WASHINGTON — As Hillary Rodham Clinton mulls a second presidential bid, liberals are closely watching whether the onetime supporter of the Iraq war moves to the left or straddles the center.
Democrats say economic issues such as raising the minimum wage and protecting Social Security have become paramount for anyone aiming to lead the party after years of tough economic times.
During the 2008 primary campaign against Barack Obama, Clinton was hurt by her stand on the Iraq war while she was a senator. But she burnished her image among party loyalists during four years at the State Department in the Obama administration. Now liberals want to see how she might carry the torch from Obama.
“We’re going to see income inequality play the same role that the war in Iraq played in 2008,” said Ilya Sheyman, executive director of MoveOn.org, a liberal advocacy group. “This is less about what she did before. The issue landscape right now is very different than in 2008.”
Whether a viable Clinton alternative emerges for the 2016 campaign remains a looming question.
Vice President Joe Biden is leaving his options open. Some liberals hope Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., will reconsider statements that she has no plans to run. Others point to ex-Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who addressed a progressive group in Iowa in December, or Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is considering a presidential run but endorsed Clinton in 2007.
Liberals have backed efforts by Warren to expand Social Security benefits instead of trimming them to keep the program solvent. In a speech at Colgate University last year, Clinton suggested she shared Obama’s approach for a “grand bargain” style deficit reduction that would include increases to tax revenue and adjustments to entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
Progressives want Clinton to take a tougher stand on Wall Street. They grumble about her speeches at private financial conferences, where she can command fees of $200,000.
“It’s a big unknown on where Hillary Clinton stands on issues like core economic populist issues,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. He said there are “a lot of people who want to support her and are rooting for her to adapt to the times” but if she doesn’t, there will be room for a challenger.
On Super Bowl Sunday, liberals reacted favorably when Clinton urged fellow Democrats to avoid tougher penalties against Iran as the administration negotiates a comprehensive nuclear deal.
“I have no doubt that this is the time to give our diplomacy the space to work,” Clinton wrote Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee
During the game, Clinton took a humorous swipe at Fox News, a frequent target of liberals. She posted on Twitter that it was “so much more fun to watch FOX when it’s someone else being blitzed and sacked!”
Last Tuesday, she sat in an East Harlem Head Start classroom with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to promote reading for Hispanic children. Clinton raised money for de Blasio’s campaign and joined her husband at the mayor’s inauguration, where former President Bill Clinton embraced de Blasio’s agenda of fighting economic inequalities.
During Hillary Clinton’s White House run in 2008, her 2002 Senate vote to authorize military force in Iraq gave an opening to Obama. He had opposed the use of force as an Illinois state senator and used the vote to energize his supporters.
Liberals deemed Clinton too hawkish on defense and wondered if the New York senator was too closely aligned with Wall Street and would continue the centrist policies of her husband.
Last year, liberals pressured Obama not to choose Lawrence Summers, a former Clinton treasury secretary, as Federal Reserve chairman, and have said Wall Street executives wrongly escaped prosecution for the near financial collapse of 2008.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who sought the party’s presidential nomination in 2004, said he expected Hillary Clinton to face a primary challenge. But Dean predicted she would “satisfy a large number of Democratic voters, including a large number of progressives.”
“There are going to be issues where there is disagreement on. You can never please everyone,” Dean said. “The people who are not going to be pleased are well-organized voices and not a lot of votes.”
Asked if he were considering running again, Dean was blunt: “Nope. Not as long as Hillary’s in.”
Clinton’s supporters say she always has embodied the central tenets of liberalism, the idea that government can address social problems and inequities. They point to a career that began with the Children’s Defense Fund, where she walked door to door in New Bedford, Mass., to understand why students were delinquent. She discovered many skipped school because of financial hardships or disabilities.
“She’s clearly been a progressive,” said de Blasio, who cited her 1996 book, “It Takes a Village,” as a precursor to his prekindergarten initiative.
Others note that becoming the first female president would represent progress from the outset.
Clinton endorsed gay marriage shortly after stepping down as secretary of state last year, and she defended the Voting Rights Act, putting her in step with the party’s base. At her family’s foundation, she has promoted economic and educational opportunities for women and children, a lifelong passion.
On Twitter, Clinton has expressed support for women living in poverty and for extending unemployment benefits.
“In my mind we have a different Hillary than we had in 2008,” said Nancy Bobo, a Democratic activist from Des Moines, Iowa, who backed Obama.
Yet questions remain.
When the Clinton Foundation released its annual list of financial supporters, which it does voluntarily, it underscored the corporate support the family’s charitable organization has received, with cumulative donations of between $500,000 and $1 million from the Bank of America Foundation, Barclays PLC and ExxonMobil.
Others are watching how she will address the National Security Agency’s surveillance practices — at Colgate, she called for a “comprehensive discussion” on the security measures — along with her views of a major trans-Pacific trade deal opposed by labor unions, and a proposed Canada-to-U.S. oil pipeline that environmentalists revile.
In the coming months, Clinton will speak at the University of Miami, the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Connecticut, putting her before youthful audiences. Some progressives say they hope Clinton will consider addressing the annual Netroots Nation convention, set for Detroit in July.
“It’s a new world out there,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America. “And we want to see that Hillary Clinton is adapting to the new world.”
Associated Press reporter Ken Thomas wrote this report. Follow him on Twitter.