Hillary Clinton continues to appeal to the liberal base in the early-going of her candidacy for president, first with a speech critiquing “mass incarceration” last week, and then yesterday with a speech on comprehensive immigration reform that was more forceful, and more liberal, than most expected. She pledged to fight for a path to citizenship, greater protections from deportation for many undocumented immigrants, and reforms to the immigration detention system. Crucially, she also backed President Obama’s use of executive action, and said she would do even more:
If Congress continues to refuse to act, as president, I would do everything possible under the law to go even further.
All this from a candidate who has generally been cautious on immigration in the past (and who was previously viewed with wariness from immigration reform advocates). Today? The headline on MSNBC”s Maddow Blog: “Clinton goes all in on immigration reform.” At Vox: “Hillary just took a stunningly aggressive stance on immigration reform.”
Of course, Clinton could always move back to the center in the general election. But it’s possible that, in addition to being more humane and better for economic growth, Clinton’s move to the left on immigration represents a canny strategy looking ahead to November 2016. Clinton is aiming to force the issue with GOP candidates, who are in a tough spot: a Republican might not be able to survive the primary without going full Tea Party nativist, but pissing off Hispanic voters is likely to be a political disaster in the general. By staking out a strong position, Clinton is putting on the heat. From her comments yesterday:
Make no mistake, today not a single Republican candidate, announced or potential, is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship. Not one. When they talk about legal status, that is code for second-class status.
New York’s Jonathan Chait called it “a power play that demonstrates how swiftly the immigration issue has moved in her party’s favor, and how she plans to box in her opponents.”
Republicans want to avoid clear stances, Chait argues, and Clinton is forcing the issue:
By clarifying the questions Republicans would like to keep muddled, she is making the conversation as uncomfortable for them as possible. She is likewise demonstrating how quickly the political power of the immigrants-rights movement has blossomed.
As a side note, I’d argue (cynically, I suppose) that the other piece of context here is that in an increasingly polarized electorate, she really had nothing to lose here. Her husband’s coalition depended on voters who simply aren’t going to vote for Democrats in 2016. The demographic trends suggest that Hillary Clinton is better off courting a coalition that looks more like Barack Obama’s.