongly” endorse De Blasio’s battle against economic inequality and his “core campaign commitment to shared opportunities?"
Why did he note that “this inequality problem bedevils the entire country” and if left unaddressed it will be “a horrible constraint” and blight on our future?
The answer is, of course, clear – barring some unforeseen crisis, Hillary is running for president in 2016. The Clintons are nothing if not masterful politicians. They understand that if Hillary is going to capture the Democratic nomination, she has to appeal to the new and emerging progressive wing of the party; a segment that her former 2000 Senate campaign manager and the new mayor of New York City now represents, speaks to and for.
The Clintons also understand that it was little more than five years ago that Hillary lost the Democratic presidential nomination to Barack Obama in large part because she was outflanked and outmaneuvered on the left. As she looks to 2016, she knows that she cannot make this mistake again.
And it isn’t just her imagination that she faces challenges from this segment of the party. While she may be the most-talked about candidate on the Democratic side now, as we saw in 2008, fortunes can change quickly and there are others waiting in the wings. In addition to Vice President Joe Biden, three other potential contenders all speak more naturally and comfortably to the left wing of the party than Clinton: California Gov. Jerry Brown, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
While Warren has said she won’t run, Schweitzer and Brown haven’t ruled it out. And recently Schweitzer has taken not-so-veiled shots at Clinton. In a speech in the key campaign state of Iowa to a left-leaning group called Progress Iowa, he raised Clinton’s 2002 Senate vote in support of the Iraq war – something that Obama used to help catapult himself to the top of the Democratic ticket in 2008.
“The reason why I’m in Iowa, in part,” Schweitzer said, “is I’m asking you to pick the leaders who are not going to make those mistakes.”
Schweitzer’s criticism is not and should not be lost on the Clintons. Hillary may not be as vulnerable to a challenge from the left today as she was in 2008, in part because there isn’t another candidate out there now who is quite as strong, well-known or appealing to that wing of the party as Obama was. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen again. Moreover, it isn’t just an issue of semantics. Bill Clinton may want to spend his time these days with Harry Belafonte and praising the policies of people like De Blasio, but it wasn’t that long ago that he made a name for himself as a moderate, centrist Democrat, a member of the Democratic Leadership Council who essentially shut down the liberal left, noting that – accurately so – Democrats wouldn’t win nationally if they couldn’t appeal to the middle.
Now, more than 20 years later, the Clintons know that they still need the center to win the general election, but they also need the new left-wing progressives to win the nomination. Bill Clinton’s vocal support of De Blasio during the inauguration and Hillary Clinton’s willingness to host a fundraiser for him just before the election are proof positive not only that they understand this, but that barring an unforeseen crisis like a health scare, she is running.
Dr. Jeanne Zaino is professor of Political Science at Iona College and professor of Campaign Management at New York University.
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