Do Americans Really Want Hillary Clinton’s ‘Vital Center’?

Isaiah J. Poole

Hillary Clinton invoked what she called the “vital center” in a speech before the New York Historical Society this past weekend as the place where most Americans want their politicians to be.

But public opinion right now is actually tilted fairly leftward, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll also released this weekend.

“I think our country kind of moves in pendulum swings,” she was quoted as saying in an MSNBC story. “We go maybe a little bit too far in one way, and then we swing back. We are most comfortable when he have that balance in the vital center. And we are, I think, in need of getting back to that.”

The agenda that had majority support in this latest poll of 1,000 adults would not be considered “centrist” by the people Clinton was addressing in the Historical Society gala in New York City’s posh Mandarin Oriental hotel, where MSNBC reports “guests dined on baby mizuna and seared beef tenderloin in a cabernet sauvignon reduction.”

One of the questions in the NBC/WSJ poll asked people if they supported particular actions that the next Congress could take. The highest ranking actions, and the percentage of people who either “strongly support” or “mildly support” the action, included:

● Providing access to lower cost student loans and providing more time to those who are paying off their student loan debt (82 percent, with 64 percent “strongly” supporting).

● “Increasing spending on infrastructure projects for our roads and highways” (75 percent).

● “Raising the minimum wage” (65 percent).

● “Addressing climate change and global warming by setting specific targets to limit carbon emissions” (59 percent).

Each of those priorities have been obstructed by Republicans in Congress since 2010, and are expected to be strongly opposed by the larger Republican majorities in the next Congress.

Meanwhile, key items in the agenda favored by Republicans and centrist Democrats don’t fare so well:

● “Eliminating most tax deductions in return for lower tax rates” gets a “meh” response, with 49 percent approving.

● So did “reducing Medicare and Social Security benefits for wealthier retirees,” moving these programs away from their origins as social insurance programs. That only got 44 percent support.

● “Making new trade agreements with selected Asian nations” – such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership – also only got 44 percent support.

● “Lowering the corporate tax rate by eliminating many business tax deductions” only got 43 percent support.

● Gradually raising the Social Security retirement age to 69 received a strongly negative response: 34 percent supported while 51 percent opposed, 38 percent “strongly.”

Fifty-two percent of the poll respondents said that “government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people,” compared to 46 percent who embraced the view that “government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.”

But an even larger percentage of poll respondents (56 percent) said they believed that “the economic and political systems in the country are stacked against people like me.”

That looks like an electorate that would be more receptive to a Sen. Elizabeth Warren-style populism – one that identifies and goes after the conservative-corporate nexus that is responsible for the stacked deck – than either the pro-corporate, anti-government agenda of congressional leaders John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, or the conservative-lite stylings of the Peter G. Peterson and Third Way crowds.

To be fair, Clinton at that same speech acknowledged that there is an anger among “people whose incomes have not rebounded from the Great Recession” and who need policies that will restore “broad-based prosperity.” But in responding Clinton preached caution; in the words of MSNBC writer Alex Seitz-Wald, “Clinton rejects the radicals, stakes out the center, and talks about inequality in a way that won’t alienate this well-heeled crowd.”

But a broad majority of the American public, as we’ve chronicled on our Populist Majority website, is not looking for the kind of caution that would spare the well-heeled discomfort. A populace for whom, as Richard Eskow wrote recently, “key elements of the American dream—a living wage, retirement security, the opportunity for one’s children to get ahead in life—are increasingly unreachable,” is at the end of its rope. For those of us in that group, watered-down populism that soothes those who have the luxury of dining on baby mizuna – or even knowing what it is – won’t cut it.

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