The skeptical left is lining up to make sure Hillary Clinton keeps her promises to progressives
Hillary Clinton didn’t ask activists dubious of her commitment to liberal causes for their vote Saturday. Instead, she asked that they “keep holding elected officials, including me, accountable.”
It was a message — delivered in a video to Netroots Nation, an annual conference dubbed the “Woodstock for progressives” — that acknowledged the deep skepticism among many present who would have rather seen Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders become the Democratic nominee for president.
Although liberal activists are dedicated to defeating presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump in November, they’re already laying the groundwork for what could be called a loyal opposition to Clinton, a permanent campaign intended to make sure that if she wins the White House, she follows through on the leftward tilt she adopted during the primary. They’re planning to use public protests and political pressure to force action on their priorities, which include a $15-per-hour federal minimum wage and an expansion of the social safety net.
“There’s not going to be a honeymoon,” said Joseph Geevarghese, who advocates for higher wages at Good Jobs Nation, a union-backed nonprofit.
The strident approach by liberal activists is rooted not only in wariness of Clinton but disappointment in President Obama, who some activists feel moved too slowly to address economic inequality while he fruitlessly sought compromises with Republicans.
Geevarghese said liberals feared they would lose their prized access to the White House if they tried to apply political pressure with public protests of the Obama administration. That’s not the plan if Clinton is elected.
“We’ve got to play an aggressive outside game,” he said. “Workers will be in the streets in early 2017 to hold Clinton accountable.”
Activists interviewed here said they’ll push for a Cabinet stocked with liberal appointees and a legislative agenda just as progressive as the Democratic platform that was finalized this month in Orlando.
“If there’s not strong accountability and strong pressure, things are not going to happen,” said Raven Brooks, the executive director of Netroots.
This year’s conference came at a contradictory time for progressive activists.
While they feel a sense of pride over the unabashedly liberal ideas that have gained credence in the Democratic Party, such as free tuition at public colleges, emotions are still raw from the hard-fought primary, and it’s been less than a week since Sanders endorsed Clinton. Some volunteers are even holding out hope that Sanders could somehow emerge from the Democratic National Convention this month in Philadelphia as the nominee.
Even the mere presence of a Clinton sticker in the complimentary swag bag handed to Netroots participants touched a nerve.
Anthony Rogers-Wright, an environmental activist who supported Sanders, felt the sticker was a slap in the face, a heavy-handed message to get in line rather than a cheerful reminder that Democrats are uniting around their candidate.
“You’re not going to get us to accept Hillary Clinton by shoving it down our throats,” Rogers-Wright said.
It’s clear that the excitement generated by Sanders won’t be directly transferable to Clinton, whose last name became synonymous with centrist politics when her husband was president.
“A lot of people are going to vote for Hillary,” said Medea Benjamin, the co-founder of Code Pink and a frequent protester on Capitol Hill. “But that’s not where they’re going to put their energy.”
Some activists will be turning their attention to congressional races or individual issues, such as banning fracking or fighting police violence.
“The presidency is very important, but there’s a hell of a lot of other stuff going on,” said Haley Zink, 19, a Sanders supporter from the St. Louis area.
Other organizations focused on the presidential race are betting on an anti-Trump message instead of a pro-Clinton campaign.
MoveOn.org, a progressive group that originally backed Sanders, is laying the groundwork for a scorched-earth effort called Unite Against Hate that will paint Trump as a dangerous bigot. According to the group’s research, it’s the best way to motivate young voters, single women and minorities who are repulsed by Trump but are less likely to turn out to the polls in November.
“We need to make sure… the stakes of the election are clear, and their influence is clear,” said Justin Krebs, campaign director at MoveOn.org.
“Maybe they’ll put on a Hillary sticker. Maybe they’ll put on an anti-Trump sticker,” he said. “There’s a lot of different banners people are going to be waving.”
Clinton’s campaign has taken two approaches to try to appeal to progressives.
Officials have emphasized the earlier chapters of her biography, when she worked with the Children’s Defense Fund to fight racial segregation in schools.
“Some people know that,” said Marlon Marshall, director of state campaigns and political engagement for Clinton. “Some people don’t.”
Clinton has also doubled down on liberal policies, such as making higher education more affordable. She originally suggested helping students attend college debt-free; now she’s pushing for free tuition for students from families who earn up to $125,000 a year.
“We are not going to get there unless we elect Hillary Clinton,” Clinton policy advisor Ann O’Leary said during a panel discussion, acknowledging that many in the audience probably supported Sanders in the primaries.
Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said Clinton has been notably consistent in pushing liberal issues after the primary, when some activists were concerned she would shift back to the middle.
“The more Hillary Clinton keeps the volume up on big progressive ideas, the more energized they’ll be,” he said. “That’s the real variable.”
In Clinton’s video at Netroots, she pledged to introduce a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United court decision that opened the floodgates to more corporate money in political campaigns. Instead of the boos that greeted the mention of Clinton’s name during the primary, there was only applause.
“Clinton may be an imperfect vehicle for many of our causes, but she is phenomenally better than the alternative,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, which originally endorsed Sanders before throwing its support to Clinton.
“There’s a lot to be excited about with Hillary Clinton,” he said. “There’s nothing to be excited about with Donald Trump.”
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