Has Clinton’s Move to the Left Backfired?
Policy + Politics

Has Clinton’s Move to the Left Backfired?

© Carlos Barria / Reuters

Hillary Clinton’s attempts to blunt the popularity of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders by painting herself as a “progressive who likes to get things done” has left some voters and observers confused about the core message of her second presidential bid. It now seems that frustration has spread to the former secretary of state herself.

On Monday, Politico reported that Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, are unhappy with, among other things, her campaign’s muddled message and are planning a major staff shake-up after the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday night, where the former First Lady is expected to finish second to Sanders.

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“The Clintons are not happy, and have been letting all of us know that,” one Democratic Party official told Politico. “The idea is that we need a more forward-looking message, for the primary — but also for the general election too.… There’s no sense of panic, but there is an urgency to fix these problems right now.”

In an interview with MSNBC, Clinton said she’d seen the report and remains “very confident” about her staff, but she didn’t reject the idea of an overhaul.

“We’re going to take stock, what works, what doesn’t work. We’re moving into a different phase of the campaign. We’re moving into a more diverse electorate. We’re moving into different geographic areas,” she said. “So, of course it would be malpractice not to say, ‘OK, what worked? What can we do better? What do we have to do new and different that we have to pull out?’”

Looking back at last week’s Democratic presidential debate, it’s not hard to see why Clinton’s camp is frustrated. She and Sanders spent much of the first hour bickering over what it means to be a “progressive” and who deserves to wear that title. Clinton mocked Sanders for appointing himself “gatekeeper” of the label and Sanders responded by highlighting Clinton’s ties to Wall Street.

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The exchange, while at times nebulous, was nonetheless a defining exchange in a Democratic race in which the leading candidates have veered to the left more than in any presidential campaign since 1972.

Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who dropped out last week after a dismal showing in Iowa, continually charged Clinton with leading from behind on several issues, including immigration, the Keystone XL pipeline and others.

Clinton’s attempt to negate those charges has resulted in a severe course correction, with her seesawing between staking out liberal stances aimed specifically at the party’s base and scolding Sanders for policy proposals that are just “wishful thinking,” as she described her rival’s estimated $14 trillion healthcare plan.

Related: Clinton Attacks Sanders’ $14 Trillion Health Plan as ‘Wishful Thinking’

The tiptoe act has seemingly left Clinton unmoored to either the liberal or moderate camps — and struggling to define the central rationale for her candidacy. Clinton and some surrogates have at times highlighted the goal of electing the first woman president, but comments by Gloria Steinem and former Secretary of State Madeline Alrbight chastising women who don’t support Clinton have sparked a backlash.

Contrast that with Sanders, whose message has been sharply focused on income inequality and the sins of the “billionaire class.”

Talk of the staff shake-up, on the heels of last week’s Iowa caucuses, where Clinton managed to eke out a win victory over Sanders by a fraction of a percentage point, has some thinking back to 2008 when she was upset in the Hawkeye State and had to throw everything but the kitchen sink into winning the New Hampshire primary. She weighed turning over her staff after New Hampshire four years ago as well.

David Axelrod, the chief architect of both of President Obama’s White House campaigns, suggested on Twitter that the woes roiling Clinton’s camp come from the top.

Any kind of reshuffle by Clinton will likely spark more doubts about her candidacy heading into Nevada’s Democratic caucuses on Feb. 20. The nation’s former No. 1 diplomat is supposed to have the edge in the Silver State, thanks to its large Hispanic population. Nevada, along with the South Carolina primary on Feb. 27, are supposed to make up Clinton’s “firewall” and help deny Sanders the nomination.

Recently, though, Clinton has begun to show signs of worry. Her campaign launched its first Spanish-language radio spot in Nevada on Friday, and Bill Clinton spent two days there last week to gin up enthusiasm.