WASHINGTON — Martin O’Malley was blunt when he learned Hillary Rodham Clinton had announced her opposition to a Pacific Rim trade deal. “Wow, that’s a reversal,” he told reporters minutes after Clinton announced her shift.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal is just the latest in a long line of issues that Clinton has shifted her views on in recent weeks, giving Democratic rivals like O’Malley, the former Maryland governor, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an opportunity to brand her as a flip-flopper on the eve of the first Democratic presidential debate.
Leading up to the Oct. 13 primetime encounter in Las Vegas, Clinton has announced her opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, a project she said she was “inclined” to support back in 2010 as President Barack Obama’s secretary of state. She touted her support for gay marriage during a weekend appearance before the Human Rights Campaign — yet she opposed same-sex marriage for more than two decades in public life.
And her opposition to the Asian trade deal, which was finalized last week, came nearly three years after she traveled to Australia as secretary of state and lauded the proposed pact as the “gold standard” of trade deals. Video clips of Clinton talking about the trade deal are stored on YouTube, giving her opponents made-for-TV footage that could be used in television ads to highlight her shifting positions.
“Whether it is the Keystone pipeline, whether it is TPP, these are issues that I have had a very strong opinion on from Day One,” Sanders told reporters. “I am delighted that Secretary Clinton is on board in opposition to the TPP. To be very frank with you, it would have been more helpful to have her on board a few months ago.”
Clinton’s repositioning is aimed at a Democratic primary electorate eager to find a new liberal standard-bearer in the post-Obama era. Her comments on the trade deal won quick praise from labor unions and environmentalists credited her opposing the Keystone pipeline, a sign that she is securing her left flank heading into the first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire next February.
But Republicans have already signaled her reversals will trail her into the general election, where her opponents have already spent months casting doubt on her trustworthiness. Many Republicans remember how Democrats successfully used the flip-flopping charges to undercut Mitt Romney’s appeal during his 2012 campaign against Obama.
“Hillary Clinton reversed her position after admitting she hadn’t even read the final agreement,” said Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus, who said in a statement her “painful waffling” was “a case study in political expediency.”
Even a series of tough on Wall Street policy positions, released late Wednesday, come as some liberals have questioned whether she’s too cozy with the financial industry, which she’s had relationships with since before her days as a New York senator.
The series of shifts marks another way that Clinton has recalibrated her campaign strategy after her failed president bid eight years ago. In 2008, Clinton refused to apologize for voting to authorize the war in Iraq, even as then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama hammered her for it.
Advisers feared that if she called the vote a mistake, she’d be tagged a “flip-flopper,” a charge that devastated Democratic nominee John Kerry in 2004.
“It’s important for all Democrats to keep the word ‘mistake’ firmly on the Republicans,” said chief strategist Mark Penn, at the time, according to the book, “Her Way: the Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton.”
Clinton’s supporters say some shifts are the natural outcome of decades of public service and changing public opinion. Much of the Democratic Party opposed gay marriage for decades, including Vice President Joe Biden and Obama. Only in the last few years, as public opinion has shifted in favor of same-sex rights, did their stance change.
She’s credited gay rights activists with changing her views on the issue. “You helped change a lot of minds,” she told the Human Rights Campaign. “Including mine.”
On immigration, just days after formally entering the race, Clinton quickly declared her support for state policies that give drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants — an issue that tripped her up during in an October 2007 Democratic primary debate. Since that campaign, 10 states have embraced the policy, with relatively little controversy.
On trade, Democrats say in many cases her role required her to advocate for the Obama administration — and now she’s running for the top job.
“She was doing her job as secretary of state when she was dealing with some of those issues,” said Democratic strategist Bill Burton, a former Obama aide. “Now she is doing her best to show the American people what kind of president she would be.”