Hillary Clinton has spent the last few years repairing her image for the 2016 presidential election. An important aspect of this image-repair involves combatting the perception that she is a member of the corporation-backed, establishment wing of the Democratic Party.
Read More: This is What Inevitability Looks Like: How Hillary Clinton Won the Invisible Primary (Part 1)
While Mrs. Clinton has not severed her ties to big business (she has received up to $200,000 in speaking fees from entities such as Goldman Sachs and the Carlyle Group, and two of her top fundraisers – Jonathan Mantz at Priorities USA and Susan Brophy at Ready for Hillary – represent companies like Comcast, Chevron, Verizon and JPMorgan Chase) she has sought economic policy advice from a diverse set of leading economists.
Though Wall Street-connected economists such as Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers still have Mrs. Clinton’s ear, she also discusses economic policy with more progressive, labor-focused economists, including Dean Baker, Robert Reich, Teresa Ghilarducci, and globalization skeptic Joseph Stiglitz.
Throughout the invisible primary, Mrs. Clinton has been careful to express her awareness of the economic suffering related to income inequality, stubbornly high unemployment figures, stagnant wages, and austere cuts to non-military discretionary spending without adopting rhetoric that also stokes class warfare.
During the 2015 State of the Union, for instance, she expressed her economic outlook in a tweet that was as finely calibrated as it was uncontroversial, agreeing with the president’s plans for developing “an economy that works for all,” and adding, “Now we need to step up & deliver for the middle class. #FairShot #FairShare.”
Perhaps the most important aspect of her image-maintenance during the later stages of the invisible primary relates to her handling of several scandals. These incidents have tested her ability to withstand and manage intense scrutiny from the press without aggravating an already infamously uneasy relationship.
Mrs. Clinton has relied on advisers and trustees – again, some veterans, some relative newcomers – to handle these controversies.
For instance, when it was discovered that the Clinton Foundation received foreign donations that were not cleared by the State Department during her tenure there, she tapped former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, who served under Bill Clinton, to head the foundation and clean up the operation. While president of the University of Miami, Shalala handled several controversies – and raised over $1 billion for the school – before announcing her decision to step down in late 2014.
Also, when the press learned that Mrs. Clinton had saved tens of thousands of state-related emails to a private server in her home in Chappaqua, New York, Mrs. Clinton deployed a time-tested strategy: she allowed the speculation, gossip, and commentary to exhaust itself, issued a televised statement denying wrong-doing, and then, through a conference call featuring at least 25 supporters and surrogates, had her press secretary, 31-year-old Nick Merrill, establish and disseminate a set of common talking points to consolidate and amplify her message.Thus, because of Mrs. Clinton’s adept image and crisis management (and because the extent of her
impropriety has not been legally or politically adjudicated), she has emerged from the invisible primary uncritically wounded, if not unscathed, and is the definitive leading Democratic contender.
However, this status is at least partially attributed to the absence of any clear challengers. Massachusetts U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (whose confrontational stance toward Wall Street led some bankers to threaten to withhold donations to the Democratic Party), has vowed not to run in order to continue exerting influence from her perches on powerful Senate committees.
Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is a possible primary opponent, but his fundraising efforts, amounting to just a few million dollars raised, are dwarfed by the tens of millions in the coffers of pro-Clinton super PACs.
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I – Vt.), who is also contemplating a 2016 run, raised just $200,000 in 2014 through his leadership PAC, Progressive Voters of America.
However, Clinton’s conduct in the invisible primary has left her campaign vulnerable to criticism.
Clinton’s fundraising activities have come under scrutiny. When it was discovered that her former personal political action committee rented out a list of supporters to Ready for Hillary, the FEC investigated whether this was a violation of the ban on cooperation between candidates and super PACs and ought to be considered illicit, premature campaign-related activity.
The FEC cleared all parties of wrongdoing, but the case does represent the need for clarification regarding what potential candidates can and cannot do while they oversee their preliminary fundraising and organizing activities before declaring their candidacy.
FEC Chair Ann Ravel has criticized Jeb Bush’s pre-candidacy activities along these lines, calling it “absurd” that he legally can personally solicit donations (of all amounts) and build his campaign infrastructure so long as he claims he is still exploring his options and has not declared his candidacy.
However, potential legal snafus are not the only consequence of Mrs. Clinton’s handling of the invisible primary.
Gary Hart, former contender for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and 1988, and friend and adviser to Martin O’Malley, laments that Mrs. Clinton has thus far retained her popularity without being adequately pressed for specifics about major domestic and foreign policy issues.
Without a defined agenda, as well as with such cozy relations with Wall Street and major corporations, says Hart, Mrs. Clinton is vulnerable to a challenge on her left flank.He advises that any challenger should aggressively seek smaller donations to establish a contrast with politicians in
both parties, who, since the Citizens United decision, have increasingly become beholden to wealthy, out-of-state special interests. This is the case with the legally embroiled U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D - N.J.), as well as with Republican freshmen U.S. Senators Joni Ernst (R – Iowa), who attributes her political victory to Koch-back groups, and Dan Sullivan (R – Alaska), who told the U.S. Chambers of Commerce in February that it is “doubtful” he would be in office were it not for the group’s support.
Sen. Sanders, who has recently been zigzagging the country and seemingly been talking to anyone with 30 free minutes and an open mic to spare, has heeded Mr. Hart’s advice. Sanders has called for a “political revolution” to confront the power of special interests in Washington and in federal elections and advocates regulating the role of money in politics. He claims the average donation amount for his senatorial campaigns is a just $45.
While Mrs. Clinton has clearly won the invisible primary, she is still more than a year away from securing the party’s nomination, though she has begun that process, too.
According to Politico, she has reportedly allocated loyalists from her political past, the party, and her super PACs to leadership positions in the soon-to-be campaign apparatus, and political operatives are already active in early and key primary states, including Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
At this point, her securing the Democratic Party’s nomination seems all but inevitable, but whether she can win over the rest of the country is, well, anything but.
Editor’s note: This article is part two of a two-part series. You can view part one here.