Progressives fear Hillary-super PAC juggernaut

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during the annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting, Sept. 25, 2013, in New York, N.Y.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during the annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting, Sept. 25, 2013, in New York, N.Y.

Key progressives aren't thrilled that Priorities USA, a leading Democratic super PAC, is formally backing Hillary Clinton for 2016.

They’re worried that a rush to anoint Clinton as the party’s nominee, should she run, could make it harder to hold her feet to the fire on issues like income inequality, where her positions remain largely unknown. And they say the more she relies on Super PAC money, the less responsive she’s likely to be to the grassroots.

“It is troubling that so much of the party is leaping to potentially end the primary early,” said Neil Sroka, a spokesman for Democracy for America, the advocacy group that morphed out of Howard Dean’s 2004 left-leaning presidential campaign.

Priorities USA announced Thursday it would begin raising money for a possible Clinton White House bid and named President Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, Jim Messina, as a co-chair of the group. Priorities won’t legally be able coordinate with Clinton’s official campaign if she decides to run, but it's begun soliciting million-dollar donations in support of the former secretary of state, the New York Times reported. The group's new leadership team hopes to outdo the $67 million Priorities spent on negative ads against Mitt Romney in 2012.

The news has bolstered the notion that the Democratic primaries could become a Clinton coronation.

Of course, being seen as the inevitable nominee might not work to Clinton’s advantage. In 2008, her campaign deliberately cultivated that image—and we all know how that turned out. And cruising to the nomination might leave her unprepared for a general election that’s sure to be hard-fought.

But progressives are expressing particular anxiety. It’s not that they’re committed to opposing Clinton—though they often sound skeptical about her. But they say that without a competitive nomination fight, it will be more difficult to push the eventual nominee—whoever that turns out to be—toward taking strong stances on the issues that Democratic base voters care about, like income inequality and curbing the power of the financial sector.

That’s what lay behind a recent flurry of interest in Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts—which subsided a bit when Warren said last month she wasn’t running.

“Inequality, and whether or not you’re willing to rein in Wall Street is I think going to become the Iraq War vote of 2016,” said Josh Orton, the political director of Progressives United, which was founded by the liberal former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold. “This is going to be sort of a basic question for any nominee—how are they going to address the issue of inequality?”

The analogy with then-New York Sen. Clinton’s 2002 vote for the Iraq War—a key reason she lost support from the left last time around—is telling. And for some, that concern is magnified by Clinton’s relative silence on those issues in recent years, as well as by the pro-Wall-Street record of President Bill Clinton’s administration and her own relationship with the financial sector stemming from her years as a New York senator.

“Where does she stand on financial reform, given that her husband deregulated the baking system?,” asked Roger Hickey, a co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, making clear that he was speaking only for himself.

A lack of strong competition could make it easier for Clinton to resist efforts to pull her to the left, progressives say. But they also worry that the greater the influence of big-dollar Super PACs in a Clinton effort, the less clout the grassroots is likely to enjoy.  

“If I’m a candidate and I know this entity is amassing huge amounts of money—unlimited contributions—and is able to run ads on my behalf, do I worry as much about talking to the progressive base of the party in order to engage them for the election?” asked Orton. “And I think the answer’s probably ‘no’.”

Some even fret the source of those unlimited contributions could make it harder for Clinton to challenge the interests of the financial sector.

“Many on the progressive side are concerned that the money behind these efforts is often Wall Street money,” said Hickey. “ It’s not that anybody begrudges people from organizing support for Hilary. But if it's funded by money that precludes her from taking positions on things like reforming Wall Street, that’s a concern.”

Clinton will likely have some powerful progressives in her corner should she run. Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, is a longtime adviser to the former first lady who will likely take a leadership position in any campaign. And Clinton enjoys mostly strong relationships with the abortion-rights, civil-rights, and environmental movements, which play key roles in Democratic politics. 

Progressives are a long way from giving up on Clinton. But some aren’t exactly hiding their disdain for Priorities USA’s involvement.

“If Hillary Clinton sides with Elizabeth Warren on key issues like expanding Social Security benefits and increasing Wall Street reform and accountability, she will foster Democratic Party unity,” Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has called itself “the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party,” said via email. “That's the best way for a candidate to secure the nomination—not massive fundraising from Wall Street fat cats, millionaires, and billionaires."