The campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination may be without competition, but it is not without interest.
There is the question about how former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton performs on the campaign trail. There is the matter of how she bears up to relentless criticism from the huge Republican field. There are the inquiries about hard drives and her defense of the Benghazi episode in her “Hard Choices” memoir.
But perhaps the most intriguing question — one never before posed in modern times — is how a virtually unopposed nomination frontrunner responds to the pressure groups in her party and in the various states that, in an ordinary primary campaign, would push her to the left or into the embrace of special interests.
Unlike any other recent candidate, Ms. Clinton will feel no need to consider Iowa special interests who will seek support for subsidies for ethanol, which accounts for half of the state’s huge corn crop, billions of dollars in trade, tens of thousands of jobs and, as one out-of-state study put it, “important support for Iowa’s universities.”
Unlike any other candidate from the Democratic establishment, she will feel no compulsion to accede to the demands of organized labor. It was this very pressure that helped brand former Vice President Walter F. Mondale as a “tool of special interests,” a description favored by his two chief 1984 Democratic rivals, Sen. John H. Glenn Jr. of Ohio and Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado. Mr. Glenn especially pilloried Mr. Mondale as the mouthpiece of “labor barons,” and Mr. Mondale was repeatedly pressed to identify a single issue in which he parted ways with Lane Kirkland, the head of the AFL-CIO at the time.
Unlike any other politician seeking her party’s nomination in the modern era, Ms. Clinton will be free to resist the entreaties of the principal interest groups of the new Democratic Party, including environmentalists, feminists, abortion-rights activists and the public-education lobby. Many of Ms. Clinton’s views are congruent with these groups, especially feminists, so she is exceedingly unlikely to oppose them. But she is freer than her predecessors to choose among their priorities, or even to oppose a handful of them as a way of asserting her political independence and personal character.
“She could be liberated,” says former Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio, who has close ties both to the Clinton family and to former Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, who may challenge Ms. Clinton. “The question is whether she interprets her position that way. But you know how human beings are. We all like to be liked, and it’s tough to talk to people and take a position you know they won’t like.”
But none of this means that Ms. Clinton will have a joyride en route to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia 14 months from now. She will have some token opposition, likely from Mr. O’Malley and a few others, perhaps Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described socialist. And there remains an effort to lure Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts onto the field.
“With Bernie Sanders in the race with a progressive voice and with Elizabeth Warren not in the race but touring the country,” says Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers union, “there will be pressure on Hillary.”
The first pressure point almost certainly will be trade. Right now the Trans-Pacific Partnership is the sort of issue that prompts yawns but, by the time election politics are at their height, it will be a red-hot issue. Earlier this month, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate tax-writing committees cleared the way to give President Barack Obama “fast-track” authority to negotiate an agreement with 11 Pacific nations.
This is one of the rare examples where there is bipartisan backing for a proposal in Washington, but that backing is not unanimous. Many Democrats, including Ms. Warren, have grave misgivings about the pact, which labor almost surely will oppose. Ms. Clinton, as secretary of state, was closely identified with this effort and, as a result, the trade issue will present a political challenge for her.
Another pressure point will be her relationship with Wall Street. Ms. Clinton pointedly made income inequality, which is related to Wall Street controversies, a major theme of the early days of her candidacy. The poster woman for these issues is, of course, Ms. Warren, and it cannot be a coincidence that the author of the two-paragraph tribute to the Massachusetts senator in Time’s most-influential-people issue was Ms. Clinton.
Ms. Clinton likely will lean left toward Ms. Warren but not too far left. She will not be for breaking up big banks, a key Warren proposal, and may take shelter in just the sort of technocratic approach to financial regulation that Ms. Warren deplored in remarks at Bard College earlier this month.
Despite Ms. Clinton’s kind words for Ms. Warren in Time — “she fights so hard for others” — and description of her as the “champion of working families and the scourge of special interests,” the two have different styles and political impulses. There is going to be a quiet tension between the two, and between their two camps, all the way to the Philadelphia convention.
These tensions were magnified this month when the Ready for Warren group, the analogue to the Ready for Hillary organization that stirred the political pot before Ms. Clinton became an active candidate, produced a series of personal appeals to lure Ms. Warren into the race. Still, it seems unlikely she will challenge Ms. Clinton, who may have an essentially free ride to the general election campaign.
“The 162 games she’d ordinarily need to get to the playoffs don’t count for Hillary,” says Peter D. Hart, who was Mr. Mondale’s pollster. “She can spend her money as she chooses, and she can choose her spots. The only challenge to her is that she has to respond as news breaks. It’s a tremendous advantage.”
But in politics as in life, advantages come with disadvantages. Ms. Clinton’s biggest one is that she might not be in fighting trim against a Republican nominee who will have to wrestle the GOP nomination from 18 other sets of hands.