Change, Clin­ton-style

The Demo­crat is bet­ting vot­ers want a leader with Obama’s val­ues who can get more done

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By David Lauter

WASH­ING­TON — At the heart of Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton’s strat­egy for win­ning the pres­i­dency lies a ba­sic as­sump­tion about the public’s de­sire for po­lit­i­cal change.

His­tory says that af­ter eight years of a pres­i­dency, Amer­i­cans typ­i­cally want some­thing dif­fer­ent. Elec­tions in which one party seeks a third term in the White House tend to be tough slogs. In­deed, as Clin­ton pre­pares for the first ma­jor rally of her cam­paign on Satur­day in New York, Amer­i­cans by about 2 to 1 say the coun­try is headed down the “wrong track.”

But what sort of change do Amer­i­cans want?

Repub­li­can can­di­dates, from for­mer Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the party’s cen­ter to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas on its right, are bet­ting that vot­ers want a ma­jor shift to­ward con­ser­vatism.

Clin­ton, the over­whelm­ing fa­vorite to win the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion, has made a dif­fer­ent cal­cu­la­tion. Her ad­vi­sors be­lieve that a sig­nif­i­cant share of those who say the coun­try is on the wrong track feel that Repub­li­can poli­cies would only make mat­ters worse.

On the big is­sues, vot­ers fa­vor Pres­i­dent Obama’s val­ues and pri­or­i­ties, Demo­cratic strate­gists say. What they want is to see that agenda im­ple­mented more ef­fec­tively.

That’s why, while Clin­ton plans to roll out pol­icy pro-

pos­als this sum­mer, some of which will dif­fer from or go be­yond Obama’s, the more cru­cial pitch will be about her abil­ity to gov­ern.

As she told sup­port­ers at a re­cent speech in South Carolina: “I do know how hard this job I’m seek­ing is. I’ve seen it up close and per­sonal. You’re not gonna catch me won­der­ing what it’s like. In­stead, I’m spend­ing my time plan­ning for what I will do for you when I get there.”

“You’re also not go­ing to see me shrink from a fight,” she added. “I think you know by now I don’t quit.”

That em­pha­sis on Clin­ton’s tough­ness and tenac­ity aims to reach vot­ers who say in polls and fo­cus groups that they sup­ported Obama but have grown dis­ap­pointed about how much he’s been able to ac­com­plish. It ad­dresses a ma­jor con­cern for Democrats, but also poses some risks.

The con­cern could be seen at a fo­cus group a few weeks be­fore last fall’s midterm elec­tion, as an African Amer­i­can woman, the mother of a 7-year-old girl, sighed slightly as she gave her opin­ion of the man she had twice backed for pres­i­dent.

“I would say he seems de­pressed,” she said of Obama. “I re­ally don’t feel he’s had the op­por­tu­nity to do the things that he is ca­pa­ble of do­ing be­cause dif­fer­ent par­ties are hold­ing him back.”

That’s a view that strate­gists in both par­ties con­tinue to see fre­quently.

“Most peo­ple don’t blame the pres­i­dent,” said Demo­cratic poll­ster Mark Mell­man. “But they do wish more had got­ten done.”

The first big risk for Clin­ton in try­ing to turn that sen­ti­ment to her ad­van­tage is the pos­si­bil­ity that Repub­li­cans have bet­ter gauged the public mood.

“An over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans want to see a new set of poli­cies from their next pres­i­dent, not a con­tin­u­a­tion of the same failed ones,” said Re- publi­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee spokesman Michael Short.

A sec­ond pit­fall is that high­light­ing Clin­ton’s skill at po­lit­i­cal com­bat could worsen a prob­lem that Obama fa­mously poked when the two op­posed each other in 2008: “You’re lik­able enough, Hil­lary,” he dis­mis­sively quipped dur­ing a de­bate.

On the first con­cern, public polls of­fer con­sid­er­able ev­i­dence for the Democrats’ view, with one ma­jor caveat about the role of gov­ern­ment.

The RNC’s Short points to polls show­ing that Amer­i­cans want the next pres­i­dent to “change di­rec­tion” from Obama’s poli­cies. When asked about spe­cific is­sues, how­ever, rather than Obama in gen­eral, the nee­dle swings in the other di­rec­tion.

Asked, for ex­am­ple, whether the gov­ern­ment should do more to ad­dress the grow­ing in­come gap be- tween the very rich and ev­ery­one else, Amer­i­cans sup­ported more gov­ern­ment ac­tion by 57% to 39% in a re­cent CBS/New York Times poll. Even larger ma­jori­ties fa­vored a hike in the min­i­mum wage — which all the cur­rent GOP can­di­dates op­pose — plus higher taxes on mil­lion­aires and gov­ern­ment-man­dated paid fam­ily leave.

