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While everyone else was talking about her authenticity, Hillary Clinton changed her position

The frontrunner is now calling herself a "moderate" as she seeks a contrast with Bernie Sanders.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to guests gathered for a campaign event at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee on September 10, 2015, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to guests gathered for a campaign event at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee on September 10, 2015, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The revelation that Hillary Clinton is planning to be more spontaneous and authentic brought a booming collective laugh from Republicans, some Democrats, and opinion writers last week. The group guffaw drowned out a related shift in her positioning that is far more important: Now she wants to be known as a moderate.

"You know, I get accused of being kind of moderate and center," Clinton said in Ohio September 10, according to CNN. "I plead guilty."

That's a tire-squealing turn from the first five months of her campaign, when Clinton emphasized her progressive credentials. She built a policy platform significantly to the left of where many Democrats expected her to stand — in favor of new regulations of the financial services industry, "ending the era of mass incarceration," and reforming campaign finance laws, to name a few items on her agenda. The focus on populism was described as a newfound affinity for the left, a return to liberal roots, an effort to crowd out the competition, a general election strategy based on energizing Democrats, or some combination thereof. The truth is that Clinton's record is pretty liberal, except when it comes to national defense and trade.

Now she's pivoting back toward the centrist label that defined her husband's campaigns and presidency. The obvious reason for Clinton to switch tacks now is that her initial strategy didn't work: On the strength of backing from liberals, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has surged to leads in New Hampshire and Iowa. That's a good reason for her to shake things up a bit, but it's only part of a story that is more about drawing a contrast with Sanders, sending a signal to her supporters that she's ready to really fight for the nomination, and making sure that she's comfortable in the political skin she's wearing for the rest of the campaign.

"When we start the debate, we will start to draw contrasts not only as I do all the time with Republicans but where appropriate with my Democratic competitors," Clinton told reporters Monday, referring to the launch of a series of six Democratic debates next month.

While one could spend a lot of time criticizing Clinton for being "calculating" — a word that often is spelled "strategic" and considered a compliment when applied to a male candidate for the presidency — it's far more interesting and instructive to explore all the reasons for this pivot, especially because it's one that is likely to define the rest of her candidacy.

Clinton's attempt to be Sanders Lite didn't win love from the left

For the last two election cycles, the main knocks on Clinton from Democratic primary voters have been that she's too hawkish and that she's too close to Wall Street and corporate America. These criticisms have been translated into the shorthand that she's too moderate and definitely too willing to compromise with both Republicans and their allies in the business world.

To counter these perceptions, and to try to crowd out a credible challenge from her left, Clinton emphasized populist elements of her platform. With the help of scholars from the progressive Roosevelt Institute, she fashioned a campaign launch speech that focused on the liberal domestic principles articulated by Franklin Roosevelt in his "Four Freedoms" speech, and rolled out an economic agenda based on the premise that fairness in the economic system would fuel growth. It was endorsed by liberal economists Joseph Stiglitz and Alan Blinder.

But rather than attracting diehard liberals, Clinton's tack served to reinforce the legitimacy of Sanders's ideas and left her offering Bernie Lite to a Democratic primary electorate that has only become more populist since the financial crisis that struck the US during and after her 2008 presidential campaign. Sanders, who believes fairness is more important than growth, is the real deal for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Not only are his policy prescriptions a few ticks to the left of Clinton's — he's for a $15 minimum wage, he's against big trade deals, and he wants to reinstate the Glass-Steagall firewall between investment and commercial banks — but they reinforce his authenticity factor because he hasn't shaded these long-held beliefs to attract voters.

"While Sanders's ideology might easily fit into a box, Clinton's does not — she's progressive on some issues but moderate on others, like tax policy," said Ben LaBolt, who worked as a communications aide for the Obama campaign and the White House. "That's less easy to squeeze onto a bumper sticker, but ultimately consistent with where many voters are."

