How Hillary Clinton Has Grabbed the Political Center — Without Changing Her Policy Stance

In the style exemplified by her friend the California senator, Hillary Clinton’s not occupying the political “center,” but instead pushing her opponent out. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Between the first and last days of the Democratic National Convention last week, there was a much-discussed change of tone. Monday was all about progressivism and unity between Clinton and Sanders supporters. Thursday was about the flag, and national security, and chants of USA! USA!

Now, it’s not surprising that folks with Bern marks on their psyches — who weren’t totally convinced by Monday’s unity display — got the willies from Thursday’s rhetoric. OMG, some doubtless thought. Here’s the Clintons triangulating again, and “pivoting to the center.” Progressives could be abandoned entirely by Labor Day!

Since then, Donald Trump has so dominated political discourse and helped Clinton to such a robust spike in the polls that these fears have probably been dampened for the moment. But in case they are revived if and when the race gets closer, it’s worth asking: Was there actually a contradiction between Clinton’s progressive gestures and outreach to Republicans in Philly? Is it possible to energize the base while persuading swing voters at the same time, without betraying somebody’s trust?

To answer that question, it’s important first to take a look at the nature of Clinton’s “outreach to Republicans.” Andrew Prokop put it well at Vox:

If you look closer, it turns out that Clinton and the Democrats are indeed embracing the symbolism and tropes that the right has loved — but they really aren’t making policy concessions to win them over … Indeed, all of this imagery and rhetoric was deployed in service of an agenda that is remarkably liberal — at least when it comes to domestic and economic policy.

Even on national-security policy, notes Prokop, Clinton didn’t really “pivot to the center”; she stayed pretty much where she has always been. But the heart of her persuasion technique was not about convincing swing voters she was something they did not think she was; it was about convincing them — and most definitely including Republicans — that Donald Trump was exactly what they feared he was.

In this respect, Clinton deployed a technique I used to call “Barbara Boxer centrism” (named after the famously combative liberal senator from California), wherein a politician “seizes the center” not by occupying it with any surprising or “moderate” policy proposals, but by pushing their opponents out of the center by constantly labeling them as extremist. It just so happens that Clinton’s opponent is an exceptionally good foil for this kind of attack. And so she does not really have to choose between “left” and “center,” or between base mobilization and swing-voter persuasion. He’s dangerously crazy is a message that serves both purposes equally.

How Hillary Clinton Seized the Center Without Pivoting