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Hillary Clinton’s Winning Strategy: The Pragmatic Progressive

How populist appeal mixed with realpolitik experience could be a winning combination for the democratic frontrunner.

image via (cc) flickr user marcn

Tuesday evening’s first Democratic party primary debates offered something of a mixed bag for those watching on CNN, as well as the candidates, themselves. While lacking in the frenzied free-for-all atmosphere of the GOP primary debates, each the five candidates vying for the top slot on the democratic ticket still had their moments of verbal bombast in an attempt to define themselves as a the most viable contender for the White House. But, no matter how many sound-bites and screen-grabs last night’s debate may have generated, analysts seem to agree that the democratic primary field remains largely as it was before the candidates took to their podiums: Hillary Clinton still leads the pack, Bernie Sanders continues to be a dark horse (albeit a surprisingly strong one), and Webb, Chafee, and O’Malley are largely non-factors in the race.

Still, for as much as things may have stayed the same, last night’s debate offered a glimpse at something new for at least one of the candidates—A way for Hillary Clinton to meld her experience as a longtime member of Washinton’s ruling class, with the same sort of populist fervor propelling Bernie Sanders to previously unexpected heights in the polls. Enter, the Pragmatic Progressive.

After being pressed by debate moderator Anderson Cooper to answer charges of a shifting political identity based on expediency and self-interest, this is what Clinton had to say when finally asked whether she was a progressive or not:

“I'm a progressive. But I'm a progressive who likes to get things done. And I know how to find common ground, and I know how to stand my ground, and I have proved that in every position that I've had, even dealing with Republicans who never had a good word to say about me, honestly. But we found ways to work together on everything from reforming foster care and adoption to the Children's Health Insurance Program, which insures 8 million kids. So I have a long history of getting things done, rooted in the same values I've always had.”

Here’s the entire exchange:

On one hand, Clinton’s answer is rooted in a problem faced by every candidate with a track record in Washington: How to answer for a career filled with evolving opinions and necessary political deal-making without quoting Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” On the other, her answer demonstrates a keen understanding what makes her closest primary challenger such a potent force—and how to exploit his biggest weakness.

It’s no understatement to say that Bernie Sanders is riding a wave of popular support for his unabashedly progressive message of righting income inequality, and bringing a measure of economic justice to a country still reeling from the 2008 global financial crisis. He is pugnacious, direct, and seems to care little for the subtle art of political presentation which so many other candidates spend years trying to perfect. Regardless of his decades in public service, Sanders in many ways comes across as having the same sort of populist outsider appeal as Donald Trump, albeit with astronomically different politics. He may not have enough widespread appeal to win a presidential election (or even a primary) but he’s hyper-energized a segment of the electorate who seem hungry for both authenticity and wholesale change.

Clinton, meanwhile, has been dogged by accusations of secrecy regarding her private email server, and alternating political convictions. That is why casting herself as “a progressive who likes to get things done,” is such potentially significant move on her part. It taps into the excitement of Sanders’ grassroots appeal, while subtly re-frames the accusations of her waffling as being ultimately in the service of what lately has seemed entirely out of reach for Washington: Actual results—results, it’s implied, that Sanders has been unable to deliver himself. What’s more, it’s an answer that keeps one eye on the general election, during which Clinton can use the same line to highlight accomplishments in the face what will likely be cast as Republican obstructionism, regardless of who the GOP candidate ends up being.

Ultimately, Clinton’s pivot toward pragmatic progressivism is the sort of judo-esque maneuver that hopes to take a significant knock against her as a candidate and turn it into an even more significant strength. Whether it will resonate with voters, however, remains to be seen.

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