No more warm-ups: Hillary Clinton is now off and running, really running, for president.
The Democratic frontrunner in the 2016 race on Saturday exited what her campaign has billed as a preseason mode of sorts – small, subdued roundtable meetings with voters, plus three dozen or so fundraisers – by packing 5,500 people onto Roosevelt Island, the narrow strip in the East River, in the shadows of Manhattan and next to the workshops of Queens.
“I may not be the youngest candidate in this race,” she said. “But I will be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States.”
It was an effort to portray herself as a candidate for the future, rather than the past. But it was also an acknowledgment that Clinton has quite a past – a long history in politics that shapes America’s perceptions of her second campaign for president.
In the two months since she entered the race, much about Clinton’s campaign and the lay of the political landscape has already come into view.
Here are eight things we’ve learned since Clinton launched her campaign in April:
She’s using social issues to rebuild the Obama coalition.
And if she baits Republicans into a fight in the process, even better.
Clinton has staked out positions as far left as she possibly can on issues like gay rights, voting rights, criminal sentencing, equal pay for women and immigration. These are all issues that could put the Republican primary electorate at odds with general election voters.
It’s an effort to piece back together the groups that handed President Barack Obama two terms in the White House – specifically minorities, young people and women.
Consider: The same candidate who said eight years ago that she believes marriage is between a man and a woman is now including gay couples in campaign advertisements and hammering Republicans for failing to support anti-discrimination laws based on sexual orientation. Those lines drew perhaps the most applause of all Saturday.
Economic issues, of course, don’t muster the same kind of across-the-board support from Democrats and independents. So many liberals’ eyes will be on Clinton’s policy rollouts, which will come once per week from now through August.
Her eyes are on the general election.
No doubt, Clinton and her campaign are taking the primary process seriously. They’re organizing heavily in the first four states to vote. They’re raising money and courting Democrats like they have a serious fight on their hands. They’re working through the full checklist to avoid a repeat of 2008.
But her rhetoric, while taking into account the leftward drift of her own party and the country’s rapidly-changing demographics, is designed with a showdown with Republicans in mind – and she’s showing no signs she’ll bend to liberal complaints along the way.
Trade was the first test. She’s ducked the issue for weeks. And the day after House Democrats halted a Democratic president’s free trade agenda, the Trans-Pacific Partnership was nowhere to be found in Clinton’s remarks Saturday.
She mentioned increasing the minimum wage, but didn’t pin a number on it – nothing like the $15 an hour that fast food workers are seeking. She hit hedge fund managers, but offered nothing like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s calls for big banks to be broken into pieces.
Foreign policy? Let Republicans talk about that.
If she hadn’t pointed out her proximity to the United Nations headquarters in New York, someone new to politics might not have known that Clinton served as Obama’s secretary of state for four years.
Clinton’s speech, and her entire campaign, are focused on economic inequality and social justice. She talks more about global warming threatening the United States than terrorists endangering the country.
It’s a stark contrast with Republicans, who see Obama’s relatively slow-moving drift into combat with ISIS in the Middle East as a sign of weakness and Clinton’s time as secretary of state as one ripe for attack.
There’s a ‘trustworthiness’ problem. And Clinton knows it.
Several polls have shown that more than half of Americans say they don’t trust Clinton. It stands out in a raft of bad polling data for the Democratic frontrunner in recent weeks. And it’s likely the result of the weight of several problems that haven’t gone away – particularly her use of a private email while at the State Department and her family foundation’s acceptance of foreign contributions.
Dorothy Rodham is the best antidote Clinton has.
Her mother’s hard luck early in life – she was abandoned and went to work as a housemaid at age 14 – and the lessons she taught Clinton were featured in two big sections of Saturday’s speech, as Clinton sought to convey the message that she understands Americans’ struggles to climb the economic ladder.
She said she once asked her mother what kept her going, and her mother’s response was “kindness from someone who believed she mattered.”
“A first-grade teacher who saw she had nothing to eat at lunch, and without embarrassing her, brought extra food to share. The woman whose house she cleaned letting her go to high school so long as her work got done – that was a bargain she leapt to accept,” Clinton said. “And because some people believed in her, she believed in me.”
The past is prologue.
The 67-year-old Clinton is in her third decade in the national limelight. Nearly everyone in America knows who she is, and most already have opinions. So it’s no surprise Clinton’s campaign prefers to focus on the future, rather than the past.
But Clinton herself was citing the Beatles hit “Yesterday” as she attacked Republicans on Saturday.
More importantly: She embraced three Democratic presidents. Two were no surprise: Bill Clinton is her husband, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the party’s boldest president, is the namesake of the park where she held her rally. The third was President Barack Obama, who she served as secretary of state.
She brought both up while discussing what she called America’s “basic bargain” of economic justice.
“When President Obama honored the bargain, we pulled back from the brink of Depression, saved the auto industry, provided health care to 16 million working people, and replaced the jobs we lost faster than after a financial crash,” she said.
It’s all about Hillary – not Bill.
Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton made their first appearances on the campaign trail Saturday, but the famous former president and first daughter didn’t walk out with Hillary Clinton, and they didn’t seize any of the spotlight. Otherwise, they might undermine a central theme Clinton wants to underscore: It’s about you – not me.
That doesn’t mean the popular former president won’t be on the campaign trail at all. Clinton campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri said Friday night that “we don’t have a timetable for him,” but that the campaign is “going to be leaning on him for fundraising. We are going to be leaning on him for retail campaigning.”
Campaign manager Robby Mook said the former president has offered advice on running the effort. “He is a really helpful big picture sounding board,” Mook said, “lifting us up and thinking big.”
The family foundation, once a positive, now a negative.
The Clinton Foundation, a global charity helmed by the family and which, by most accounts, does important work, has come under withering criticism after reports revealed that it accepted gifts from foreign countries and leaders while Clinton was serving as secretary of state.
The reports raised questions – unsubstantiated, Clinton’s allies say – of quid-pro-quos that feed into perceptions that the Clintons operates under different rules than everyone else.
Bill Clinton has said he might cut many of his ties with the foundation if Hillary Clinton is elected president. And Hillary Clinton has defended the foundation’s work. But an important chapter of one Clinton’s post-presidency could now be a net negative for another Clinton’s campaign.
Bernie Sanders is her toughest opponent.
That’s right: An avowed socialist who comes from Vermont and speaks with a heavy New York accent is Clinton’s biggest threat. Several recent polls show him climbing as primary support for Clinton tops out around 60 or 65%. In a Wisconsin straw poll, Sanders nearly caught Clinton.
Sanders has been drawing surprisingly large crowds at his events in Iowa and New Hampshire in recent weeks. But strategists in both states say it’s far too soon to tell whether those crowds are anything more than anecdotal evidence that he’s a curiosity – a person voters want to check out but won’t ultimately support.
Also in the race are Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee, who is hitting Clinton for supporting the 2003 war in Iraq just as Obama did in the 2008 primary, and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who might have the most political talent of her challengers but hasn’t gained traction yet.
That, O’Malley aides believe, will change as he shows up in bars and barns across Iowa and New Hampshire with his guitar, loitering as long as the people there want to chat with him and fielding as many questions as reporters will throw his way.