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The selective liberalism of Hillary Clinton

Alex Wong/Getty Images

There's a term for the way Hillary Clinton has handled policy in the early stages of her campaign: Clintonian.

That is, on the issues that most divide the Democratic base from its centrist wing, she refuses to box herself into a position. She'd rather wait to see how things play out — a tendency that reinforces the often asserted (but sometimes unfair) criticism that she doesn't have core convictions.

  1. She’s thrilled that fast-food workers are fighting for a $15 minimum wage, but she won’t say whether she’ll fight for it — or even whether she thinks that's the right level.
  2. She’s decidedly undecided on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, even though she called it "the gold standard in trade agreements" when she was secretary of state.
  3. And her campaign has completely dodged the question of whether she thinks her husband’s welfare reform law was the right policy.

It's true that Clinton has rolled out a string of positions that please constituencies on the left, from support for LGBT rights and voting rights to repudiating the results of her husband's 1994 anti-crime law and vowing to enhance President Obama's executive action on immigration. These are important issues, perhaps more important than the exact level of a wage increase that surely won't be $15 an hour as long as Republicans control either the House or 41 seats in the Senate. But Clinton has been very selective about how she's courted her party's progressive base, speaking as much to identity politics as to actual policy. On some of the more controversial policy questions, she's taking a pass.

As Ruth Marcus put it in the Washington Post Wednesday morning, "The left-leaning positions she isn’t taking are as significant as the ones she has endorsed."

In keeping her powder dry, she is reminding voters — Democrats, Republicans, and independents — that it's hard to pin down a Clinton. Her husband was famous for practicing political "triangulation," letting others stake out their positions and then standing in the middle. Clinton's unwillingness to commit to either side on the minimum wage, trade, and welfare reform (Jeb Bush is calling for a new round of it) leaves everyone wondering what she really believes on those issues. That feeds an existing narrative that she's less than trustworthy. And that's not good for Clinton.

Clinton's honesty problem

Most adults say the label "honest and trustworthy" doesn't apply to her.

Nearly two-thirds of men think Clinton isn't trustworthy, compared with about half of women.

CNN/ORC poll, May 29-31, 2015

The CNN/ORC poll released earlier this month is one in a series that show Americans have greater faith in her ability to lead than in her willingness to tell the truth. The problem is particularly acute with men and whites — two subcategories that lean more Republican and that have been problematic for Clinton.

The silver lining: almost three-fifths of nonwhite adults do believe she's honest and trustworthy, and about half of women say the same. The positions she's taken on voting rights, immigration, and ending the "era of mass incarceration" should bolster those numbers. She still leads all Republican challengers in head-to-head matchups.

But if voters don't trust what Clinton says, it will be harder for her to persuade them to vote for her. Pew polling suggests honesty is an essential leadership trait.

Pew Social Trends survey, released January 2015


The $15 head fake

Clinton's main rivals in the Democratic field, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, have both taken firm stands in favor of a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Clinton gave a head fake this weekend.

Clinton seemed to be taking a stand on Sunday when she called in to a fast-food workers convention to say she stood behind them in their push for a $15-per-hour wage floor. The Washington Post noted that Clinton used language mirroring labor's campaign for the higher pay standard and ran a headline suggesting she was endorsing the $15 level. At first, her aides declined to say whether she meant that she backs a $15 minimum wage. And then, after a couple of days, they still declined to say.

One campaign spokesperson said Tuesday night that Clinton will eventually have a position.

"As Hillary Clinton expressed this weekend, she strongly supports workers in the fast-food industry in cities across the country mobilizing to fight for a living wage. In the coming weeks, she will lay out her specific plans for increasing wages."

That leaves open the question of whether she might back something other than the most often cited figures, $15 an hour and $10.10 an hour. It's a little reminiscent of the scene from There's Something About Mary that revolves around one-upsmanship on whether six-, seven- or eight-minute abs is the most effective workout routine.

O'Malley spokesperson Haley Morris made the point that her boss raised the wage floor in his state (to $8.25 an hour).

"We don't know where Secretary Clinton stands on the minimum wage, but Governor O'Malley's stance couldn't be clearer: he supports efforts to raise it to $15 an hour. This is another issue where he doesn't just talk -- he's gotten things done. Last year, Maryland was just the second state to raise its minimum wage."

Trading places

For years, it would have been hard to find a more ardent advocate for a Pacific Rim trade deal than Clinton. As Obama's secretary of state, she was a leader of the US "pivot" to Asia, which was later recoined a "rebalancing." She wrote about the benefits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and spoke publicly about them. As White House Communications Director and former State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki put it on MSNBC this week, Clinton spent a "great deal of time" extolling the virtues of the deal when she was a member of the administration.

And then, in April, with pressure bearing down on Democrats to take a position, Clinton backpedaled — through a spokesman.

"Hillary Clinton believes that any new trade measure has to pass two tests: first, it should put us in a position to protect American workers, raise wages, and create more good jobs at home," Nick Merrill said in a statement. "Second, it must also strengthen our national security. We should be willing to walk away from any outcome that falls short of these tests. The goal is greater prosperity and security for American families, not trade for trade’s sake."

Senior aides have since said that she doesn't need to take a position until the deal is finalized and the fine print can be analyzed. If she's lucky, the House will reject Trade Promotion Authority for Obama this week, mooting TPP. But as it stands, the vast majority of House Democrats — and party activists — oppose the deal. If Clinton supports it, she'll disappoint them and give more fuel to Sanders and O'Malley, both of whom oppose the pact. If she opposes it, she'll have flip-flopped and turned her back on Obama.

Welfare reform

There's also distance between Clinton and her rivals on welfare reform.

When she said she wanted to end the "era of mass incarceration" — which was spurred by Bill Clinton's anti-crime law — the next logical question was whether she would seek to reverse another major social policy law from his presidency: welfare reform. As first lady, she had praised it.

It became a more pressing matter when Bush, in the wake of violence in Baltimore, called for new welfare reforms.

So far, Clinton and her aides have refused to address repeated questions about where she stands with regard to the 1990s law, which largely addressed government benefits and work requirements for women. As with other issues, they say she'll have more policy to detail over the summer.

Sanders voted against the 1996 welfare reform law, which split Democrats almost evenly.

In 2000, O'Malley signed a document expressing appreciation for the Clinton law but calling on government to "finish the job" by creating more employment opportunities for people moving off of government assistance.

On this, too, Democrats are anxious to hear what Clinton thinks in this presidential run.

Time to choose

It's tempting to think that Clinton has plenty of time because it's early in the presidential election cycle or because her Democratic rivals probably don't have what it takes to beat her in a primary. But by sidestepping important policy questions, she's giving oxygen to doubts about her sincerity. That's a character question that should be familiar to Clinton fans who watched Barack Obama turn honesty into a weapon against her in 2008, and it's one that crosses party lines.

Ultimately, Clinton is going to have to choose a side on these issues. The longer she takes, the more it looks like she's afraid of commitment.