Congressional Progressive Caucus Plays Hard-to-Get with Hillary Clinton

Keith Ellison (D-MN) of the Congressional Progressive Caucus

Many progressives are withholding endorsements in the hopes of pushing her left.

By Lauren French

May 19, 2015 – More than 30 members of the House Progressive Caucus still aren’t ready to back Hillary Clinton’s campaign, saying she has a ways to go to show she would champion their agenda as president.

The resistance comes even as they acknowledge she’ll likely be the party’s nominee, and her campaign has mounted an early, aggressive courtship of lawmakers.

“Ultimately, she simply needs to … not [be] a Republican for me to endorse her,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), co-chairman of the 70-member House Progressive Caucus. “I will support the Democratic nominee, there is no question about that. The real question is: What is going to make me get excited? I want to hear her talking about the most pressing issue in America today, which is the concentration of wealth at the top.”

Ellison and other House liberals hope that by holding out on a formal endorsement, they can nudge Clinton to the left, not only on income inequality but poverty, trade, criminal justice and college affordability — essentially, the Elizabeth Warren agenda. Progressive Caucus members have asked to meet with Clinton aides soon to discuss their policies.

So far, there are close to three dozen House progressives who already have endorsed Clinton. But most House liberals want to see a stronger commitment to their platform.

“I want her to declare a war on poverty,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. For Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the Progressive Caucus, it’s climate change and the role of government and trade. “Progressives are looking for definitive positions on the issues,” he said.

Both have withheld their endorsements, at least for now.

The resistance to her among liberals isn’t a direct threat to her campaign so much as another reminder of the wariness among the party base toward its presumed nominee. The lawmakers aren’t so disillusioned that they would get behind Martin O’Malley or Bernie Sanders. In the end, they’re all but sure to come around to Clinton, but like other activists on the left, they want her to earn it.

Still, their lack of enthusiasm for Clinton has practical implications. If she fails to energize progressives, it could depress turnout and hurt Democrats’ chances of eating into the GOP’s 245-seat House majority — a major priority for the party in an election year that should favor Democrats. (Continued)


And as of now, progressives say they aren’t seeing enough from the Clinton campaign.

The former secretary of state has, for example, refused to weigh in on the controversial battle over “fast-track” authority for trade deals — raising the suspicions of some progressives as Clinton was a key player in the Trans-Pacific Partnership currently being negotiated by the Obama administration.

The fast-track bill is the procedural first step Obama needs to complete the largest trade agreement in American history and a large bloc of Democrats in the House and Senate has been working for months to defeat it. The Senate is set to vote on the bill this week, but the measure’s fate in the House is still uncertain.

Clinton gave a tempered response on trade in April but has refused to answer questions from the media about her concerns or thoughts on the issue since.

That, Grijalva said, is not acceptable for a candidate seeking favor with progressives.

“That is critical,” he said. “The campaign and the secretary have to … tell us where they stand on it.”

A spokesman for Clinton’s campaign, Josh Schwerin, said Clinton appreciates the support she’s seen from the left.

“Hillary Clinton appreciates the support of so many members of the Progressive Caucus and looks forward to continuing to work with them throughout the campaign,” Schwerin said. “She will build on the proposals she’s laid out on issues like criminal justice reform, immigration and helping everyday Americans get ahead and stay ahead.”

And the campaign has signaled in recent weeks that Clinton is eyeing the populist base that helped elect President Barack Obama. Campaign manager Robby Mook excited liberals when he said on CNBC that voters are seeking out a candidate who is a “champion” for progressive issues like “debt-free college.”

Clinton also gave a speech in April on the need to end “mass incarceration” that many progressives lauded.

Still, there’s pressure on lawmakers’ in progressive districts to stay out of the endorsement game until later in the election. Grijalva, who represents the Tucson and Phoenix areas, said liberal voters in his state would question his judgment if he got out early in favor of Clinton.

“I hear more about Sen. Warren than anybody else, people saying that she should be an alternative … but if there is any person being talked about Secretary Clinton sounding more like, it’s Elizabeth Warren,” he said.

“If I were to endorse Hillary Clinton, if someone like Elizabeth Warren was in the race, there would be a lot of questions [from progressives.] A lot of questions,” Grijalva added.

To be sure, many progressives have already endorsed Clinton. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), a member of the Progressive Caucus, tweeted her endorsement in the days after Clinton announced. And Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) said at the time of the announcement that he “can’t wait” to see her elected to the White House.

But the majority of the Progressive Caucus isn’t ready to jump on board yet. And congressional sources say that while endorsements are inevitable for Clinton, progressives want to see her work to woo them first, especially when one of their own, Sanders, has jumped into the race.

Even senior leaders in the Democratic Party haven’t given Clinton their formal nod. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who helped recruit then-Sen. Obama to challenge Clinton in 2008, was asked about the 2016 Democratic field during an interview earlier this month on MSNBC.

“I have a few friends out there,” Reid said. But he didn’t offer an endorsement of Clinton and touted the benefits of a competitive primary.

“Everybody — everybody knows I love the Clintons,” Reid said. “And I don’t need to say more.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelsoi hasn’t formally endorsed Clinton, either. She said in January that Clinton would likely win the general election if nominated, even though the party isn’t “devoid of other voices.”

“Well, your question was, do I believe she’s the presumed nominee and will she win if she runs,” Pelosi said at the time. “If the secretary runs, I believe that she will win and she will be one of the best-prepared people to enter the White House in a long time in terms of her experience and her knowledge.”