Hillary’s In: Challenges for the New Populism

Robert Borosage

“I’m getting ready to do something too. I’m running for president. Americans have fought their way back from tough economic times. But the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top. Everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion. “ (emphasis added) — Hillary Clinton

With an unstated rhetorical bow to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton launched her presidential campaign yesterday with a terrific two-minute-and-18-second video, while heading to Iowa for a series of “intimate” meetings with voters.

Then came the din. TV talk shows went Hillary 24/7, featuring heated exchanges of talking points between legions of Republican and Democratic “strategists.” Mainstream media reporters charted her potential course to the nomination, an early start to horse-race reporting. Progressive listservs, buzzing about how to relate to her candidacy for months, went into overdrive.

So before the babble stupefies, here are five simple propositions to consider about the Hillary candidacy.

1. The central question is the economy.

What must be done to lift wages, provide good jobs, and revive a broad middle class in this society? Hillary’s rollout makes it clear she gets this. Republicans may rail about Benghazi or the Russian reset, but this won’t be an election about foreign policy (and if it were, their bellicosity would cost votes). Democrats may enjoy watching Republican self-mutilation over gay rights, immigration or the war on women – but social issues won’t decide the election.

2. Hillary’s challenge is to rouse the Democratic coalition.

Forget all the talk you’ll hear about wooing independents and the middle; this election is about rousing the base. Republicans represent a minority, but their activists are already rabid about beating Hillary.

Democrats have a natural majority coalition, but their voters are discouraged. Labor is under assault. The African-American middle class has suffered staggering economic losses and continuing racial injustice. Millennials are losing hope, burdened by student loans and lousy jobs. Latinos still are forced to live in the shadows.

These voters came out in large numbers to support President Obama twice, but, unless Republicans nominate a wingnut, they’ll need to be inspired to believe once more. Turnout won’t be automatic, simply because it’s a presidential year. And if 2014 proved anything, it was that technique without a message won’t work.

3. People are looking for a champion, but that isn’t an honorary post.

Hillary got that right. With a recovery that hasn’t reached most people, this is a change election. Voters are looking for someone to be their champion.

But champions are made, not born. Champions lead. They help people understand the situation they are in and show them the way out. That is why Sen. Elizabeth Warren has had such stunning effect: she helps people understand that they aren’t feeling the aches and pains of a bad time; they are getting screwed. The system is rigged against them, and it’s time to fight back.

Critique isn’t enough. Champions have to inspire “everyday Americans” with a sense of what must get done, what and who stands in the way, and a strategy to how to win.

Clinton has been in the public eye for a quarter century. She may be the most experienced candidate for president ever, having served as former first lady, former senator and former secretary of state. We know her passion for women’s rights and her interventionist temper in foreign policy. But remarkably, we know very little about her views on the central question of the day: what to do about the economy? As a sympathetic observer, Jared Bernstein, summarized, we know Hillary favors raising the minimum wage, paid family leave, investing in affordable childcare and universal pre-K and has thought deeply about the challenges facing women in the workplace. But on jobs, poverty, taxes, budgets, (and I’d add trade), Bernstein summarizes, “she’s somewhat of a blank slate on these issues.”

We don’t know how or whether Clinton would differ from Barack Obama on these matters (particularly since Obama’s economic policies were in large part guided by veterans from her husband’s administration).

This is a big deal. Yes, it is good for champions to come from the people, to listen, to be humble. But champions have to represent. They give voice to people’s needs.

Champions also have to stand up and be counted. They stand with people working for change. Inside and outside the Democratic Party, people are in motion. A massive coalition – including the vast majority of congressional Democrats – is mobilized to stop fast-track trade authority, and change our trade policy. Low-wage workers are walking out demanding $15 an hour and a union. #BlackLivesMatter is forcing our criminal injustice system onto the agenda. Students are demanding relief from crushing debt and action on climate change. As boomers retire, the call for expanding Social Security will grow more powerful. The effort to curb big money in politics is gaining momentum. The “education spring” is challenging the hedge fund and dot.com-fueled assault on public schools.

Where is Hillary on these causes? Will she support them or duck them? What is clear is that she is not yet their champion.

