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Hillary Clinton is using conservative rhetoric to lay out a remarkably liberal agenda

Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty

If you watched parts of the past couple of days of the Democratic convention, you could be forgiven for wondering which party you were looking at.

Speakers lavishly praised Ronald Reagan and talked about their faith and family values. The tone was thoroughly patriotic and pro-military, as American as apple pie.

And the major speakers — Hillary Clinton, President Obama, and Tim Kaine — hardly even bothered to criticize the Republican Party, instead focusing their attacks on Donald Trump himself.

All this was clearly part of an effort to change the branding of the Democratic Party, so as better to pick up the votes of longtime Republicans disillusioned with Trump.

But there’s an important catch.

If you look closer, it turns out that Clinton and the Democrats are indeed embracing the symbolism and tropes that the right has loved — but they really aren’t making policy concessions to win them over.

Indeed, all of this imagery and rhetoric was deployed in service of an agenda that is remarkably liberal — at least when it comes to domestic and economic policy.

Clinton’s agenda is very liberal on domestic matters

A presidential candidate’s convention speech is traditionally written to win over millions of undecided voters at home, not just the party faithful in the arena.

And here’s what Clinton said she’d support:

  • "A path to citizenship for millions of immigrants"
  • "Appoint Supreme Court justices who will get money out of politics and expand voting rights"
  • "If necessary," a "constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United"
  • "The minimum wage should be a living wage"
  • "The right to affordable health care"
  • "Say no to unfair trade deals"
  • "Expand Social Security"
  • "Protect a woman's right to make her own health care decisions"
  • "Equal pay" (for women)
  • "Pass the biggest investment in new, good-paying jobs since World War II" and "invest in infrastructure"
  • "Make college tuition free for the middle class and debt-free for all."
  • "Wall Street, corporations, and the superrich are going to start paying their fair share of taxes."
  • "Pass commonsense [gun] reforms and keep guns out of the hands of criminals"
  • "Put ourselves in the shoes of young black and Latino men and women who face the effects of systemic racism"
  • "Reform our criminal justice system from end to end"
  • "Defend all our rights — civil rights, human rights and voting rights, women's rights and workers' rights, LGBT rights, and the rights of people with disabilities"

This is not a moderate agenda.

In the context of the past few decades, this set of policies is in fact remarkably liberal — so liberal that it’s difficult to imagine the vast majority of it ever getting through a Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Several proposals — free college tuition, big infrastructure spending, and a living wage — come straight from Bernie Sanders's campaign.

And what’s missing here is also notable. There is not one word about cutting deficits or spending, or reforming entitlements. There is nothing about expanding trade. Nothing about how more criminals should be locked up. Nothing about simplifying burdensome regulations on business. All of these were common features of Bill Clinton’s campaigns and administration — and some were frequently mentioned by Obama — but all have now been dropped.

Now, foreign policy is a different story — there was no bold liberalism there. Instead, Clinton stuck to the script of America’s foreign policy establishment: defeating ISIS militarily, supporting Israel’s security, and standing up to Russia. She emphasized strength and toughness. These are all the Obama administration’s positions, so she hasn't moved right. And she did also defend the Iran deal and caution that Trump, if in office, could end up starting a war.

But Clinton’s continuing centrism on foreign policy shouldn’t obscure what she’s proposing on domestic policy. On that front, this is an agenda that Sanders can — and did — enthusiastically sign on to.

This is how Clinton is responding to a resurgent left. And the promises she’s making will matter.

The conventional wisdom is that the way to win over swing voters and Republicans would be to pivot to the center. A top Mitt Romney adviser famously claimed that once the primary is over, you can "shake it up" and "start all over again," like an "Etch a Sketch." Even Obama swung to the center on several issues once he wrapped up the nomination in 2008.

Indeed, progressives long feared that Clinton would swerve to the right as soon as she had the nomination in hand. But instead, in her speech Thursday, she openly identified her policies as "progressive," praised Sanders, and tried to court his voters.

"To all of your supporters here and around the country," Clinton said, "I want you to know, I've heard you. Your cause is our cause." She added: "Our country needs your ideas, energy, and passion. That's the only way we can turn our progressive platform into real change for America."

You might be tempted to dismiss all this as empty rhetoric. But there’s a good deal of political science showing that presidential candidates really do try to stick to their campaign promises once in office, as Jonathan Bernstein has written. And PolitiFact found that President Obama either kept or tried to keep the vast majority of his promises.

Still, make no mistake — this is in large part a testament to the influence of the Sanders campaign and a resurgent left.

The fact that Sanders managed to stay in the race so long proved how many Democrats and young people are yearning for a more progressive politics. It revealed a clear constituency that Clinton wanted to try to satisfy — if only to avoid facing a primary challenge in 2020. If Sanders hadn’t run, or had fizzled out early, Clinton might have been in a very different situation.

Trump lets Clinton pitch liberalism as the conservative option

Now, by sticking to such a liberal policy agenda, Clinton may really be forfeiting the opportunity to reach out to some moderate or conservative voters.

But the unique nature of the Trump campaign also gives her some cover to tack to the left.

The GOP nominee — whose campaign has been incoherent on many policy matters — has decided to focus on "security," so he likely won’t bother to use this platform to attack Clinton as a tax-and-spend liberal, as any other Republican would.

Furthermore, Clinton seems to feel that Trump’s extreme character and temperament makes swing voters doubt him so much that she doesn't need to pivot to the center on policy. Or, at least, that such a pivot wouldn't be worth the headache she’d get from the left.

The result is that Clinton could pitch a strikingly liberal set of policies as the comparably conservative choice on the ballot.

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