I hope Hillary enjoyed her time off; it looks like her campaign is underway. Last night, the former Secretary of State gave her first domestic policy speech since leaving State at the American Bar Association, where she criticized attacks on voting rights, including North Carolina’s voter suppression package. She also announced a series of upcoming policy addresses, including on the transparency of national security programs. It’s not clear whether Clinton’s decision to lead with these issues was a matter of necessity (she was speaking on the night that North Carolina passed its voter-ID law, and she can’t avoid the NSA issue), strategic choice, or something in between. But intentionally or not, it’s not hard to see why this is a decent opening step in Clinton’s pursuit of the Democratic nomination.
Clinton obviously has huge advantages in 2016. Her poll numbers are unprecedented, and even when she was weaker in 2008, she won about 48 percent of the Democratic primary electorate against a very strong candidate. But to the extent that she has a weakness, it’s probably on her left flank—where Clinton was never especially popular. And Clinton only lost in 2008 because her weakness among progressive activists was paired with Obama’s showing among black and young voters, who combined to assemble a non-traditional Democratic primary coalition.
If she wants to wrap up the nomination quickly, she need to win over these Obama '08 constituencies. To do that, Clinton doesn’t want to just seem like she’s checking the boxes of the Democratic platform. She wants to be seen as a champion of the causes that animate the different corners of the Democratic primary electorate. If she’s not, someone else could be. At the very least, Clinton doesn’t want to be on the wrong side of a big faction of the party, like she was on Iraq.
Last night’s speech sounded like a first step toward being a champion of a relatively new liberal cause: voting rights. The Clinton folks have to be happy that an issue like this is enflaming the base. It allows Clinton hit her two relative vulnerabilities among non-white voters and on the left, and there aren’t too many general election downside risks to siding with voting rights. Perhaps as a result, Clinton was pretty unequivocal about her position. If the Clinton folks are smart, they'll return to this issue with some regularity.
The NSA issue is another obvious choice for Clinton to take on early. In a lot of ways, the NSA surveillance revelations weren’t good news for Clinton. The progressive activists, who dominate the party’s caucuses out West, probably aren’t big fans of the program. Clinton’s always been pretty “tough” on national security, so I suspect those activists won’t be totally thrilled with Clinton’s position.
But the NSA program isn’t Iraq—it’s not as unpopular as the war, and I suspect Clinton’s position won’t be so completely at odds with the predilections of the base, either. This time, Clinton has the opportunity to stake out a more defensible position. And if she can be good enough for the base on issues like the NSA, a champion for the base on the issues where she can be a champion, like on voting rights, then she’ll make her way through the primaries with ease.