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With Hillary Clinton set to run, progressives ask, where does she stand?

Clinton faces strong cross-currents in her party between centrists and resurgent populist wing

WASHINGTON — After months of demurring, punting and hinting about her presidential ambitions, Hillary Clinton is widely expected to officially launch her 2016 campaign on Sunday.

Multiple news reports, citing unnamed Clinton aides, said the former first lady, Senator, and Secretary of State would make the announcement via social media before embarking on a maiden campaign swing through Iowa and New Hampshire, two early primary states.

Clinton continues to be such a formidable force in Democratic politics that the long-held expectation that she would run has effectively dissuaded most other serious competitors from entering the race for the party’s nomination. Indeed, she enters the contest as the presumed Democratic nominee, barring unseen events or scandals.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats, has toyed with the idea of running for months and traveled the country touting left-of-center ideas but has yet to officially make a decision or lay the organization groundwork needed to run a presidential campaign. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has said he would make a decision by May. A visible, robust effort to draft Sen. Elizabeth Warren to run for President has fallen short, with Warren repeatedly insisting that she is not interested in entering the fray. Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb have launched presidential exploration committees, but both are widely viewed as long shots. 

But, as the challenges — however nominal — from Clinton’s left flank demonstrate, the political landscape, particularly in the Democratic Party, has shifted considerably since Clinton’s last foray into domestic politics in 2008 when she ran for president and lost the nomination to Barack Obama. Her subsequent work as President Obama’s Secretary of State had her primarily dealing with foreign affairs.

Since then, the widening gap between rich and poor has become the primary preoccupation for progressive activists, and the cause of economic populism has been championed by figures such as Warren and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as well as unsuccessful Democratic primary challengers from the left, including New York gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout and Chicago mayoral competitor Jesus “Chuy” Garcia

Clinton, whose own legacy and record is seen as more centrist and aligned with business interests, will have to navigate those strong political crosscurrents in her own party, even if she runs virtually unopposed. The former Senator from New York has collected millions of dollars in contributions from financial institutions throughout her political career and is perceived as being cozy with Wall Street.

Warren, many progressives’ first choice to run for president, has stayed silent on whom she believes should lead the party into 2016.

“I think we have to see if she declares and what she says what she wants to run on,” Warren said on CBS This Morning on Thursday. “There needs to be a vigorous debate in the whole question about running for president. I think everyone who is running for president needs to be talking about what they plan to do to strengthen and rebuild America's middle class."

“I'll tell you where I stand on all of the key issues. It's up to others to say whether they stand there as well or if they stand in some different place,” Warren added.

Some progressives said they are concerned that despite her long tenure in public service, her positions are unknown on a litany of current policy issues. In the year since Clinton left her post as Secretary of State and been in private life, she has had the luxury of picking and choosing which topics to weigh in on.

It is unclear, for instance, where Clinton stands on the Trans Pacific Partnership, a massive 12-country free trade deal being pushed by President Obama but that many liberals believe will ultimately be detrimental for American workers and wages. She has been evasive about whether and how much the National Security Administration’s massive surveillance powers should be reined in. She has stayed silent on the matter of whether the Keystone XL pipeline, anathema to environmentalists and delayed by President Obama, should be given final approval, although her husband has been supportive of the project.  

Roger Hickey, co-director of the progressive Campaign for America’s Future, said activists would also like to know if Clinton would break up big banks, whether she would work to expand Social Security benefits and how much she is committed to building green infrastructure with public investment — all important litmus tests on the left.

“It’s just on so many important society-shaping issues we don’t know where she stands and we have a suspicion that she’d rather not say,” he said. “So far she hasn’t been a profile in courage. So far she hasn’t shown that she knows that these are important issues, and so one way to get her to put her cards on the table is if someone like Elizabeth Warren ran for the presidency.”

Clinton has made moves toward channeling that populist energy. In a speech last May in Washington, she described rising inequality and diminishing upward mobility, calling the current era “a throwback to the Gilded Age of the robber barons.”

Michael Podhorzer, political director of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, says, that union members are waiting for Clinton to drill down on the specifics of how she would address such problems.

“The workers are going to need to hear more than just a description of the problem. They’re going to need to feel motivated by solutions that will seem meaningful to them,” he said. “[Workers] feel overwhelmingly that the CEOs and the affluent have rewritten the economic rules of the game and they’re looking for a candidate who’s going to be on their side and that’s what Mrs. Clinton has to establish.”

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, another liberal advocacy organization, has launched a petition to nudge her to the left on such domestic issues. It has been signed by 5,000 people—many of them elected officials, union leaders and grassroots activists. Prominent signatories include Warren, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin.

Others, meanwhile, have expressed a wariness about Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy record. Clinton has said that the failure to arm moderate Syrian rebels in the early part of the country’s civil war led to rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, but it’s unclear how she would take up the fight herself. 

Chafee meanwhile told the Washington Post that her vote to authorize the Iraq War in 2002 — a major issue in her 2008 campaign against Obama — essentially disqualifies her from the Democratic nomination.  

"I don't think anybody should be president of the United States that made that mistake," Chafee said. "It's a huge mistake and we live with broad, broad ramifications today — of instability not only in the Middle East but far beyond and the loss of American credibility. There were no weapons of mass destruction."

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