The setting was electric: The Four Freedoms Memorial on Roosevelt Island in New York City, with the city shimmering in the background. The sky was clear; the sun bright. The crowd was young, diverse and well-mannered. “A place,” as Hillary Clinton said, “with absolutely no ceilings.”
Clinton’s speech – what her team billed as the “launch” of her campaign – demonstrated once more that she will campaign in prose, not poetry. Her delivery – strong but flat – matched the text, more lecture than lift.
She showed that she partakes of the populist temper of these times. Clinton presented herself as a people’s champion, a fighter ready to do battle for “everyday Americans.” She hailed the legacy of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms (without mentioning them), grounding herself in a tradition from which her husband had strayed. She repeated her strong commitments on immigration reform, criminal justice reform, ending discrimination against the LGBT community, voting rights, women’s rights to equal pay and control over their reproductive decisions. She said little on foreign policy, clearly choosing not to advertise her hawkish contrast with Obama at this time.
One observer said, “She’s giving Bernie Sanders speech.” Not really. Her rhetoric did feature a tempered populism. “Prosperity,” she said, “can’t be just for CEOs and hedge fund managers. Democracy can’t be just for billionaires and corporations.” She pledged to “rebalance” an economy that “has been tilted toward the billionaires and corporations.” She decried an economy in which corporations were pocketing record profits and CEOs record pay, but “your paychecks have barely budged.” She called out the fact that “25 hedge fund managers” make more than “all the kindergarten teachers combined.”
At the same time, she hailed the “public officials,” “business leaders,” and “finance leaders and union leaders” who stood on the right side. “I am not running for some Americans, but for all Americans.” Who knew?
But both her analysis and her reforms were carefully limited. What was the source of the new inequality? She painted a country “buffeted by powerful currents” – technology and global trade that resulted in the financial industry and multinational corporations focusing “too much on short-term profit and too little on long-term value.” But it wasn’t only historic forces beyond our control, she acknowledged that “choices we’ve made” – “leaders and citizens alike” – also played “a big role” in our problems.
She scorned Republicans for recycling the “false promises” of “yesterday,” the myth that lowering taxes and “bend[ing] rules” for the “top” would produce benefits that would trickle down to the rest of us. But there was no acknowledgment of the bipartisan policies – the Washington consensus on trade, financial deregulation, privatization, austerity, taxes and more – that took us down the wrong road.
Instead of four freedoms, she promised “four fights”: to make the economy work for everyday Americans, to strengthen families (largely by lifting the floor under workers), to sustain our leadership for peace, security and prosperity, and to reform government and revitalize our democracy. A broad array of reforms accompanied each; the speech, as many commented, often sounding more like a State of the Union address than a campaign call to action.
Clinton presents herself as a populist reformer. Her campaign strategists make it clear that she is counting on rousing the enthusiasm of progressive activists and the Obama coalition, the rising American electorate of the young, people of color and single women that make up the new majority coalition when they turn out to vote.
So the speech was stuffed with mentions of progressive reforms – investment in infrastructure, in clean energy, preschool and child care for every child, affordable college, honored teachers, paid family leave and sick days, equal pay for women, a hike in the minimum wage, retirement security, voting rights reforms and more.
Many topics were simply a box to be ticked off, policy to come later. She plans a series of policy speeches over the next months that will detail her positions. No one should doubt that she will run on a clear and detailed agenda. “Wonk warrior,” an image the campaign wants to propagate, fits her well.
The scope of her reform agenda is impressive, but just as revealing are its limits. Consider the four immense policy thrusts that have helped drive down workers and drive up inequality: corporate defined globalization; financialization; the assault on workers at the workplace; and the abandonment of fiscal policy to produce full employment.
Clinton once more said nothing about our trade policies, or about the raging debate over fast track and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. (She waited until a Sunday appearance in Iowa.) She mentioned tax reform to benefit companies that create jobs at home, rather than tax breaks for companies “stashing profits overseas.” But she’s clearly decided to sit out the debate over changing our corporate defined global strategy.
On the big banks and financialization generally, she also has yet to put forth a clear position. She criticized Republicans for not wanting to “rein in banks that are still too risky,” but this translates largely into supporting Obama’s Dodd-Frank reforms against Republican attacks, not moving to break up the big banks, or putting rules around banking to make it boring once more.
On the assault on workers in the workplace, she champions a range of measures to lift the floor under workers – minimum wage, paid family leave and sick days, equal pay for women, advance scheduling. She also indicated concern about CEO pay based on perverse short-term profits and bonuses rather than long-term investments. Missing from the speech, however, was any mention of reviving unions or empowering workers to organize once more. It is hard to imagine rebuilding the middle class without workers being able to bargain to capture a fair share of the profits they help to produce.
On fiscal policy, she called for investment in infrastructure, clean energy, research and development, and in education. Her education agenda – universal pre-k, respecting teachers and investing in schools, affordable college – had no mention of the school choice, punitive high-stakes testing, and assault on public schools and their teachers that has been the hallmark and horror of the Obama years. With her support of an infrastructure bank, she indicated subtly that she would favor borrowing money – issuing bonds – to rebuild America. How robust this investment agenda is and whether it is linked to a commitment to focus fiscal and monetary policy on full employment rather than on inflation remain to be seen.
Clinton’s adoption of a more populist rhetoric and a bolder progressive agenda is striking. Engaged in raising $1 billion for her campaign, there are distinct limits to how far she will go. It will take a growing movement to move her, and Democrats generally, closer to what needs to be done. Here the Sanders campaign as well as the “run Warren run” work has already had salutary effect.
Clinton reprised what has become a politician’s standard refrain, drawing on her personal history – in this case her mother’s story – to prove she knows what it is to struggle. She wants voters to see her as an experienced, informed leader who will fight for them. “I’ve been called many things by many people,” she said in a nice summary, “quitter is not one of them.” And that surely is true.