Hillary’s Hard Choice

Robert Borosage

The launch of Hillary Clinton’s undeclared candidacy for president – in the form of the roll-out of her memoir, “Hard Choices,” an astounding two and a half years prior to the election – has been marked by big media and silly gaffes.

Tin-eared and thin-skinned, Hillary, unlike her husband, has never been a “natural” as a candidate. She campaigns in prose, not poetry, crouched in a cautious, defensive posture that reveals the strains, not the joys, of campaigning.

But the efforts of Republicans – and some Obama aides – to use Clinton’s inept comments about the family’s wealth to paint her as “out of touch” are risible. Americans don’t care if the Clintons are rich; they care what side they are on. And against anyone able to survive the Tea Party-hijacked Republican primaries, Hillary will have no trouble drawing the contrast.

More telling than the gaffes is how out of step Hillary’s candidacy is with the needs of the time. She is the candidate of continuity when the country wants change. She is Wall Street’s favorite Democrat when voters want to see bankers in perp walks. She advertises her interventionist foreign policy views when the country needs rebuilding at home. She’s from a generation headed to retirement when the baton has already been passed to the next.

This invites a challenge, particularly within the Democratic Party. But getting traction won’t be easy. A formidable Clinton campaign apparatus – super PACS, institutional support, fund-raising juggernaut – is already in place.

Karl Rove has already laid out the Republican strategy against Hillary, labeling her “old and stale,” a third Obama term with no answers for the economy that is failing most Americans.

This is a potent argument, but the candidate of the “pale, stale, male” Republican Party will have a hard time making it. Clinton’s potential to be the first woman president gives her candidacy energy and verve. She will campaign, as her husband did, on populist themes, condemning the “cancer of inequality,” and the sinking middle class. She will make a women’s economic agenda her centerpiece – pay equity, paid family leave, affordable child care, crackdown on wage theft, lifting the minimum wage. She is likely to champion universal pre-kindergarten and affordable college, vowing to pay for them by requiring that the wealthy and global corporations pay their fair share of taxes. She can turn her experience and competence into a strength, boasting about her husband’s record of job creation (22 million jobs over eight years) and widely shared prosperity (incomes of all sectors increased in his second term, as the economy moved toward full employment).

A Coronation or a Mandate?

The harder question for Hillary is whether she will seek a mandate for the changes the country desperately needs. Without that, the country faces four more years of stagnation, gridlock, growing inequality, and increasing instability at home and abroad and the prospect of a failed presidency.

To make this economy work for working people once more requires a fundamental departure from the policies of the past. It requires that Hillary to break from the core policies not only of her former boss, President Obama, but also of her husband.

Bill Clinton and Obama both argue that inequality is the product of globalization and technology. These are autonomous and remorseless forces – like the weather, no one can be blamed. But once Occupy Wall Street put the 1 percent at the center of the political debate, this argument sounds like a lame excuse, not a reasoned answer.

Americans increasingly believe, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren has argued, that the “system is rigged,” that the rich and powerful have stacked the deck to benefit themselves with everyone else bearing the cost. They also believe central elements of the Wall Street-friendly policies of Bill Clinton and Obama helped do the rigging.

For example, both Bill Clinton and Obama tout fiscal austerity, cuts in vital investments that slow growth and cost jobs. Bill Clinton announced the “era of big government is over.” When the dot.com boom produced not just balanced budgets but surpluses, Bill used the money not to pay for long-overdue public investments but to pay down the national debt.

Soon after the 2008 economic collapse, Obama passed the Recovery Act, a large spending bill that saved an economy that was in free fall. But he turned prematurely to austerity – announcing that government had to “tighten its belt,” and bragging that domestic spending would decline to levels not seen since the 1950s as a percentage of the economy. Bill Clinton, a fixture at billionaire Pete Peterson’s events to promote deficit reduction, supported that turn.

Now, as even Bill Clinton’s former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers argues, Americans face continued stagnation and mass unemployment unless Washington launches a major initiative to rebuild the country, investing in fixing and modernizing our decrepit infrastructure, in education and training,and in research and development. The next president will have to break with the austerity crowd.

Bill Clinton continues to defend his global trade and tax policies that were defined by corporations and banks. Obama has essentially continued these policies.

The results have been unprecedented trade deficits, decimating U.S. manufacturing and undermining worker’s wages, while multinationals have rigged the tax code to reward themselves for moving jobs or reporting profits abroad.

The country needs to bring its foreign trade into balance, challenging the mercantilist nations that manipulate their currencies. Washington should also be leading global efforts to crack down on tax havens, insuring that multinationals pay the same tax rates that domestic mom-and-pop stores face. The next president will inherit a growing revolt against our failed trade policies.

Bill Clinton now admits that he was probably ill-advised to ban regulation of derivatives – what Warren Buffett dubbed weapons of financial mass destruction. But the former president still asserts that repealing Glass-Steagall bank regulations and pursuing Wall Street deregulation on his watch did not contribute to the financial wilding that blew up the economy.

Obama pushed through Wall Street reforms after the crash. But the banks were bailed out and now are bigger and more concentrated. Financial institutions have paid billions in fines for fraud and other criminal activity, yet bankers were not held liable.

The next president has to make banking boring again, cut down banks that are too big to fail, and curb excessive speculation. Warren’s bill to revive Glass-Steagall, separating government-guaranteed bank deposits from private banking trading, is a marker in what will be a growing debate.

On income policy, Bill Clinton and Obama’s records fare better. Bill Clinton raised the minimum wage and expanded the tax credit for low-wage workers. Full employment toward the end of his presidency lifted wages across the board, something not seen since. Yet he embraced welfare reform, which removed the floor under impoverished mothers with dependent children – revealed as a calamity when the economy cratered. He also signed the law exempting CEO stock bonuses from corporate taxation, contributing to the perverse compensation policies that give CEOs multimillion-dollar personal incentives to plunder their own companies.

Obama expanded food stamps and unemployment insurance during the Great Recession. His health care reforms provide millions with coverage for the first time. Yet, like Bill Clinton before him, he was essentially AWOL in the war on labor, failing to push labor law reform to aid union organizing or to act forcefully to curb the corporate assault on unions.

The next president will have to fight for sensible wage reforms, including raising the minimum wage, passing paid family leave and paid vacations, and cracking down on wage theft, lawless corporate anti-union campaigns and perverse CEO compensation. Like FDR, the next president will need to use procurement reforms to empower workers to organize and bargain collectively, helping to rebuild unions – a necessary if not sufficient part of insuring the rewards of growth are widely shared.

Hillary’s Hard Choice

Is Hillary ready to break with her predecessor, her husband, and with the Wall Street wing of the party? She may be able to win the nomination and the election without addressing these issues. No strong Democratic challenger has yet emerged, and Republicans seem intent on electoral seppuku.

But even if her campaign might succeed without seeking a mandate for change, one thing is clear: Her presidency won’t.

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