Earlier this year, Buzzfeed uncovered a 1979 television interview with Hillary Clinton—then Hillary Rodham—who had just become first lady of Arkansas. In the half-hour video, we see a young woman in oversize glasses, calm and smiling as the host grills her about whether she’s too liberal, too feminist, too career-oriented to fit into her new role. The host tells her that she probably cost her husband votes by keeping her last name. (She would later give in and change it.) “You’re not a native,” he says. “You’ve been educated in liberal Eastern universities. You’re less than 40. You don’t have any children…. You practice law.” (She assures him that she and Bill plan to have children and adds, “I’m not 40, but that hopefully will be cured by age.”) After nearly 20 minutes of this sort of thing, the host asks Clinton what she finds attractive about Arkansas—a place to which, her biographers have made clear, she moved with great reluctance to further her husband’s political career. Outsiders, he notes, complain that “We’re so unprogressive here. We’re just not as progressive as they are up North.” Appearing eager to finally ingratiate herself, she replies by pouring scorn on urban America: “You know, if it’s progress to default on your bond obligations so that your city’s going into bankruptcy, or if it’s progress to have such an incredible crime rate that people don’t venture outside their doors, or if it’s progress to live in a city whose air you can’t breathe, well, then I hope we are unprogressive, and I hope we never get to the point where that’s our definition of progress.”
This exchange exemplifies a dynamic we would observe over and over for more than two decades. For the first half of her political life, Hillary Clinton was consistently painted as so far left—so feminist—that it threatened her husband’s political viability. Whenever that viability was in doubt, she would overcorrect, trying to convince a skeptical mainstream press that she wasn’t nearly as liberal as she seemed. Eventually, the strategy of triangulation—using the left as a foil to prove her moderate bona fides—became nearly reflexive.
In recent years, however, America’s political context has been transformed. With the white South becoming solidly Republican—something that happened during Bill Clinton’s administration—the Democratic Party has become more reliant on the votes of women, people of color, and those who wear the “liberal” label proudly. This means that elections have become less about wooing swing voters than about turning out the base. Meanwhile, policies once supported by a smug centrist consensus—from Wall Street deregulation to military adventurism in the Middle East—have proved themselves failures, pushing the center of gravity in the Democratic Party to the left. Triangulation has become passé.
This means that, in a historical irony, Hillary Clinton now needs to convince progressives that she really is who she was once widely believed to be. She is running for president as a progressive feminist, something that would have been utterly quixotic when she entered public life. In a major address on the economy in July, Clinton emphasized the importance of women’s equality in a way that no mainstream candidate has done before, describing equal pay, accessible childcare, and fair scheduling as key to economic growth. She’s making paid leave a signature issue. “I am well aware that for far too long, these challenges have been dismissed by some as ‘women’s issues,’” she said. “Well, those days are over.”
It was thrilling language. Yet after spending so many decades trying to shed her reputation for liberalism, Clinton has amassed a record that many on the left find troubling, if not unforgivable. The wildfire growth of Bernie Sanders’s campaign suggests that a large part of the grassroots is dissatisfied with her. She will almost certainly be the Democratic nominee, but “the X factor is enthusiasm, which is going to be a real challenge,” says Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange, the online civil-rights organization. “The question will be, for all of us: How will Hillary speak to the issues of the left?”