To the extent that Clinton might have hoped to win over some of the populist "Warren wing" of the Democratic Party with this Bernie Lite agenda, there aren't a lot of new policy ideas for her to roll out. More to the point, it just isn't working for her. If anything, she's bolstered Sanders's validity and authenticity and, by doing that, has shown herself to be a poor imitation. This shift back to the middle ground seems likely to be a permanent one because, with voters saying they think she's not honest or trustworthy, Clinton can't afford to be seen as zig-zagging back and forth on how she perceives herself.

The shift is partly about portraying Sanders as too extreme

Clinton's approach to policymaking is consensus-driven enough to infuriate every ideologue in the Democratic Party. She'll never please the hard left because she seeks compromise and political buy-in from stakeholders, including wealthy donors to her campaign, whose priorities are anathema to many Democratic voters.

Here's how she described her approach last week: "I think sometimes it's important when you are in the elected arena — you try to figure out, how do you bring people together to get something done instead of just standing on the opposite sides yelling at each other." She continued, "Some people want it to be about everything other than what they would do when they are president."

By portraying herself as a moderate, Clinton is subtly saying that Sanders is too extreme — that he's one of the people standing on the sidelines shouting rather than trying to "get something done." The inference voters are supposed to draw is that would make it harder for Sanders to win the presidency and even harder for him to govern.

LaBolt said it's a transition that could serve Clinton well as the primary wears on.

"In the run-up to primary season, the loudest partisans in the electorate tend to break through the most, and there's a real competition playing out between Sanders and Clinton for those voters," he said. " But as the primary process plays out, candidates begin to face open primaries, and voters begin to think about the general election, the dynamic can swiftly change. Voters will consider not just a candidate's message, but whether they have the ability to see it through."

Ironically, Clinton's back to making the argument that she did against Barack Obama in 2008: that she's a better general election candidate, and that she has a better chance to get things done if she's elected. Whether that proves to be more effective this time around remains to be seen, but it should provide a rallying point for centrist Democrats who have had little reason to cheer her earlier echoes of Sanders and Warren.

"She is a principled and pragmatic leader, and not only do I believe such an approach is the best path to the nomination, it's also the best path to winning in November and, most important, governing as president," one longtime Clinton insider argued.

And it's partly about Clinton's authenticity factor

The insider made another good point about what the "moderate" title means for Clinton: It's authentic.

"I hope she will continue to offer an expansive vision for America that is beyond ideology and focuses on what works, and what we need to do together to achieve greater prosperity and opportunity for all," the Clinton insider said. "And I think as she embraces that kind of theme, it will be liberating and energizing, because it truly will come from her heart and head."

Clinton's move to the middle is about issues as well as tone. Last week, she framed her support for the Iran nuclear deal as part of a larger strategic plan to crack down on Iran's support of terrorism and enhance Israel's defenses. Even as she endorsed Obama's pact, her language about Iran was bellicose enough to draw rebukes from the left — but not accusations that her position was inauthentic.

"The picture that the stern Iraq and Libya war advocate painted of herself was as clear as it was unsurprising and alarming: She resides on the hawkish, militaristic end of the Democratic Party when it comes to most foreign policy questions," Glenn Greenwald wrote for the Intercept.

This is much more Clinton's style

Until recently, Clinton's campaign strategy has basically been to ignore Sanders. But now that he's beating her in the polls in two states, that's increasingly hard to do. Even if it might be the best strategy, Clinton is no doubt hearing from donors and longtime friends that she needs to put a salve on the Bern.

Clinton learned in the last election cycle that attacking a surging and popular fellow Democrat made her look churlish. Obama chose a contrast with Clinton that emphasized what he was offering: "Change you can believe in." The unspoken proposition was that Clinton offered no change and that you couldn't believe her.

Clinton's had a hard time this year convincing voters that she's genuine. Maybe owning her differences with the Democratic base — and with Sanders — will lend her credibility as a candidate. At the very least, casting herself as a moderate, and Sanders as an extremist by implication, gives Clinton's partisans a reason to rally around her. And few would say the tougher, more moderate version of Clinton is the fake.