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Hillary Clinton has always been to Obama's left on economics

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

At a dramatic weekend rally on Roosevelt Island, Hillary Clinton unleashed a speech that was in some ways strikingly liberal, especially for a candidate who's not facing meaningful opposition in the Democratic primary. Politico's Glenn Thrush says it shows that "the Democratic Party is moving left fast" and Clinton knows it, which is why she uncorked "economic-inequality rhetoric could have been comfortably uttered by the likes of Elizabeth Warren, Joseph Stiglitz, Bernie Sanders, or Martin O’Malley."

The truth, however, is that on the kind of pocketbook issues Clinton spent most of yesterday's speech discussing, she's always been on the left wing of the Democratic Party. She's been in the public eye far too long to have avoided inconsistencies over the years. But in positional terms, somewhat to the left of Obama — or Bill Clinton — on economics is where she's been this whole time.

Clinton's voting record was to the left of Obama's

In 2008, both Clinton and Obama spent a lot of time debating a single fateful vote she cast in 2002 in favor of George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. But if you look at all the votes that were cast during the four years they served together in the Senate, it was Clinton who amassed the more liberal record.

  • In the 109th Senate, Obama was the 17th most liberal member (between Chuck Schumer and Tom Harkin), while Clinton was the 13th most liberal member.
  • In the 110th Senate, Obama was the 18th most liberal member (again one tick to the left of Schumer) while Clinton was again 13th most liberal.
  • Another way of looking at it is that of the two Democratic senators from New York, Clinton was the more liberal. Of the two Democratic senators from Illinois, Obama was the more conservative.

Of course, one could say that these kind of crude vote-agglomeration methods miss a lot of what matters. A single vote on Iraq was more consequential than dozens of votes on budget amendments. But this is the point. Clinton's reputation as a centrist Democrat comes largely from her foreign policy. On the economic issues that dominate congressional votes by volume, she's liberal.

On economics, Clinton ran left in 2008

In keeping with her voting record, Clinton ran to Obama's left on economic issues in the 2008 primaries. This manifested itself most clearly on the subject of health care, where Clinton was willing to include a politically unpopular individual mandate to buy health insurance as part of a program for universal coverage. Obama was not willing to go so far, and came in for substantial criticism from liberals for it. Less famously, Clinton proposed a Cabinet-level poverty czar position — an idea that might make a comeback in 2016.

The ideological divide here was not large, but it was reflected in patterns of support for the two candidates. Clinton secured more labor union backing than Obama, and Obama did better than Clinton at gaining primary votes from self-identified independents.

Much of the primary debate ended up focusing on foreign policy, where Clinton was (and continues to be) more hawkish than Obama. But there's nothing new about her running left on economics.

Hillary led the left wing of the Clinton administration

Reaching further back in time, there is considerable evidence that Hillary was to the left of her husband on economics in the 1990s. As Peter Beinart recounts, she was the senior adviser through whom liberals generally tried to win over the White House.

  • Carl Bernstein reports that in 1993, Hillary opposed the decision to prioritize deficit reduction, saying, "You didn’t get elected to do Wall Street economics."
  • Sally Bedell Smith reports that in 1995, Hillary and Robert Reich tried (and failed) to get Bill to make a big stink about CEO pay.
  • George Stephanopoulos, who was in a position to know, referred to Hillary as "the most powerful liberal in the White House."
  • A then-obscure law professor named Elizabeth Warren reached out to Hillary and helped convince her to persuade her husband to veto a bank-friendly bankruptcy bill at the very end of the Clinton administration.

Some of this, especially the parts about Clinton being out of step with the Wall Street wing of the party, has been obscured by subsequent events. Clinton, for example, flip-flopped on the bankruptcy issue in 2005.

But one should be cautious about reading too much into a New York politician's friendliness to Wall Street — especially a politician with such tenuous ties to New York. As a senator from Illinois, Obama was an ally of the Illinois coal industry. Elizabeth Warren is a dogmatic liberal on virtually every issue, but also a loyal ally of the medical device industry, which happens to be substantially based in the Boston area. Things can change over time, but it seems likely that First Lady Hillary Clinton rather than Fake New Yorker Hillary Clinton is the better guide to her views on Wall Street.