When it comes to campaign trail flip-flops, Hillary Clinton delivered a doozy this week. On Wednesday she announced her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal reached between the United States and Asian nations.
Clinton says that any new trade deal must “create good American jobs, raise wages, and advance our national security” — and this one doesn’t. Clinton, however, has long been a proponent of the TPP, particularly when she was secretary of state just a few years ago (by one estimate, she expressed support for it 45 times). It’s doubtful she has suddenly become a protectionist or that, as president, she won’t find some way to support a different version of the TPP.
So let’s be honest, this isn’t about jobs; it’s about one job, president, and Clinton’s desire to be the next one.
For Clinton, opposition to TPP is about the potential entry of Joe Biden into the race (who, as vice president, would be hard-pressed to oppose this deal) and undercutting his support among labor unions, who dislike free trade agreements.
It’s also about the threat posed by Bernie Sanders. Several months ago, I asked a Sanders press aide to name the major issues on which his candidate and Clinton disagreed — the Keystone pipeline and free trade were prominently mentioned. Since then, Clinton has announced her opposition to Keystone and has now come out against TPP.
And in those policy shifts lies the real importance of Clinton’s latest flip-flop — the increasing dominance of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
Twenty-three years ago, when Bill Clinton ran for president, he announced his support for the North American Free Trade Agreement, even though it was bitterly opposed by labor unions. Clinton’s move was viewed by the pundit class as a sign of his political seriousness and his willingness to jettison liberal positions in a move to the political center.
Today, however, the political equation has shifted and, rather than a dash to the center, Hillary Clinton is being pushed to stake out more liberal positions – and she’s delivering. She’s embracing Sanders’ talk about income equality, has stepped up partisan attacks against her GOP rivals, and offered an unabashed defense of Planned Parenthood. On the issue of guns, she’s moved to outflank Sanders, who has a decidedly mixed record on gun control, from the left. It’s a far cry from the last few election cycles, when Democrats couldn’t run fast enough away from a pro-gun-control position.
To be sure, on foreign policy, Clinton continues to adopt transparently hawkish positions, like calling for a no-fly zone in Syria and talking up her support for Israel and dislike of Iran. And, of course, she wouldn’t be the first politician to run to the left or right in the primaries and then shift back to the center in the general. But it seems unlikely that Clinton can undo her positions on trade, guns, taxes, or any number of issues. Why would she want to? These are largely popular positions — and considering that Clinton’s best route to the presidency, in an age of deep political polarization, will come from energizing her liberal base of voters, she has far more to gain by running to the left then she does seeking out the mushy middle. Rather than take the left for granted, Clinton has been pushed to cultivate and woo them.
Indeed, as Republicans move even further to the right on pretty much everything, Clinton’s leftward shift is great for voters. Assuming she’s the Democratic nominee, come November 2016 there will be little question as to where the two parties stand — and the stark choice facing voters in selecting the next president.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.