Sixteen years ago, Bill Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, set out to succeed his boss. Clinton thought Gore should embrace the Clinton record. Gore disagreed. Gore banked on populist anger, ran on a platform of change, and lost to George W. Bush.
In Saturday’s Democratic presidential debate, Hillary Clinton made clear that she’s not going to repeat Gore’s mistake. She’s going to hug Barack Obama all the way to the Democratic nomination and beyond. Here are six moments in which she telegraphed her loyalty.
1. The debate’s moderator, Slate’s John Dickerson, began by asking Clinton whether Obama and his administration underestimated ISIS. In light of Friday’s terrorist attacks on Paris, Clinton could have pointed out that she, unlike Obama, favored a no-fly zone in Syria. Instead, she replied: “What the president has consistently said, which I agree with, is that we will support those who take the fight to ISIS. That is why we have troops in Iraq that are helping to train and build back up the Iraqi military, why we have special operators in Syria working with the Kurds and Arabs, so that we can be supportive.”
2. Dickerson asked Clinton whether, in her former role as a senator, she would have accepted the president launching military action against ISIS without specific congressional authorization. The question gave her an opportunity to part company with Obama, who, according to Republicans, has done just that. Instead, she replied as though she were a spokeswoman for the administration. To secure authorization, she said, “I know the White House has actually been working with members of Congress.”
3. When Clinton was asked why health insurance deductibles have risen under Obamacare, she leapt to the president’s defense. “We've made great progress as a country with the Affordable Care Act,” she said. “And it was not only a great accomplishment to the Democratic Party, but of President Obama.” Later, after Bernie Sanders argued that the country should switch to a single-payer system, Clinton retorted: “We now have this great accomplishment known as the Affordable Care Act, and I don't think we should have to be defending it among Democrats. … We ought to proudly support the Affordable Care Act, improve it, and make it the model that we know it can be.”
4. Clinton was asked about Obama’s executive orders that would extend work permits and partial legal status to undocumented immigrants. The orders, which have been blocked by courts, are a huge source of controversy about presidential overreach. Clinton responded by defending not just the policy, but Obama’s circumvention of Congress. “The president has appealed the decision to the Supreme Court,” she noted. “And my reading of the law and the Constitution convinces me that the president has the authority that he is attempting to exercise with respect to dreamers and their parents.”
5. A questioner pointed out that the former chairman of Obama’s council of economic advisers, Alan Krueger, had warned of possible job losses if the minimum wage were raised to $15 per hour, as many Democrats have proposed. Clinton could have embraced the popular $15 figure, as Sanders has. Instead, she defended Krueger. “I do take what Alan Krueger said seriously. He is the foremost expert in our country on the minimum wage,” she argued. “What Alan Krueger said … is that if we went to $15, there are no international comparisons. That is why I support a $12 national federal minimum wage.”
6. Late in the debate, Sanders said the candidates should focus on “why the middle class is disappearing … why we have massive levels of income and wealth inequality, and we’re the only major country on Earth without paid family and medical leave.” Clinton, in response, thanked Sanders for “lighting a fire” on the left, but she added: “President Obama deserves more credit than he gets for what he got done in Washington, despite the Republican obstructionists.”
Why is Clinton embracing Obama so unapologetically? She has several good reasons. One is that on economic policy, immigration, and the use of force, Obama has governed as a prudent centrist, and Clinton shares that sensibility. Another reason is that Democratic presidents have a better record of job growth than Republicans do, and Clinton intends to make that a major campaign theme. A third reason is that Gore’s strategy failed, so she might as well try the opposite.
But the biggest reason might be that Clinton is a woman. She doesn’t need to manufacture or exaggerate differences with Obama, because she’d be the first female president, and that distinguishes her not just from her old boss, but also from her husband and every other president. And she’s betting that anyone who belittles her as Obama’s clone will look like a sexist. As she often puts it: "I'm not running for my husband's third term. I'm not running for President Obama's third term. I'm running for my first term.”
This is what Republicans wanted. All year, they’ve been trying to tie Clinton to Obama. It looks like she’s going to give them what they wanted. They may regret it.