Hillary Clinton wants Republicans to vote for her. This probably isn’t a controversial statement, but if there was any doubt, you only need to look to her first big ad, which went out of its way to use Republican voices to attack Trump. She clearly sees a path to victory whereby the Democratic base is supplemented by a significant slice of Republican moderates who simply can’t bring themselves to vote for Trump.
For obvious and understandable reasons, many on the left are leery. They see Clinton already moving right, before Sanders is even out of the race, and anticipate a general election waged exclusively on Republican terms.
A recent piece from the New York Times seems to confirm this narrative, arguing that Clinton has made a “striking turn” away from her efforts in the primary to mobilize progressive and labor unions. The piece suggests that Clinton is confident the threat of Trump will be enough to mobilize her base, so she can focus her attention on Republican moderates.
But I think it’s worth being clear about what precisely is going on here. Because if you read that article closely, you’ll be hard-pressed to identify any real movement. Sure, she’s marginally shifting her rhetorical focus, in particular trying to walk back the inartful ‘we’re going to put coal out of business’ statement. But that’s all marketing gloss. Look deeper and there’s no policy changes on offer.
And this is mostly as it should be. Clinton can quite reasonably portray herself as a candidate deserving of Republican support, without this necessarily constituting a betrayal of progressive values. It just requires putting the case in front of those voters that they (along with the rest of America) will be better off under a Clinton presidency. An argument that, for example, Bernie Sanders certainly has been making as well.
I don’t mean to say, of course, that there’s no reason for concern here. There absolutely is. I just want to be clear about what sorts of efforts we should encourage, and where we should remain wary.
What Clinton should do
Trump’s nomination gives Clinton a powerful argument for her arsenal, one which emphasizes the simple value of competence and commitment to good governance. This argument can acknowledge a persistent ideological gulf, while still encouraging people to recognize a shared commitment to the continued viability of political institutions and baseline political norms.
This argument contains two parts. First, and most simply, she’s saying “vote for Hillary because she’ll keep the lights on and the economy afloat.” Partisan filters will prevent a lot of people from believing it, but some of the stauncher #NeverTrump folks will be quite vulnerable to re-considering just how plausible they really find the ‘Clinton will destroy America’ claims, now that they’re framed against the dumpster fire that is Team Trump.
The second part of the argument is more abstract, but also more important. Quite simply, it’s an invitation to reaffirm the value of politics itself. To vote for Clinton, she can argue, is to vote for a world where the other side’s opinions will be considered, where there is room to play a role in policy if you want it, where anyone who wants to fix a problem is at least given a seat at the table.
While the impulse of the Republican Party has increasingly been toward extremist delegitimization of politics, it’s quite possible that many moderate Republican voters might be ready to reconsider the wisdom of that approach. They might well see real value in a return to ‘normal’ politics, where people can disagree but still find a way to get some things done. In fact, Clinton will be able to quite credibly argue that many Republicans will find an ear more willing to listen to their concerns with her in charge than with her opponent.
What Clinton shouldn’t do
All of that said, there is a clear limit to the effectiveness of these arguments. By portraying herself as reasonable, willing to negotiate, concerned primarily with keeping our institutions working, she’ll reduce the anxiety of some in the center, and bring them in from the cold. But this sort of thing can only take you so far.
And it’s crucial to not let ‘openness to compromise’ turn into appeasement. Olive branches to Republicans have their value, but these should not be policy concessions, or as new baselines for negotiation. This is a mistake that Obama made all too often during his presidency.
And she especially should not shift the frames of the Democratic agenda. In the primary, she mostly drafted off Sanders, letting him do the work to make the positive case for progressive politics. But she can’t rely on that anymore. She needs to affirmatively state her position now. Make a positive pitch, one which is framed to everyone, not just to Republicans, and which grounds itself in the populist, progressive vision of a government working for the people, not for the elites.
She doesn’t have Sanders’ reservoir of authenticity here, and so will be skating on thin ice. Which means she needs to be as clear and aggressive in making these points as possible. No triangulation, no obfuscation. Tell people how government can help them, how she’s going to rein in the excesses of our financial industry, how she’s going to protect the environment, how she’s going to revitalize the middle class. Do so forcefully and without apology.
The key is to simultaneously work to convince the center-right that these objectives aren’t antithetical to their vision of America, that there is room in this agenda for positive-sum games that let everyone win, and that the basic structures of normal politics under a competent president (even one broadly pursuing an agenda they detest) will serve them far better than the chaos of Trump’s America.
What this election is really about
This election offers a rare chance. Clinton can plausibly make the case to even those on the far right that everyone will be better off under her presidency…even if you radically disagree with her on most ideological issues. Trump is such a bad candidate that she might be able to dislodge the firmness of partisan assessments of comparative advantage, and convince at least some Republicans that it’s better to get five loaves under her (even if Democrats get ten) than it would be to get one maggot-filled loaf from Trump.
Given this opportunity, it would be madness for her not to try and win over some Republican votes. The real question isn’t whether she should try to make the case; it’s how the case gets made, and whether the left will hold her accountable when she drifts too far to the center.
That is an important role, and one informed by the general wariness felt by many progressives toward Clinton. They don’t have faith in her motives, and for good reasons. But I remain hopeful that Clinton’s campaign will frame its appeals to the center against a larger background of broadly progressive commitments. Maybe she won’t. She might run a campaign bereft of real policy commitments, grounded exclusively in convincing people to vote against the other guy. And if she does, progressives will rightly be furious. But until we see real evidence of that turn, I think there is still room for some optimism.