The 2016 election is two-and-one-half years off, but already Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is getting pummeled.
Her book tour, designed to provide soft interviews burnishing her record as secretary of state, has been plagued by missteps. She’s criticized for having no “big idea,” for being out of touch after earning enough in the last year to be part of the .001 percent, even for underwhelming book sales. Her foreign policy hawkishness has stirred the embers of progressive doubts. Worse, she seems on the wrong side of the divide between the Wall Street and the Warren (after Sen. Elizabeth Warren, darling of progressives) wings of the Democratic party. The adversarial press seems a lot more “ready for Hillary” than Hillary is for the fray.
Hillary remains the prohibitive favorite for the presidency in polls that measure little beyond name recognition. That doesn't stop pundits from talking about a “troubled” candidacy before it has even been declared, and before voters have tuned into the 2014 congressional elections, much less the 2016 contest. In Politico, ever eager to hype the latest pothole into a precipice, Ben White and Maggie Haberman summoned up an anonymous “Democratic strategist” to suggest that Hillary needs to “have her Sister Souljah moment; where she basically says, ‘There are things that happened when he (Bill Clinton) was president that I didn’t agree with,’ or, ‘I’m not him?’”
But this distorts both the Sister Souljah myth and Hillary’s challenge.
A “Sister Souljah moment” is enshrined in political legend as a calculated act of courage when a politician goes before a key part of his base and rebukes it in order to appeal to centrist voters. Hillary’s challenge isn’t to distance herself from her husband; he’s the most popular political figure in America. His final years in office were the last time America witnessed widely shared prosperity. He was first elected over two decades ago; his policies for good or ill are hardly a guide to a very different world. But some of his initiatives – Wall Street deregulation, CEO “performance” tax incentives, NAFTA, World Trade Organization and China trade accords – are implicated in our current economic woes.
Now seeing the populist tide of popular opinion, Republicans are starting to turn against fast-track trade authority, and rail against Wall Street bailouts and crony capitalism. By 2016, Hillary’s challenge will be to show centrist voters that she is on their side.
The Sister Souljah Legend
Not surprisingly, the reality of Bill Clinton’s Sister Souljah moment is a far remove from the legend. In the campaign of 1992, Clinton’s denunciation of Sister Souljah at the Rainbow Coalition Conference was designed to enhance his credentials as an independent “New Democrat” willing and able to stand up to African-American "special interests."
A pro-civil rights Southern governor, one of the few white politicians at home in a black church, Clinton deservedly enjoyed widespread black support. But the Clinton campaign was fixated on how to counter the racial wedge politics of the Republican Party. In legendary focus groups in the Macomb County suburbs outside of Detroit, Clinton’s pollster, Stanley Greenberg, discovered that racial fears were pervasive and toxic, poisoning Democratic appeals to these voters. After years of Republican assaults on welfare – Reagan’s mythic welfare queens – these “Reagan Democrats” believed that Democrats were weak on crime and would take their money in taxes and give it to “those people.” That not only gave Republican arguments against taxes and social programs traction, it alienated these voters from national reform Democrats.
This concern was part of what led Clinton to tout his support for the death penalty (and return to Arkansas to execute Rickey Ray Rector), promise to "end welfare as we know it,” support “three strikes and you’re out” harsh sentencing laws, and grab his Sister Souljah moment.
Sister Souljah was a hip-hop performer, lecturer, activist and writer, known for her provocative, sometimes hateful lyrics and statements. When asked in a Washington Post interview whether black-on-white violence in the 1992 Los Angeles riots “was a wise, reasoned action,” she answered sardonically but shockingly: “Yeah, it was wise. I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?…”
In the ensuing fury, Rev. Jesse Jackson reached out to Sister Souljah, encouraging her to use her energy and gifts to bring young African Americans into the political process, not drive them away. He invited her to the Rainbow Coalition Conference to participate in panels on voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns.
The Clinton campaign, however, saw the invitation as an opportunity. Clinton came to the Rainbow Coalition Conference and, with Jackson at his side, declared that Sister Souljah should never have been invited, likening her comments to that of infamous Klansman David Duke: "Her comments before and after Los Angeles were filled with a kind of hatred that you do not honor today and tonight."
Clinton’s gambit garnered universal editorial approval. He was praised for his courage in confronting Jackson to his face and challenging his African-American supporters in defense of basic American decency. The incident became enshrined in political legend.
(Ironically, it apparently had more effect on pundits than on white voters. For all of this muscle-flexing, Clinton captured 39 percent of the white vote in 1992; the hapless, “Willy Hortoned” Mike Dukakis got 40 percent in 1988. What saved Clinton was the third-party candidacy of nutty Ross Perot that gave white voters who wanted to vote against Bush another option.)
Hillary’s Sister Souljah Moment
So what would be the equivalent moment for Hillary? It wouldn’t be standing up to her husband. It would be standing up to a part of her supporters – Wall Street bankers or rapacious CEOs – whose excesses offend basic American values.
Americans are increasingly convinced that the rules are rigged to benefit the few. The fact that Wall Street bankers blew up the economy and then got bailed out, with no one held personally accountable, is proof positive. With voters increasingly cynical about Washington insiders, Hillary’s resume becomes as much a weakness as a strength. She’ll be tested to prove that she isn’t part of the old rigged deal, but is prepared to take on the moneyed interests that dominate our politics to fight for working families.
So imagine Hillary going to a Goldman Sachs gathering of 100 moguls at the Conrad Hotel in lower Manhattan and, with Lloyd Blankfein seated next to her, declaring not, as reported, “that we all got in this mess together,” but rather: “Banks that are too big to fail are too big to exist. They aren’t disciplined by the market, and can intimidate their regulators. This offends the very core of America’s free enterprise system, and our basic sense of fair play. It is time to break them up.”
Or alternatively, if not Wall Street, perhaps America’s biggest employer. Hillary could go to a Walmart shareholders meeting in Bentonville, Arkansas, and speaking from the floor as a former board member, warn that “the Walmart low-road model – based on paying its employees so little that they have to rely on food stamps and Medicaid, and dependent on outsourcing from China – is unsustainable. Our rival Costco has proved that we can be profitable and still provide good jobs with decent wages and benefits to our employees. And our nation must end its massive trade imbalances with China, which will put Walmart’s supply chain at risk. For the good of the company and the good of the country, it is time for a change.”
In either case, the reaction would be immediate. She would get massive approval across the political press for her courage. She’d be the darling of the blogosphere. Progressive doubts would be assuaged; activists inspired. Potential progressive challengers like Sen. Bernie Sanders would reassess. The “ready for Warren” populists would join the applause. The stigma of her $200,000-a-pop gigs for Wall Street banks and corporate associations would be erased. The working women who are the core of Hillary’s supporters would be thrilled. And for ordinary working and middle-class voters, her audacity would prove convincingly that she is on their side.
Bill Clinton, of course, didn’t do his Sister Souljah moment until the middle of the campaign year in 1992. Suggesting one before Hillary’s campaign is even announced seems premature, if not silly. Yet, the press gaggle around Hillary has already formed. Her every word and move is followed and reported. Declaring her independence from Wall Street's deep-pocket donors before she announces her candidacy would add to the statement’s credibility. Hillary, known for her political caution, might find that a bold move like this is just the right stuff.