Say this for the Democrats in the Clinton era: they're never boring.
From brilliant responses to sex scandals to impossible smoke-but-not-inhale policy hedges to calculated collapses on everything from gay rights to financial deregulation, the Clinton Dems over the years have proven themselves masters of messaging and political survival.
They've turned the act of choosing winning over principle into an art form.
The latest trick? Insulting their own voters at the start of a race. It would be unbelievable, if they hadn't spent decades preparing us to believe it.
The background for the latest chutzpah-rich gambit has been an alarming slide in Hillary Clinton's recent polling numbers. A series of different surveys have all shown that in the wake of her email scandal and revelations about the Clinton Foundation, Hillary's negatives have jumped, and her positives are way down.
"Less than 50 percent of respondents" have favorable feelings about the candidate, as Michael Barone at Real Clear Politics put it.
In response, the Clinton campaign is launching a campaign to fire up the liberal base. They're going to accomplish this, they say, by having Hillary adopt "polarizing" positions she doesn't actually believe in. This comes via a trial balloon the campaign itself floated in The New York Times over the weekend.
In "Hillary Clinton Traces Friendly Path, Troubling Party," Clinton aides reveal to reporters Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman that Hillary is being forced to abandon her preferred political path – as they breathlessly describe it, "the nationwide electoral strategy that won her husband two terms in the White House and brought white working-class voters and great stretches of what is now red-state America back to Democrats."
They go on:
"Instead, she is poised to retrace Barack Obama's far narrower path to the presidency: a campaign focused more on mobilizing supporters… than on persuading undecided voters.
Mrs. Clinton's aides say it is the only way to win in an era of heightened polarization… Her liberal policy positions, they say, will fire up Democrats, a less difficult task than trying to win over independents in more hostile territory — even though a broader strategy could help lift the party with her."
The first thing that jumps out about this story is that it comes directly from the Clinton campaign.
The main sources on the news part of the piece are unnamed "Mrs. Clinton's aides." The quotes in the analysis portion, meanwhile, come mainly from a list of current and former Democratic operatives like David Plouffe, Dan Pfeiffer and Robby Mook.
So this wasn't leaked out to the Times by accident. It was spoon-fed to the paper by the party, which put this "left turn" out there to see how it plays.
Either that, or they already know how it's going to play and just need the press to blow out the story for them.
Given the sources, the way the strategic turn is described is incredible. Both the named and unnamed Democrats spend the whole text pissing on their own strategy (and by extension their own targeted voters) from a great height.
They make it clear that turning away from Bill Clinton's cherished demographic of southern white moderates, and toward the Obama base of "young, nonwhite and female voters," is something they're only doing with extreme reluctance.
They describe rhetoric for the young-female-nonwhite coalition as "narrow," while a Bill Clinton-style turn toward the red states would be a "broader" strategy that would "lift the party with her."
In the Times piece, this line is followed by a slew of quotes from establishment Dems about the perils of turning toward the base. And it's capped by an on-the-record quote from Mook, Hillary's current campaign manager, who is described as "unmoved" by such concerns:
"I think everybody understands how tough it's going to be next year if we get through the primary… So I'm not concerned about hand-wringing on the strategy."
In other words: "We hate doing this, but it's the only way to win. Bear with us."
As political messaging goes, it's a remarkably perverse way to kick off a campaign. It's like going on a date and announcing before the appetizers arrive that the only reason you're here is that the person you really wanted to go out with turned you down.
As in: "Please don't think I really like you. It's just that going out with you is the only way I'm going to get laid."
The Clintons have long been masters of this kind of rhetoric, only in the other direction. The Democratic Party spent much of the nineties and 2000s reassuring their base through similar leaks and off-the-record/background comments.
The whispers back then told us that Third Way Democrats like the Clintons or Al Gore were really raging liberal pacifists at heart, and only voted for things like the Iraq War or the Patriot Act or "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" because they needed to head rightward to win elections and keep the big bad evil Republicans at bay.
What they're saying now is the opposite. The country, they say, has become so polarized that they need to head left and "narrowly" pick sides, instead of "broadly" hedging in order to win.
Citing Democratic sources, the Times reporters dismissively describe this turn toward the base as the "Obama strategy." And they say the party has concluded it has no choice but to embrace it. As the Times puts it:
"[The Obama strategy] is unavoidable, given that there are few genuine independents now and that technology increasingly lets campaigns pinpoint their most likely voters."
In pursuing this strategy, Hillary will be asking for forbearance from social conservatives while she targets women, gays and nonwhite voters on social issues, instead of going after middle-class whites the way her husband did using platforms like welfare reform.
Moreover, the party wants big business to hang tough while Hillary slings Warren-Sanders-style anti-business rhetoric in an effort to increase turnout.
The truly crazy thing about this is that the Warren-Sanders strategy actually would be the broad bipartisan strategy, if only the Democrats would stop apologizing for it.
Particularly on the Wall Street front, there is a broad left-right coalition to be built, if the Democrats had any interest in building it.
Such coalitions have already succeeded in the House and the Senate, where politicians like Ron Paul and Sanders have teamed up to audit the Fed, and Republicans like David Vitter have teamed up with Dems like Sherrod Brown in campaigns against Too-Big-To-Fail banking monopolies.
It's called the 99 percent for a reason. Very few actual people on the left or the right genuinely like the way the modern economy works. The right kind of criticism would fly in both camps.
Liberals are critical of modern high finance because it leads to unchecked abuses of corporate power. True conservatives are against it because the current financial system is a perverted form of capitalism that discourages competition in favor of state-supported pseudo-monopolies, putting taxpayers on the hook to bail out loser companies.
If the Democratic Party had the stones to dive into that issue with both feet, they would build a true bipartisan coalition overnight and keep the White House for decades.
Instead, they use leaks like this Times piece to reassure donors the anti-Wall Street rhetoric coming is all talk. Doing the right thing is so totally alien to them that they feel they need to apologize before they do it.
The irony is, Hillary probably wouldn't have such high negatives right now if the public didn't have decades of exactly this sort of Clintonian face-switching and poll-chasing to stew over.
In fact, in a just world, this latest decision to overcome voter indifference by putting on an Elizabeth Warren mask through the primary season would be rewarded by even stiffer slides down the polls. Even hardcore progressives would probably respect her more if she stuck to the eely faux-center the Third Way Dems have been staking out since the late Eighties.
But if history is any guide, that won't happen. The guess here is that Hillary and Democrats have run the numbers. They'll shake a few fists at The Man on the campaign trail, just enough to sneak by on poll day. Then, once in office, they'll revert back in office to being the shameless policy sellouts they've always been.
It would be gross even if they weren't openly telling us that's the plan. But with this trial balloon, that's exactly what they're doing. It'll be interesting to see if American voters have enough self-respect to be offended.