Why many liberals don't trust Hillary Clinton

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Story highlights

  • Progressives see Clinton as closer to the banks than to the middle class
  • Clinton's record on national security also makes them wary
  • Liberals like Elizabeth Warren and Martin O'Malley are getting some buzz on the left

To prove she wasn't just an opportunist hoping to use a U.S. Senate seat in New York as a ticket to bigger things, then-first lady Hillary Clinton tried to show voters that she cared about their values and views -- she listened.

More than a year before the 2000 election, Clinton sat in farmhouses and in community centers, listening to voters' needs and concerns and their problems with government.

Many liberal and progressive activists don't trust Clinton because they think she sides with big banks and big money instead of the middle class and they're wary of her on national security. With a Clinton presidential campaign a possibility, they want the same treatment New York voters got.

What would cause Clinton not to run for president?

"If there was an actual, authentic 'I am going to listen to you about your issues' from Clinton, instead of kind of pounding the drum of inevitability and stampeding over the left on her way to assumed victory, that would be effective," said Sally Kohn, a progressive activist, CNN contributor and Clinton critic.

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Until then, the trust deficit between Clinton and the left of her party will grow, Kohn and other liberals predict.

Activists point to Clinton's voting record in the Senate, where she voted to authorize the Iraq war and increase domestic surveillance. They say that and decisions her husband made while president, like the Defense of Marriage Act and the authorization of the North American Free Trade Agreement, give her little street cred among liberals and populists.

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Possibly the biggest concern among liberals is Clinton's coziness with Wall Street, their big bogeyman. Since leaving the State Department in 2013, she has spoken at events sponsored by Wall Street giants like Fidelity, Goldman Sachs and Ameriprise Financial, and during her Senate runs and 2008 presidential run, Clinton defended lobbyists.

"I don't think she has been aggressive on the banks," said Nelini Stamp, a progressive political organizer from New York. "When I think of Hillary Clinton, I actually think she is in bed with some of the banks and Wall Street is her ally."

There is also an overarching suspicion among liberals that Clinton is saying what she needs to get elected, but would govern differently.

"You wonder if it is a pivot or whether she is saying what the moment demands," Kohn said.

Starting in May, before Clinton crisscrossed the country selling her book "Hard Choices," the former secretary of state started to talk about populist and liberal issues like college affordability and income inequality.

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Clinton told an audience at the liberal New American Foundation in May that "the dream of upward mobility that made this country a model for the world feels further and further out of reach" and because of that, "many Americans understandably feel frustrated, even angry."

Clinton has also recently labeled college affordability "one of the biggest problems we have in the country," and says if she were elected president she would "tackle growth, which is the handmaiden of inequality." People close to her have started to trumpet her record on pay equity and the minimum wage.

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"She has come with a more populist tone because she knows what people want to hear," Stamp said. Asked if she trusts Clinton when she talks about income inequality, Stamp said bluntly, "Right now, not that much."

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Clinton's changing message has been overshadowed by gaffes during her book tour, like countering questions about her wealth by saying her family was "dead broke" when it left the White House.

At the same time, possible opponents from the left -- like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and Vice President Joe Biden -- have generated more buzz among liberals as alternatives to Clinton.

Other than changing her tune, Clinton hasn't been quick to address liberals who have questions for her. Instead of sitting down with them -- something that a candidate would certainly do, especially one battling distrust -- she has continued to hold events around her book and her family's foundation.

Polls might explain why she hasn't reached out yet: Right now, liberals don't matter that much to whether Clinton would win the Democratic nomination in 2016.

A CNN/ORC International Poll from June found that only 11% of Democrats want a more liberal option to Clinton. Twenty percent want someone more conservative and 63% want Clinton.

What's more, a Washington Post/ABC News poll from the same time showed that 72% of self-described liberals supported Clinton, a number that was larger than moderate and conservative Democrats.

But liberals do make a lot of noise. Some of that has already boosted possible opponents from the left.

Earlier this month both Biden and Warren ignited the crowd of liberal bloggers and activists at the annual Netroots Nation conference in Detroit. Warren's speech was interrupted by chants of "Run, Liz, Run" from eager supporters who want to see her challenge Clinton for the presidency.

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Clinton wasn't there, instead continuing with her "Hard Choices" memoir tour in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Madison, Connecticut.

While Stamp, who attended Netroots Nation, said there wasn't an overarching feeling of being snubbed by Clinton, she acknowledged, "It would have been interesting to hear her in a progressive setting."

"People want to hear from a potential candidate and have those candidates hear about the work they are doing on the ground," she added.

After the conference, left-leaning Democrats said they felt more energized and organized than ever -- and they hope that will lead to more influence on who their party nominates in 2016.

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"She shouldn't be the inevitable candidate," said Erica Sagrans, the campaign manager for Ready for Warren, an effort to enlist Warren to run for president in 2016. "Our take is that no one should feel like they can't support a candidate that they like or are excited about just because there is a lot of support for Hillary."

Ready for Warren is a direct response to what many liberal organizers say is an assumption of inevitability among the cadre of groups and political operatives organizing for a possible Clinton campaign. The name itself is a play on Ready for Hillary, an organized group of Clinton loyalists who have raised over $8 million to help Clinton if she chooses to run in 2016.

Sagrans, whose group received a great deal of attention at Netroots this month, said it hopes to "channel the excitement about Warren into tangible results and a tangible organization."

But just as much as the group's goal is to "elevate Warren," as Sagrans said, progressives also want to direct the 2016 conversation.

On this goal, progressives seem to be winning. Clinton has talked more about populist issues since embarking on the book tour and will likely be forced to continue this rhetoric if she runs for president.

And liberals hope their influence will grow with time.

"There is this sort of inherent question, is Hillary ready for us?" Kohn said about 2016. "It is not enough to just be the next in line. The question is: Are you really, truly listening?"

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