Union members broke into cheers when Hillary Rodham Clinton said she supported their efforts to create a $15-an-hour national minimum wage.
“Thank you for giving me this chance to tell you all how much I support your movement,” she told a conference organized by the Service Employees International Union. “I want to fight with you every day.”
Clinton’s words last weekend weren’t quite the endorsement they may have seemed. The next day, her campaign clarified her remarks, saying while Clinton supported the general push for higher wages, she wasn’t backing the more contentious $15 hourly minimum.
In the eight weeks since she announced her presidential bid, Clinton has moved cautiously to the left. She’s wooing the liberal wing of her party with strong stances on issues like immigration, where there’s broad national support for the Democratic position.
But at the same time, Clinton is staying silent or speaking with care on more controversial topics, as she did on the minimum wage. The carefully crafted policy two-step reflects a strategic decision by her campaign to motivate Democratic activists skeptical of her commitment to their cause, without alienating more moderate voters open to her candidacy.
Last week, she pushed for a radical revamp of voting laws, including automatically registering people when they turned 18, prompting a backlash from potential Republican rivals and cheers from Democratic advocates. But she took no stance as Congress debated and approved sweeping changes to the nation’s surveillance laws enacted after the Sept. 11 attacks, an issue where her party and the public are divided.
That kind of cherry-picking will become harder for Clinton in the coming months as she moves into a new phase of her presidential campaign, beginning with a major rally in New York City on Saturday.
In her address, Clinton will lay out her vision for her presidency, arguing that prosperity cannot be just for CEOs and hedge-fund managers but must include ordinary Americans. “It is your time,” Clinton will say, according to aides who described the speech.
Her campaign intends to begin rolling out specific policy positions in coming weeks, a process that will detail her views on issues such as Wall Street regulation, trade, jobs and college affordability.
“Thus far, she’s been cautiously treading this interesting and narrow piece of ground that appeals to the broader party and the base,” said Jared Bernstein, a former economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden and a senior fellow with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He added: “We'll have to see what kind of sounds she makes when she moves outside that intersection patch.”
In the fall, Clinton will face off for the first time against her Democratic primary challengers in a debate, a stage that will force her to address contentious topics despite her commanding position in the race.
Her chief rivals, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, have embraced a populist approach to the economy championed by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren that calls for breaking up large Wall Street banks, a $15-an-hour minimum wage and efforts to make college more affordable by allowing students to refinance their loans and cap loan payments.
Speaking in Washington on Thursday, Sanders criticized Clinton for her reluctance to voice opinions on a number of difficult issues, including trade policy. “Our trade policies have been disastrous,” Sanders said during a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor. “Secretary Clinton, if she’s against this, we need her to speak out right now. Right now.”
Clinton may escape having to take a concrete stance on President Barack Obama’s request for “fast track” negotiating authority, which would allow the president to present Congress with proposed trade deals that it could ratify or reject, but not change. It stalled in the House on Friday, a win for unions and liberal groups who oppose it and a planned trade agreement with Asian countries.
Clinton has said she would want to judge the final agreement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Meanwhile, she’s expressed concerns that the deal might allow currency manipulation and lack sufficient health and environmental protections.
Along with trade, Clinton has failed to share her thoughts on the renewal of the Patriot Act and the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, a 1,179-mile oil pipeline opposed by environmental groups and some labor unions.
“You won’t get me to talk about Keystone because I have steadily made clear that I’m not going to express an opinion,” she said in January at a paid address in Winnipeg, Canada.
But Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network and a former campaign aide to former President Bill Clinton, said the former first lady and New York senator has shown signs that she will seize the ideas platform and “swing big.”
“Bill Clinton was a candidate of ideas and the big argument,” Rosenberg said. “It’s easy to forget that, but it certainly looks like this Clinton is going to follow that page in the Clinton playbook.”