Finally, champions make it clear whose side they are on. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. urged his followers to see the humanity in their oppressors, but he made it clear who stood on the side of the angels. Ronald Reagan presented himself as a change politician, ready to sweep away a corrupted and failed liberalism. Bill Clinton survived his own foibles in part because voters desperately wanted to get rid of George H.W. Bush, but also because he offered both a compelling populist vision and agenda, spiced with racially loaded gestures to reassure voters.

Hillary Clinton is characteristically a “both and” politician. She wants to address the anger about inequality without overly vilifying the wealthy. She’d like to stand against big money politics while raising $2.5 billion for her campaign and associated PACs. She will present herself both as an agent of profound change and as an experienced Washington hand who can cut a deal in this time of partisan gridlock.

One thing is clear: if she wants truly to be the champion of working people, she’s got work to do.

4. Populist movements offer an answer, not a threat.

Republican politicians, it is said, fear their activist base, while Democrats have disdain for theirs. The adage is particularly true for the Clinton crowd, which now is hailing Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for teaching Hillary Clinton how to “tame the left” (raise lots of big bucks and drown any challenger in attack ads while playing mock humble). It’s not accidental that Hillary’s opening video presented everyday Americans on their own, not as part of a movement in struggle.

But the populist movements of this time offer Clinton an answer, not a threat. Republicans will paint her, in Karl Rove’s words, as “old and stale,” Obama’s third term. She’s tied to Wall Street’s money and its influence. Opposition research will roll out endless stories of unseemly money deals around the Clinton Foundation. Republican candidates are already contrasting their humble roots with her regal life style.

By standing with people who are organizing and championing their cause, Hillary Clinton could paint herself in the tradition of Roosevelt – Teddy and Franklin – and make herself a more convincing agent of change.

In virtually every case, the causes that people are mobilizing around – higher wages, balanced trade, investment in education, taxing the rich and corporations, cracking down on Wall Street excesses, getting big money out of politics, expanding Social Security, immigration reform, rebuilding America – are very popular, particularly in the broad Democratic coalition.

Movements are messy, polarizing, impudent. Hillary’s instinct – and that of the advisors around her – is to stay above the fray. The peril is she could easily end up looking like (and becoming) a status quo candidate. Being the first woman president is not sufficient to generate the excitement that’s needed.

The populist movements aren’t driving Hillary to the left; they are inviting her to join the emerging majority of Americans and champion the change we need.

5. Hillary’s candidacy will test the New Populism.

The populist temper inside and outside the Democratic Party continues to build.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announces he’ll enlist progressive leaders to put out an Inequality Contract with America, to force the debate. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Elijah Cummings launch a Middle Class Prosperity Project, promising hearings across the country. This week, three major national grassroots groups and the Campaign for America’s Future will announce an alliance to drive a populist platform across the country. The AFL-CIO promises convocations on raising wages in all of the early primary states. The Center for Community Change will enlist others in a campaign for jobs.

Hillary’s campaign will test this activism. The juggernaut will inhale liberal money. Unions, civil rights groups, women’s groups, environmentalists will be pushed to sign up and chip in. Pressure will build on progressive leaders to get on board. Already there’s talk that a contested primary would be disruptive. No one wants Republicans to gain control of the White House. The temptation will be to paint Hillary as “likable enough,” in Obama’s demeaning phrase, as progressive enough, as a reformer worthy of support.

This won’t do. The wealthiest 1 percent% is capturing 95 percent of the income growth coming out of the Great Recession. This doesn’t happen by accident. It happens only because the rules have been rigged to benefit the few. It can only be altered with fundamental changes in policy and direction. Despite the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression and the worst military debacle since Vietnam, the elites and institutions that dominate our economic and national security policy remain largely in place.

As Frederick Douglass taught us, “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” The lesson of the Obama administration is clear. Those movements that continued to mobilize, drive the debate and challenge the administration made progress. Those that folded into the White House operations got lost.

After a quarter century at the apex of American government, Hillary Clinton is an unlikely champion of the fundamental changes we need. But she is brilliant and resilient. It’s clear that the argument posed by Elizabeth Warren has already concentrated her mind. She’ll lead the charge only if populist movements and upheavals make her do it. This isn’t a time to stand down in the name of party unity. This is a time to turn up the heat.

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