Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Can Hillary Clinton win over the left?

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pictured in October 2012, has become one of the most powerful people in Washington. Here's a look at her life and career through the years: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pictured in October 2012, has become one of the most powerful people in Washington. Here's a look at her life and career through the years:
HIDE CAPTION
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Photos: Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Photos: Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hillary Clinton had to backtrack a bit on comments critical of Obama foreign policy
  • Julian Zelizer: Hillary has had difficulty with the left, but can make strong arguments for 2016
  • Democrats will want someone, like Hillary, who can be a strong force vs. Republicans, he says

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of the forthcoming book, "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Hillary Clinton got herself into a frenzy of controversy as a result of an interview with The Atlantic in which she took some shots at President Obama's foreign policy.

Clinton said that "Don't do stupid stuff," an infamous off-the-record quote from the President, didn't cut it as an "organizing" principle in foreign policy. Although she had been relatively silent about her differences with the Commander in Chief, her comments triggered a firestorm from liberal Democrats who felt that this sounded like the same old Clinton, the politician who they had so disliked in 2008.

President Obama's supporters fired back. David Axelrod rebuked Hillary through a tweet: "Just to clarify," he wrote, reminding people of her infamous vote authorizing the use of force in Iraq, "Don't do stupid stuff' means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision."

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Hillary called Obama to apologize for any harm her interview might have done the President and both attended a party in Martha's Vineyard, where Obama was having what CNN commentator Jeffrey Toobin called his "vacation from hell." It's not known if they did indeed "hug it out," as predicted.

All of this comes at a moment that Clinton is trying to regain her footing following the difficult roll-out of her book, "Hard Choices," during which she made a number of comments, such as saying that she and her husband were "dead broke" upon leaving the White House, that offered fodder for her critics. Also, her lead in the polls over GOP rivals has narrowed.

Opinion: Clinton, Obama both wrong

The most recent controversy over her differences with President Obama immediately sparked familiar concerns -- can Hillary Clinton win over the liberals in her party so that "the base" comes out in November 2016, should she decide to run? Can she prevent a primary challenge from a candidate like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren who stands closer to the left's position on many issues?

Clinton: Proud I served with Obama

The tension between Hillary Clinton and the Democratic base is nothing new. Indeed, both Hillary and Bill Clinton have always been at odds with the more liberal members of their party as they have been insistent on crafting a more coalitional approach to winning elections.

Back when he ran for president in 1992, Bill Clinton infuriated liberals with his "Sister Souljah moment" when he made disparaging remarks about the activist at a conference of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow coalition. During his presidency, his support for certain kinds of deregulation and market-based approaches to public policy, as well as decision to end the federal welfare program, generated considerable heat from stalwarts in the party.

Hillary Clinton has made similar moves, particularly when she served as senator from New York and worked hard to build bipartisan coalitions. Most famously, her vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq in 2002 became a symbol of her alliance with the centrist wing of the party.

Hillary Clinton won't be able to remake herself into something that she is not. Trying to reinvent herself as part of a presidential run just won't work. When Vice President Al Gore sought to do this in 2000, his speeches fell flat. And Hillary Clinton's extensive record in public office leaves too much of a paper trail for her to pretend to be someone else.

Instead, Clinton needs to make a compelling argument to the Democratic base about why she, as opposed to any other member of her party, is the best choice to run for president.

The most important argument that she will bring to the table is that she can be a fierce and aggressive partisan fighter. Following eight years when many Democrats feel that they have watched President Obama get beat up by Republicans on Capitol Hill, Democrats are going to want someone who can fight and fight hard.

Ever since her famous statements about the "right-wing conspiracy" that aimed to bring down her husband, Clinton has demonstrated repeatedly that she has the stomach for the kind of brutal partisan warfare that defines Washington.

While Democrats in 2008 were still looking for someone who could break through the bipartisan noise, now they are searching for a politician who can accept the reality of Washington and take on their opponents by flexing their partisan muscle rather than avoiding it.

Clinton's emerging platform about economic inequality is also one that all Democrats should be able to embrace. In recent months, Hillary Clinton has been telling audiences and reporters that if she ran, fighting inequality would be the major theme of her campaign.

The inability and unwillingness of the nation's leaders to address this issue has been one of the greatest sources of frustration for liberals. Both on ethical grounds -- meaning that the current economic situation is not something Americans should tolerate -- as well as for partisan considerations -- meaning Democrats have traditionally been the party that has been associated with taking on this problem -- the time is ripe for an agenda centered on this theme.

If Clinton is as serious about the issue of inequality as she sounds in recent speeches -- such as the one she made to the New America Foundation where she promised that this would be her main focus in the coming years -- her embrace of the issue could blur divisions between her and some of her critics. She can continue to use this theme to highlight to the left and center that they have much more in common than their bickering suggests, especially in contrast to the Republican agenda.

Gender inequality has also been an issue that keeps getting pushed to the sidelines. Although the government has made some progress on issues like gender discrimination in employment and pay equity, Hillary Clinton is a candidate who has been deeply committed to these issues throughout her career and who could promise to go much further than any president has before her. The rights of women and girls around the world is "the great unfinished business of the 21st century," she said at the Women in the World summit in 2013.

Her victory in itself would be inspirational to the cause of gender equality, a watershed moment just like the election of the first African-American as president. While much of the left-center debate has revolved around how to deal with the power of Wall Street or how to use military power, gender equality can also serve as an issue to bridge the left and center.

Opinion: Clinton dances between loyalty and self-interest

Finally, Hillary Clinton will need to talk more about the importance of internationalism to her foreign policy agenda as a way to highlight to the base that she is more than simply a "hawk."

One of the great questions that came out of the Bush years was how much the United States should work in international alliances to pursue its goals. For the Bush administration, unilateralism was legitimate.

Obama inspired many followers by insisting on a different way. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat said about his policies in Libya in 2011, when Clinton was secretary of state, "the Obama White House has shown exquisite deference to the very international institutions and foreign governments that the Bush administration either steamrolled or ignored."

He has not always lived up to those goals, as has been evident with the use of drone airstrikes. Regardless, overall the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton did stick to an internationalist strategy and she can make a commitment to this approach as a defining aspect of her vision.

In the Washington Post, Aaron David Miller explained why foreign policy would not have been that different had Clinton won the presidency in 2008. Surveying all the hot button issues, such as Israel and Syria, he finds that the differences between them are exaggerated: "They both are transactors, not ideological transformers — smart, pragmatic centrists largely coloring inside the lines in a world of long shots and bad options. In other words, there's no need for them to 'hug it out' on foreign policy.

Both parties have often succeeded when politicians find issues that can unite the different wings of their party.

Historian Meg Jacobs (full disclosure: my wife) has shown that Franklin Roosevelt -- without remaking himself into a far-left Democrat -- championed policies to boost the purchasing power of industrial workers as an issue that could bring together the party.

During the 1960s, LBJ did the same with health care for the elderly, while Ronald Reagan used tax cuts and anti-communism to achieve these goals in the 1980s. George W. Bush achieved a similar effect with the fight against terrorism following 9/11.

Making peace with the Democratic base will be one of Hillary Clinton's greatest challenges if she is going to run for the presidency. Without trying to be someone she is not, Clinton must figure out how to make the case that the Democratic Party can stand united behind her.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT