When debate moderator Chris Wallace bored in on Hillary Clinton’s biggest flip-flop of the campaign — her shift against the Trans-Pacific Partnership — it was an isolated incident.
The politician most likely to be portrayed as cold, calculated and willing to take any position at any moment has given rival Donald Trump precious little fodder to make that sale this year.
It’s one of the many ways in which Clinton’s actions on the campaign trail have reinforced the basic narrative of steadiness that she’s used to contrast herself with the combustible Trump. And it’s probably the most important both for her impending victory and her ability to govern once she’s in the White House.
Clinton still struggles with articulating her agenda in the black-and-white terms that animate political movements. She leaves herself wiggle room. She’s got a policy for everything, and she tends to get lost in the details.
But throughout this campaign, there’s been a basic consistency to her platform that subtly and thoroughly undermines those who contend she’s got an arm reaching upward with one finger permanently extended to the wind.
Sure, she made concessions to Bernie Sanders before the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this past summer. But, aside from the TPP, she’s largely adhered to a remarkably thick and complex book of policy positions.
At the start of the campaign, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd picked at Clinton for being unknowable. Dowd focused on the packaging of the candidate.
“Instead of a chilly, scripted, entitled policy wonk, as in 2008, Hillary plans to be a warm, spontaneous, scrappy fighter for average Americans,” Dowd wrote. “Instead of a woman campaigning like a man, as in 2008, she will try to stir crowds with the idea of being the first woman president. Instead of haughtily blowing off the press, as in 2008, she will make an effort to play nice.”
Dowd added an extra kick: “It’s a do-or-die remodeling, like when you put a new stainless steel kitchen in a house that doesn’t sell.”
But after two presidential campaigns, four years in the State Department, eight years in the Senate and eight years as first lady, Clinton has found a comfort zone on public policy that’s pretty easy to define.
She’s hawkish for a Democrat, liberal but not radical on social issues, and more attentive to economic growth than a party base that tends to concentrate on economic fairness.
When she talks about inclusion as a political matter — “Stronger Together” — it’s worth remembering that, after years of trial and error, it describes her approach on policy. She learned the hard way, through her health care effort in the early 1990s, that lawmaking requires bringing in most or all of the stakeholders on a particular issue. That’s true not only for enacting laws but also for ensuring they have public support after they’re in place.
To the great consternation of many of Clinton’s allies — and to government-is-the-problem Republicans — she truly believes that solving national problems requires the know-how, the money and the buy-in of both the public and private sectors. Sound familiar? It can be hard to distinguish her worldview from her husband’s — save that she leans a little more liberal on many domestic policies.
In an election cycle in which Sanders and Trump rose on appeals to populist anger, Clinton had to bet that the majority of the electorate would reward responsible stewardship. She couldn’t run from being a Washington insider or present herself as the candidate of revolutionary change.
Instead, she cast herself as a veteran fighter whose scars are a testament to the strength and persistence it takes to make even incremental change in Washington.
It was a strategy that dovetailed with the truth.
For a candidate who is seen as not honest and trustworthy by a majority of the electorate, that’s no small thing. Imagine how much worse her honesty numbers would be if she’d spent the campaign flip-flopping like the typical presidential candidate.
Clinton made the mistake of ceding the change argument to Barack Obama in their 2008 primary. After eight years of the George W. Bush presidency, change is exactly what voters wanted. This time around, Clinton fought a more nuanced battle against the movement candidates. Rather than a binary choice between change and the status quo, Clinton framed the question as one of degree. She would tweak Obamacare, help students get out of college without debt, and work to implement a no-fly zone over Syria.
Rather than rewriting the Obama presidency, she wants to revise and extend it. As it turns out, her natural inclinations fit the national mood pretty well. Right now, most voters favor stability over revolution. Clinton’s consistency on policy gives her credibility when she says she’s the stable one.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Clinton biography “HRC” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 15 years.