Hillary Clinton and her advisers now face an excruciating dilemma for the November election. Go left or go center?
Typically, a Democrat moves left to win the nomination and then moves center to capture swing voters in the general election. But this is no ordinary election.
For starters, the Sanders campaign has been the source of energy and excitement—not just the kids, but the white working class voters whom Hillary will need to win back.
Polls suggest that few Sanders backers will defect to Trump. That’s not the problem.
The problem is how many will just disengage, stay home, refuse to work hard for the ticket, or even vote for the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein.
And what it would take for Clinton to win over disaffected blue-collar voters who were once Democrats but who now are inclined to vote for a pseudo-populist Republican?
Those concerns suggest that Hillary Clinton should move to the populist left. However, most of the insider advice she is getting urges the opposite—move to the center to persuade moderate Republicans disgusted by Trump to vote for a Democrat this time. If she moves left, according to this advice, the moderate Republicans and traditional swing voters stay home.
One of the first signals she will send will be her choice of running mate. For a while the moderate of choice seemed to be Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro. But Clinton doesn’t really need a Hispanic running mate. Trump will take care of Hispanic turnout for the Democrat.
Now the moderate of choice is Virginia Senator Tim Kaine. He’s a popular, well-liked, centrist Democrat from a swing state, who is also a Catholic and a former governor. Kaine would reassure moderates—but do nothing whatever for Sanders supporters.
If she goes the other way, and names Sanders himself, or a progressive like Al Franken or Elizabeth Warren, that could mobilize some Sanders voters—but not win the hearts of those elusive moderate Republicans.
She might declare the platform process open to convention delegates and let them define the party program. That could well give Sanders supporters the sense that they succeeded on pushing the Democrats to the left. The trouble is that hardly anyone reads platforms other than Republicans looking to ridicule positions that sound extreme.
Clinton could also adopt more of Sanders’s policy positions. She has already shifted to opposing Obama’s pro-corporate trade deals and now (sort of) supports a $15 minimum wage.
She might come out more unequivocally for a $15 minimum, for more far reaching student debt relief, and tougher regulation of Wall Street. But those and similar policies would contradict the strategy of moving to the center.
Face it: There is no good way of reassuring both Sanders supporters and Republican moderates.
But does that matter really? Don’t the polls make clear that Hillary wins in a landslide against Trump? What could go wrong?
Let us count the things that could go wrong.
It’s true that the polls show Clinton beating Trump nationally, and even in must-win states like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, which have lots of disaffected blue-collar voters. However, Trump has been underestimated ever since he declared, and imagine any of the following:
A major terrorist attack. Even though Clinton is hawkish on national security, she is still female. And Trump would exploit all the latent misogyny that signals the need for a tough man in charge during a crisis.
Some unexploded bomblet from the email mess or the still undisclosed Wall Street speeches. We just don’t know what’s in there.
Bill goes rogue. We do know that Trump will keep baiting Hillary Clinton for being a faux-feminist and political opportunist because she stayed married to her alley-cat husband. Hillary may well have enough self-discipline not to take the bait. But Bill is capable of saying anything. Which would drag everyone in the mud, a venue where Trump is a champion wrestler.
So the nail-biters in the Clinton camp are right to worry. Yes, she is probably on track to win, but she needs every vote she can get, especially if she expects to govern effectively—which will take a Democratic Senate and ideally a Democratic House.
Threading that needle, and attracting both Sanders voters and moderate Republicans, will be no mean feat.