How Hillary Can Out-Bernie Bernie

She’ll want to play it safe from here on out. Instead, she should embrace some bleeding-edge ideas that could improve the daily lives of millions of Americans.

You may not have noticed it, but the Clinton campaign took a step to the left this week. As Politico first reported, the campaign’s website recently added language expressing support for a health care public option.

You remember the public option. Beloved on the left, proof that someone was serious about health care reform, it’s the idea that the federal government (or states) could set up insurance exchanges to compete with private insurers. Barack Obama dropped the public option, which remains Exhibit A on the Obama sell-out indictment. The left has wanted it ever since.

Clinton actually supported the public option in her 2008 campaign. Now I should note that what she’s saying now is not that she’s going to push for Congress to add a public option to Obamacare. Instead she’s saying that as president she’d push states to set up their own public options under a change in the law that’s due to happen in 2017. So it’s a comparatively small thing. But it’s significant because it shows that the Clinton campaign recognizes a need to respond to pressure from Bernie Sanders to take more steps to mollify the liberal-left base.

So here we are, heading into what nearly everyone presumes will be a big Clinton win in South Carolina this weekend. Then three days later comes March 1. Sanders will notch some wins that day—maybe Colorado and Minnesota, which are caucuses, and Vermont of course, and maybe Massachusetts, which is tied in the most recent poll.

Clinton, however, retains decent leads in the majority of the March 1 states. Sanders probably needs a win in a surprising and important state; if he could somehow pick off Virginia, a state of first-tier November importance, that would make everyone say “OK, wait a minute here.” But she’s well ahead there right now.

So if things shake out over the next week as anticipated, the story will start to be “presumed nominee Hillary Clinton.” Doesn’t mean Sanders won’t keep running—I actually think he should. And it doesn’t mean he won’t win some states—he will. It does mean he’s not going to be the nominee, barring some crazy FBI-Clinton Foundation-who-knows-what scenario.

Clinton will be tempted at that point to play it safe. That is her tendency and instinct throughout her career. And it’s the precise opposite of what she should do. She should keep pushing to the left. She should try to out-Bernie Bernie on a few things.

Why? Two reasons. First, while the race will be over-in-quotation-marks, it won’t be in fact over. If she starts looking like she’s coasting or prematurely tacking to the center and taking general-election positions, well, there’s no surer way to ignite a backlash against her and get Bernie back in the game. Second, and relatedly, the party’s white-activist base and its younger voters still don’t trust her, and she still needs to do something about that.

When I was out in Nevada, I listened to her retooled stump speech. “Imagine a tomorrow where…” repeated more than 20 times. Not bad. It’s an improvement over “I have done…” and “the other guy’s unrealistic.” At least it’s, like, vision-y.

But it occurred to me that she could also be making a sharp contrast with Sanders that would stand the chance of persuading some/many voters that her economic ideas would matter more in their daily lives. Bernie wants to break up the banks and crack down on Wall Street. Every liberal likes hearing those things, but what dividends are they going to pay in people’s day-to-day lives? Actually, plenty, potentially, but it would take a long time for them to filter down.

But I, Clinton could say…I want paid family leave and universal pre-kindergarten and child care. How’s that sound? It’s not as sexy as break up the banks, I’ll grant you that. But which would make more difference in your daily lived experience?

And she should go further still. Now I’m gon’ wonk you out a little bit; don’t be afraid. Kicking around in liberal policy circles right now are some ideas about how to modernize the social safety to protect workers, especially younger workers (take note of that point, Hillaryland), who aren’t working the traditional full-time job in one place. They work 20 hours a week at a big-box store or wherever. They drive a little for Uber or Lyft. They rent out their skills on TaskRabbit. They cobble together a pretty decent living, but they may not have health insurance, they certainly don’t have vacation time, and, because of that whole infamous lack of notification in shift-scheduling nonsense, they can hardly even plan to take a long weekend off.

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Can anything be done for these people? Yes. The answer was developed by my friends Nick Hanauer and David Rolf in their essay “Shared Security, Shared Growth,” in the journal Democracy (which I edit). The mantra is proration, portability, and universality. You should click on the link and go read about it, but basically, the idea is that benefits, traditionally in this country doled out as a portion of full-time employment compensation, should be prorated for part-timers; and that things like vacation time be made portable from job to job; and so on.

Others, like the economist Heather Boushey in her upcoming book, advance related notions. The Clinton team knows all these people and their ideas. They ought to adopt some of them. As for political downside, well, sure, businesses will be against all this, but those businesses aren’t going to be hotbeds of Clinton support anyway.

Clinton’s never going to excite left economic populists in the way Bernie does, and she shouldn’t try to play his game. But ideas like these are her game. She can out-Bernie Bernie on these questions and convey to the lefties and young voters that whatever the favorable delegate math, she isn’t writing them off. That’s the path toward not just winning the nomination, but ginning up some of the enthusiasm she’s been missing.