The 2015 Netroots Nation conference was a disaster for Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley. But it was a win for Hillary Clinton.
Interrupted by #BlackLivesMatter activists, Sanders began talking about his record on civil rights issues over the last 50 years. It was awkward enough that he was later mocked mercilessly on Twitter with the hashtag #BernieSoBlack. O'Malley got in hot water, too, when he responded to the #BlackLivesMatter folks by saying "all lives matter." He apologized for it Sunday.
That's because Sanders and O'Malley are rookies.
Neither candidate has run a presidential campaign before. This is Clinton's fourth, counting the two she was engaged in when her husband sought and won the presidency. One of the ways she's shown her savvy as an inside player is to avoid the common pitfalls that take out lesser candidates. Trying to win an argument at Netroots Nation is one of them. Clinton remembers her appearance in 2007, when she was booed by the liberal, Obama-leaning crowd for saying that not all lobbyists are the scum of the earth.
So she skipped Netroots Nation and watched the ensuing controversy. Two days later, in a Facebook Q&A session, Clinton gave a carefully constructed response to a query about #BlackLivesMatter.
"Black lives matter. Everyone in this country should stand firmly behind that," Clinton said. "We need to acknowledge some hard truths about race and justice in this country, and one of those hard truths is that racial inequality is not merely a symptom of economic inequality. Black people across America still experience racism every day."
Those were the words activists were looking for.
The reason Clinton didn't fall prey to the Netroots Nation trap is the same reason that she has lined up a majority of Democratic voters, nearly half of the Democratic members of Congress, economists and education experts who can hardly stand each other, and major identity constituencies within the party: She knows how to play the inside game.
This is something people often forget after watching Hillary Clinton's uninspiring appearances on the stump: She's not a great campaigner, but she's a damn good candidate.
Winning in Congress
Clinton drew high praise from House Democrats after a private meeting last week. But it wasn't because they agreed with her on every policy or because she had just endorsed President Barack Obama's nuclear deal with Iran.
The key to Clinton's success, according to several Democrats in the room, was a subtle but unmistakable contrast with Obama.
"I want to be your partner in policy and your partner in politics," she told them.
That single line — so anodyne in a vacuum — spoke directly to the frustration Democratic officials feel toward a president they believe has shut them out of his policymaking process, denied them face time, and failed to provide them political cover when they vote with him. Clinton, they think, will do better.
That's a part of the reason she has 115 endorsements from Democratic members of Congress — 35 of the 46 senators and 85 of the 188 House members — according to a tally kept by the Hill. They range across the ideological, racial, and geographical spectra, from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, one of the chamber's most liberal members, to Rep. Henry Cuellar, a conservative Latino Democrat from Texas.
It's incredibly early for a candidate to have this much pledged congressional support — and it gives Clinton a safety margin later on. While endorsements are of questionable value in most political races, they're quantifiable in a Democratic presidential primary.
Most convention delegates are "pledged," meaning they go because they were elected to support a particular candidate. But members of Congress are designated as "superdelegates" to the convention. The superdelegates, a set that also includes Democratic National Committee members, governors, and a handful of elder party statesmen, get to vote for whichever candidate they prefer.
Beyond the arcane mechanics of the party nominating process, which Clinton probably won't have to worry too much about, some lawmakers have substantial political organizations in their home districts and states that can be turned out in primaries and general elections. And at a time when Clinton is trying to bring the party together behind her candidacy, members of Congress can act as conduits to national interest groups and big-dollar contributors.
The ultimate show of loyalty: More than two dozen Democrats have given to Clinton out of their campaign or political action committee accounts, and half a dozen of them — including Sen. Claire McCaskill — have written personal checks to her. Among Clinton loyalists, McCaskill was the most hated of Obama's surrogates in 2008.
While Democratic lawmakers make for a good focus group, they're hardly the whole story. Clinton is assiduously courting key constituencies by including them in the development of her platform, aiming policies directly at them, and building a campaign operation that clearly reflects the full diversity of the Democratic Party.
It's tough to bash Clinton when you're sitting at her table
Clinton's been a boss at building institutional support. Here's her secret: Invite potential adversaries to the table, include some of their ideas in policy, and then send their laudatory remarks out to reporters. This signals to them that she'll be inclusive if she's elected president, and makes it hard for them to criticize her later on.
