The Hillary Clinton who appears poised to win the Democratic presidential nomination in many ways bears little resemblance to her former self, and analysts and progressive leaders say Sen. Bernard Sanders deserves credit for forcing a political evolution that has shifted Mrs. Clinton much further to the left than virtually anyone anticipated.
From Wall Street reform to Social Security expansion to trade, Mrs. Clinton’s rhetoric and, to a lesser degree, her tangible policy proposals have tilted from middle-of-the-road, moderate positions to ambitious liberal ideals.
Mr. Sanders’ effect on Mrs. Clinton was on display at the Democratic presidential debate Sunday night, when the former secretary of state finally embraced calls for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, to resign amid the ongoing water contamination crisis in the city of Flint.
Mr. Sanders began calling for Mr. Snyder to step down months ago, but Mrs. Clinton didn’t join the chorus until Sunday.
“I agree the governor should resign or be recalled, and we should support the efforts of the citizens attempting to achieve that,” she said at the debate.
It was another example of Mrs. Clinton’s change of tone and switch in policy to align more with Mr. Sanders and with the progressive mood in the Democratic Party.
Political analysts said this is by no means the campaign Mrs. Clinton expected to run. They said the former first lady envisioned promoting more moderate proposals on a number of issues but was forced to turn dramatically left as enthusiasm for Mr. Sanders’ candidacy grew.
“What Bernie Sanders did is basically tell the Clintons you can’t go right. In fact, you have to go left, because the people who are most disaffected with Barack Obama’s presidency aren’t the Republicans who never gave him a chance. It’s the progressives who turned out in record numbers in 2008 and feel tremendously let down,” said Lara Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University who studies the evolution of political parties. “Hillary Clinton has not wanted to campaign this way. She has not wanted to move further left, even rhetorically.”
Mrs. Clinton’s shift has not gone unnoticed by the Sanders campaign. The senator from Vermont Sunday night mocked Mrs. Clinton and said she only recently “found religion” on the issues of free trade and America’s declining manufacturing sector.
He has joked that his campaign was looking into “copyright issues” as Mrs. Clinton’s rhetoric on Wall Street reform increasingly began to sound like his.
Indeed, Mrs. Clinton consistently has used the refrain, “No bank is too big to fail, and no individual is too powerful to jail.”
The statement underscores her more aggressive position on Wall Street regulation. Her campaign speeches increasingly center on themes of income inequality and reining in Wall Street — themes Mr. Sanders introduced into the campaign and has championed relentlessly.
Progressive groups say Mrs. Clinton’s focus on Wall Street and sharper rhetoric are net positives for the Democratic Party, even if it’s unclear exactly how far she would go on financial regulation if elected to the White House.
“It’s inarguable that Hillary Clinton has given more voice to economic populist positions like breaking up the big banks and jailing Wall Street bankers because there’s been such a robust conversation in the context of this primary,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the powerful liberal activist group the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “Even if one is asserting that she would’ve had these positions anyway, Bernie Sanders’ coming out and saying he would break up the big banks within his first 100 days led to her going even further. That’s so meaningful to the national dialogue and the soul of the Democratic Party.”
The Sanders campaign has affected Mrs. Clinton in a number of areas beyond Wall Street. Mrs. Clinton came out against the Keystone XL oil pipeline long after Mr. Sanders had done so. In the process, she shunned some moderate Democrats who supported the project and aligned herself with progressives and environmental activists who vehemently opposed it.
After praising the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal as secretary of state, she announced her opposition to the agreement last year, again putting her in line with Mr. Sanders and with the progressive wing of the party.
Mrs. Clinton’s college affordability plan, while short of Mr. Sanders’ proposal of free tuition at all public colleges and universities, is more aggressive than it was during her 2008 run, and she has embraced the core concept of debt-free higher education.
She also is proposing much more significant tax increases than she did in 2008 and is supporting a raise of the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour. In 2008, she said the hourly wage should be raised to $9.50.
Analysts say Mrs. Clinton’s belief system has not fundamentally changed but that she has made shrewd political adjustments to her campaign and is focusing more on progressive ideas to capitalize on the liberal enthusiasm Mr. Sanders has generated.
“She’s not calling for single-payer [health care], she’s not calling for a federally mandated $15-an-hour minimum wage. What’s really important in terms of Sanders is the way in which he has led her to accentuate the more progressive aspects of her programs,” said William Chafe, a historian at Duke University and author of the book “Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal.”
Indeed, health care is one area where Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders remain relatively far apart. Mr. Sanders proposes scrapping the Affordable Care Act in favor of a Medicare-for-all system, while Mrs. Clinton supports retaining and expanding Obamacare.
On other issues deeply important to liberals, such as Social Security, Mrs. Clinton has made clear movements.
Throughout his campaign, Mr. Sanders has promised not to cut Social Security and to expand benefits for many Americans. In the days leading up to the Feb. 8 New Hampshire primary, Mrs. Clinton stumbled by saying only that she “had no plans” to cut Social Security.
But days before Granite State voters went to the polls, Mrs. Clinton — after public prodding from Mr. Sanders — promised she wouldn’t cut the entitlement program if elected president.
“She made clear she will not cut Social Security, which instantly moves the center of gravity in the Democratic Party,” Mr. Green said. “There have been years of activism to get to this moment, but [Mr. Sanders] certainly was an instigating agent that led to her making her position clear.”