PHILADELPHIA — Long considered a moderate Democrat more in the mold of her husband than her socialist primary opponent, Hillary Clinton suddenly finds herself at the helm of a party that is moving left at a rapid pace — and some progressives question whether she is willing or able to steer the ship along its current path.
Mrs. Clinton faces a daunting task as she tries to glue a fractured party back together before November. The liberal wing, whose once-lofty goals such as debt-free college and entitlement expansion are now firmly enshrined in the Democratic platform, largely had thrown its support behind Sen. Bernard Sanders in the presidential primary and considered Mrs. Clinton to be a candidate of the party’s past, not its future.
Although Mrs. Clinton ultimately prevailed in the primary race, the party gathered for the Democratic National Convention this week surely isn’t the one she envisioned leading when she began laying the groundwork for her run almost immediately after President Obama won re-election four years ago.
Her previous political persona — one of a highly qualified moderate with deep appeal to blue-collar white voters — no longer is viable. She is now tasked with giving voice to progressive priorities she has only recently embraced, and many liberals harbor reservations about whether she is up to the challenge.
“We all want Hillary to prove herself to us,” said Margaret Potts, a South Dakota party delegate who supported Mr. Sanders. “If she can listen to Bernie supporters, she has the power, she has the experience, she has the knowledge to take the movement further. It’s not a question of if she can do it; it’s a question of will she do it.”
Mr. Sanders may have fallen short in his presidential bid, but his influence on the party has been profound, delegates and progressive leaders say. The party platform now calls for the legalization of marijuana, a $15-an-hour national minimum wage, a harder stance on climate change, debt-free college, an expansion of Social Security and other items that Mr. Sanders made centerpieces of his campaign.
“We produced by far the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party,” Mr. Sanders told convention-goers Monday night, also urging his supporters to move past the bitter primary and accept Mrs. Clinton as the leader of a more progressive party.
Over the past few months, Mrs. Clinton has come around to supporting the priorities laid out in the platform, though her progression was slower than many liberals would have liked.
Some progressives still wonder whether the former first lady is sincere in her convictions, and those doubts were fueled this week when one of her top surrogates predicted that Mrs. Clinton would reverse course and support the Trans-Pacific Partnership if elected president.
“It’s that kind of stuff that upsets all of us who are at the heart” of the liberal movement in the party, said Christopher Fury, a Sanders delegate from Virginia.
But progressives also say they must accept the candidate they have, not the one they dreamed of having when Mr. Sanders’ candidacy gained traction. They say Mrs. Clinton may be uniquely suited to lead the party, and the country, at this moment.
Liberals’ doubts also can be turned into a positive force for activism, said Neil Sroka, a spokesman for the progressive PAC Democracy for America.
“I think having someone like Clinton as the head of the Democratic Party gives the progressive movement the motivation to keep pushing for change within our party and holding our leaders accountable,” he said. “We certainly fought hard to put a progressive champion in the White House this year, but there’s always a real risk that if we got everything we wanted, progressive activists might sit down and stop pushing when the election was over. With Clinton in the White House, we’ll have a Democratic president with a track record of responding positively to grass-roots pressure and a grass-roots, populist progressive base that still has plenty of reasons to keep pushing.”
Indeed, Clinton supporters say disgruntled Sanders backers should recognize that the former secretary of state, with her reputation as a policy-wonk moderate willing to compromise when necessary, could actually accomplish liberal goals, not just talk about them.
“To Bernie’s credit, he moved the needle. But Hillary has a better chance of getting things done because she has good relationships across the aisle,” said Rick Hartwig, chairman of the Marion County, Oregon, Democrats and a Clinton delegate. “To govern is to compromise. I don’t know if Bernie would be able to get anything done. I love Bernie, but I’m glad I was a Hillary delegate because I’m trying to unite the party.”