The MO has been most evident on the economic agenda Clinton's in the midst of rolling out. She consulted more than 200 economists, according to her campaign. Her aides worked closely with officials at the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive think tank, in advance of her official campaign launch rally on Roosevelt Island in New York and before her first big economic speech.
More important, she's taking input from liberal economists who emphasize "fairness" in the economic system and have warred with more Wall Street–oriented Democratic economists such as Bob Rubin and Larry Summers. Rather than choose between their "growth" wing of the Democratic economic establishment and the "fairness" wing, represented by the likes of Joe Stiglitz and Alan Blinder, Clinton has opted for both — and managed to co-opt both.
"Today Hillary Clinton began to offer the kind of comprehensive approach we need to tackle the enormous economic challenges we face, one that is squarely in line with what we have called for at the Roosevelt Institute," Stiglitz said in a statement.
That leaves her rivals with few respected economists left to vouch for their ideas, and it speaks to her mastery of coalition politics.
"She knows this is a team sport," said Lea Crusey, the acting executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, who praised Clinton in a post on Medium Monday topped with an '80s-vintage picture of Clinton and the words "Hillary Rodham Clinton: Ed Reformer Since 1983."
Perhaps that might not be so unusual if it didn't come on the heels of one of the major teachers unions — the American Federation of Teachers — endorsing Clinton. As with the warring economists, she who can bring together the teachers and the education reformers can bridge a great many divides.
Her campaign reflects the Democratic Party and its priorities
When advocacy groups are upset with policy, they often point to a lack of representation within a candidate or president's inner circle. When they want to enhance their representation, they often argue that policy decisions aren't being resolved in their favor. It will be tougher to criticize Clinton because she's covering both bases. The composition of her staff and the composition of her platform reinforce each other.
This puts her ahead of candidates like Sanders, who have a less diverse staff — and who now realize they have a problem. "It will take some time because we are not the frontrunner, but it's a priority," Sanders adviser Tad Devine told CNN recently. "We want a campaign that looks like a Democratic Party campaign and not a Republican Party convention."
Clinton has a corner on the top talent in the market for Democratic operatives, including people of color, making it more difficult for Sanders, O'Malley, and others in the Democratic primary to quickly staff up. The absence of veterans of Democratic coalition politics showed at the Netroots Nation conference — it's likely that one reason O'Malley and Sanders didn't deal with the protestors better was they weren't briefed by staff who understood the protests better.Clinton, who doesn't have that problem, is doing an interesting thing with her top operatives: She's building their brands. One of the effects of that is to make the face of the campaign more of a mosaic and more representative of the party's constituencies. Another effect is to empower those aides as they court voters and activist groups.
Amanda Renteria, the campaign's political director, was allowed to participate in a Los Angeles Times profile that chronicled her politicking at a National Council of La Raza conference and, separately, with young Latino voters.
Under Renteria's direction, Clinton organizers are showing up in Latino and other minority communities in a variety of ways. Often it's not even to talk much politics. Renteria, 40, recalls a recent networking event at a bar in Philadelphia where the millennials who showed up wanted to discuss career strategies, how to go about paying off student loans and what her family thinks of what she is doing with her life. So they did.
Marlon Marshall, a former Obama White House aide and 2008 Clinton campaign operative, has similarly become a face of the campaign for activists. Marshall, who is black, emceed Clinton's kickoff rally and emails donors to give them updates on what he sees from his perch as the campaign's "director of states."
The diversity in the upper echelons of Clinton's campaign is nothing new. Her campaign managers in 2008 were Patti Solis Doyle, who is Latina, and Maggie Williams, who is black. Her chief of staff at the State Department, Cheryl Mills, is black, and the vice chairwoman of her current campaign, Huma Abedin, is of South Asian descent. Identity politics still matter — perhaps more now than the last time Clinton ran. So the diversity, in and of itself, strengthens the likelihood that Clinton proposals aimed at specific constituencies, like ending the "era of mass incarceration" and protecting more unauthorized immigrants from deportation, will be well-received. Likewise, the policies make it more likely that Clinton's campaign emissaries will be well-received.