On so­cial is­sues, nu­mer­ous polls have shown the public grow­ing more lib­eral across the board. Most no­tably, sur­veys find that by roughly 60% to 40%, the public fa­vors mar­riage rights for same-sex cou­ples, which the Repub­li­can can­di­dates op­pose with vary­ing de­grees of fer­vor.

Half of Amer­i­cans in a re­cent poll by the non­par­ti­san Pew Re­search Cen­ter said they be­lieve that the earth’s cli­mate is warm­ing largely as a re­sult of hu­man ac­tiv­ity such as burning fos­sil fu­els, the po­si­tion es­poused by nearly all Demo­cratic elected of­fi­cials. Only about 1 in 4 said that no solid ev­i­dence proves the cli­mate is warm­ing, the po­si­tion taken by most Repub­li­can hope­fuls.

By 72% to 27% in a Pew sur­vey last week, the public said that im­mi­grants in the coun­try il­le­gally should be al­lowed to stay. That ma­jor­ity fa­vor­ing what con­ser­va­tives de­nounce as “amnesty” in­cluded 42% who sup­ported al­low­ing the im­mi­grants to seek cit­i­zen­ship, as Clin­ton ad­vo­cates, and 26% who fa­vored per­ma­nent res­i­dency with­out cit­i­zen­ship, Bush’s po­si­tion.

But while the ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans agree with Democrats on those spe­cific is­sues, Repub­li­cans stay com­pet­i­tive largely be­cause of the deep, abid­ing skep­ti­cism and frus­tra­tion about gov­ern­ment voiced by a ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans, most no­tably non-col­lege-ed­u­cated whites.

In a sharply di­vided na­tion, a ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans agree with Democrats on spe­cific goals, but a cru- cial swing bloc mis­trusts the abil­ity of ei­ther party to get much done or to make the na­tion’s eco­nomic sys­tem work on their be­half.

That’s where tout­ing Clin­ton’s ex­pe­ri­ence and rep­u­ta­tion for po­lit­i­cal shrewd­ness could pay off, Demo­cratic strate­gists be­lieve.

At the same time, cam­paign of­fi­cials seem re­signed to the re­al­ity that the neg­a­tive side of how the public sees her prob­a­bly won’t change.

Un­like most pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls, Clin­ton has the luxury of not hav­ing to in­tro­duce her­self to the public or get over the hur­dle of hav­ing peo­ple see her as a plau­si­ble can­di­date. The f lip side of that, how­ever, is that she en­ters the race with many Amer­i­cans al­ready op­posed to her.

As she has moved back into the po­lit­i­cal arena from her days as sec­re­tary of State, the per­cent­age of Amer­i­cans who see Clin­ton un­fa­vor­ably has risen. Amid con­tro­versy over her use of a pri­vate email server when she headed the State Depart­ment and ques­tions about the mo­ti­va­tions of donors to the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion, the share who see her as hon­est and trust­wor­thy has de­clined.

Demo­cratic strate­gists in­sist that’s a man­age­able prob­lem. “It’s an is­sue,” said one strate­gist with long­stand­ing ties to both Clin­ton and for­mer Pres­i­dent Clin­ton. “But it’s not the only thing.”

“We did a poll just be­fore the 1992 elec­tion, and only about one-third of peo­ple said Bill was hon­est and trust­wor­thy, but they elected him any­way,” he said, speak­ing anony­mously to avoid strain­ing ties with the Clin­tons.

Iron­i­cally, one fac­tor help­ing Clin­ton is the par­ti­san­ship that has stalled large parts of Obama’s agenda. As Democrats see Clin­ton un­der attack, polls show they have started to cir­cle the wag­ons, dis­miss­ing the crit­i­cisms as po­lit­i­cal snip­ing from the other side. A re­cent Des Moines Reg­is­ter/ Bloomberg Pol­i­tics poll of Democrats likely to vote in Iowa’s cau­cuses, for ex­am­ple, found that 7 in 10 thought the Clin­tons were get­ting a “bad rap” on the con­tro­ver­sies.

Amer­ica’s par­ti­san lines have hard­ened dramatically dur­ing the Ge­orge W. Bush and Obama pres­i­den­cies, notes Alan Abramowitz, a po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at Emory Uni­ver­sity in At­lanta and an ex­pert on U.S. elec­tions. Be­cause of that, the Clin­ton cam­paign’s main task is to keep Democrats mo­ti­vated to vote while reach­ing out to a rel­a­tively small slice of vot­ers who are truly up for grabs, in­clud­ing those dis­ap­pointed by the achieve­ments of the last eight years.

“It’s al­most cer­tainly a close elec­tion,” Abramowitz said. “The par­ti­san divide is so strong. There’s less room for move­ment.”

Thomas Shea Getty Images

HIL­LARY ROD­HAM CLIN­TON at an event in Hous­ton last week. With polls show­ing vot­ers grow­ing more lib­eral, Clin­ton is em­pha­siz­ing her abil­ity to gov­ern rather than pol­icy changes.

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