Hillary Clinton came to San Antonio Thursday to receive the blessing of the Castro brothers, making her first official campaign stop in Texas and marking a significant moment in her second bid for the White House. At two events — a Q&A with the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and an outdoor rally at Sunset Station — she sought to appeal to Hispanic voters, a core constituency of the Obama coalition, and underline the possibility that her campaign could mount a serious bid to win Texas in the 2016 general election.
Clinton is one of the most fascinating figures in modern American politics, in part because of the remarkable, even Sisyphean, way that the nation’s political architecture rearranges itself seemingly with the intention of thwarting her.
The Clintons appeared to have finally found the path to return Democrats from exile in 1992, with Hillary playing an unusually prominent role in making policy, but the Republican revolution of 1994 put a damper on that, and much of the rest of her time as first lady was derailed by other matters. She came back to independent prominence as a respectably centrist senator from New York in the 2000s, an Iraq war hawk and a defender of Wall Street, but when it came time to run for president, those positions helped sink her.
Now, her supporters say, she’s one of the most experienced presidential contenders ever, and it’s a claim with some merit — she’s been the closest advisor of a governor and a president, and she’s served in the U.S. Senate and the cabinet. She’s been privy to history in the last quarter-century like few other people on the planet. And yet she’s running in a year of seemingly unprecedented hatred of the establishment, where her experience and record is in some ways a liability. She’s popular with Dems, for the most part, but she still needs to bolster her left credentials to win over parts of the base afflicted with Clinton fatigue.
Today, at the launch of the “Latinos for Hillary” initiative, Clinton was introduced by Julián Castro, who was in turn introduced by Joaquin Castro. Both brothers have now endorsed Clinton, and emphasized to the crowd that Clinton was someone for whom Hispanic issues were, and had always been, close to heart. “She’s always been there for us,” Julián Castro told the crowd, “and today we’re there for her.”
Some Democrats had hoped to see Clinton take on more of the mantle of the left. On Thursday, she spoke about the wage gap and family leave policies, thanked the #BlackLivesMatter movement for their activism, and told the crowd she would take up immigration reform from the beginning of her presidency, aggressively pursuing a reform package with a full pathway to citizenship for undocumented people. She told the crowd that she would actively pursue gun control in office. “If you join me,” she said, “I will continue taking on the NRA!” She lauded former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro’s advocacy for pre-K in San Antonio. She emphasized her belief that government could help level the playing field. “Talent is universal, and opportunity is not in America,” she said.
And she lavished praise on the sitting president: “This country’s come a long way in the last six and-a-half years,” she said, thanks to the “leadership of President Obama.” He didn’t get enough credit for avoiding a second great depression, she said, to cheers. In other arenas, particularly when it comes to foreign policy, Clinton has carefully underlined differences with Obama. In front of this crowd of Texas Democrats, there was no such distancing.
Another important thread at the Clinton event on Thursday was the possibility that Clinton’s campaign will invest some of its massive resources in Texas during the general election, with an eye to strengthening the party’s infrastructure here. That’s a hope related to long-running speculation that Clinton will pick Julián Castro to be her running mate when the time comes.
Texas Democrats would love that, but there’s always been plenty of reason to be skeptical of the idea that Clinton would invest heavily in Texas. In a close presidential race, putting a lot of money in a state Democrats are exceptionally unlikely to win would be an inefficient use of resources, especially given the problems with party unity and competency that surfaced in 2014, and given that the third election for an incumbent party after two terms in office is traditionally a time of atrophying energy and turnout.
But Thursday, it seemed clear that the Clinton campaign was trying to lay the foundation for a Lone Star subplot this cycle. There was the simple fact that today’s rally, the launch of the campaign’s Hispanic outreach project, happened in San Antonio, with the Castros. Introducing Clinton, Julián Castro told the crowd he looked forward to seeing Fox News announce Clinton’s taking of Texas’ electoral votes come November, and Clinton responded by asking the audience to help her “turn Texas blue.”
Clinton also emphasized her time, spent with then-boyfriend Bill, doing organizing work in South Texas, by all accounts a formative experience for the two. Back then, she said, she and Bill, with his beard and big head of hair “like a Viking,” had a grand old time in Texas. They ate “a lot of green enchiladas,” and “drank our share of Shiner Bocks.” They “ate way too much mango ice cream at the Menger Hotel.”
When Bill and Hillary came to Texas in 1972, they came to do campaign work for George McGovern, the liberal no-hope Democratic nominee who limped to a crushing defeat against Richard Nixon, winning only one state. That crushing defeat is one of the things that pushed the Clintons toward finding a kind of Democratic identity that could win in what was becoming a more conservative country. That search changed the Clintons in surprising ways: Years later, after Bill Clinton won the White House, Nixon and Bill became friends.
History’s funny that way. Now the winds have changed again. The country is shifting, in some ways, to the left — at least in presidential elections, when younger and more diverse voters come out. And again, a Clinton is trying to surf the wave. Can she manage it this time? While most people are transfixed by the vulgar Republican primary, Clinton’s the best show in politics right now.