Many people have come to believe politicians say what they need to say to win, and then turn on them. If Hillary Clinton wants to win the Democratic nomination and inspire people to vote for her in the general election, she must find ways to overcome this voter skepticism.
There is one test that, if she passes it, could convince voters that Clinton is on their side. It involves what Clinton does over the next few months to prove that she meant it when she came out in opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal a few weeks ago.
Politics In 2016 Will Be Different
Politics is different this time. Voters feel betrayed by the politicians they have supported in the past. Just look at what is happening on the right. The conventional candidates like "Jeb!" Bush are polling at 3 percent or so – or just dropping out of the race. The candidates who have never held office and do not exhibit any qualifications whatsoever for governing – Donald Trump and Ben Carson – are way ahead.
On the Democratic side the problem is, as always, voter turnout. Working people – wages stagnant or falling and employers putting the squeeze on in hundreds of imaginative ways – have figured out that they've been sold out by "establishment" politicians who have helped "rig the game" against them. And they are fed up.
Millions of voters, betrayed and cynical, have simply given up on the system. They haven't gotten anything from the system in a long time. They don't vote and they don't believe the things politicians tell them.
Candidate Hillary Clinton might not need those voters to win the nomination and maybe not even to win the election. But if she wants "coattails" to bring in a Democratic House and Senate, be it in 2016 or 2018, she is going to have to earn their trust.
Democratic voters are skeptical of promises. They want to see proof. They want to see action. They want to see changes. Or they will just stay home. And the terrible mess we are in will continue and worsen.
"NAFTA-Style" Trade Deals
One major source of Democratic voter distrust and skepticism that comes up repeatedly is a belief that "corporate Democrats" sold out working people with "NAFTA-style" trade deals.
"Free trade" deals and our country's corporate-over-labor trade policies generally have resulted in massive, enormous, humongous trade deficits – the metric of jobs lost, factories closed and wealth drained from our economy. These "trade" deals sent millions of jobs out of the country to places like Mexico and China so that shareholders and executives could pocket the wage difference. Voters in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and the rest of the "rust belt" look around them and see the result: empty factories with broken windows, boarded-up downtowns, foreclosed and abandoned homes falling apart ... and the lucky-if-you-find-one replacement jobs that pay a fraction of what they used to make.
Politicians know voters understand that the trade deals sold them out, and instead of making things better the politicians lied to the voters and sold them out again. In 2008, for example, candidate Barack Obama repeatedly expressed his opposition to NAFTA, promising to renegotiate the disastrous "trade" agreement "immediately" after taking office. He said, "I would immediately call the president of Mexico, the president of Canada, to try to amend NAFTA ... "
But after taking office Obama went back on that promise, and the wages of working Americans continued to decline. Instead of renegotiating NAFTA as promised, Obama brought in Wall Street negotiators who eventually brought us the job-killing Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Clinton And The Trust/Enthusiasm Gap
Betrayal after betrayal, many people who would vote as Democrats (those who still pay attention to politics at all) have grown extremely wary of "establishment" politicians. They believe politicians will say what they need to say to get elected, and then once elected turn against their promises and instead act in the interests of the giant corporations, billionaires and general "1 percent" types instead. And who can blame them?
Candidate Hillary Clinton is one such politician having trouble with what is being called the "trust issue." A large number of Democrats are having trouble trusting that Clinton is on their side. While her campaign proposals are progressive, they lack detail and in many ways are incremental when a lot of Democrats want to see transformative change. As a result, her campaign suffers from an "enthusiasm gap."
A CNN/ORC poll published Friday found that while more Democrats trust Clinton over Sanders on the general issue of "handling the economy," just 40 percent of white voters, 38 percent of voters with college degrees and 34 percent of liberals feel that she "would do the most to help the middle class."
If Clinton is the party's nominee, she will have to overcome this to get the skeptical voters to the polls. While she says she is ready to take on Wall Street, the giant multinational corporations and the billionaires, too many Democrats are having trouble believing her.
Clinton And TPP
TPP, for obvious reasons, is massively unpopular with Democratic voters. It has become a "third rail," similar to Social Security, in intensity of concern. Democrats understand that TPP doubles down on the parts of "NAFTA-style" agreements that have accelerated inequality, massively enriching the corporate-owning class while wiping out the middle class.
Candidate Clinton was silent during the debate of "fast track" trade promotion authority, which greased the skids to make the passage of TPP much easier – even though TPP was still secret from the public. Finally (See "Fast Track: Ohio Gets It. But Will Clinton?," "Fast Track Hits House Next Week; Clinton Must Speak Up," "Senate Fast Track Vote Tuesday – Where Is Clinton?," "Last Chance For Clinton On Fast Track.") Finally she said she would "probably not" support it – but did not lobby against it or take any other action to stop it. (See
"Clinton Says No To Current Senate Fast Track Plan.")
Clinton also remained silent on TPP. But with the first Democratic debate approaching and TPP emerging as a major issue between herself and opponents like Bernie Sanders, as well as holding back labor endorsements, she finally made a statement opposing TPP in an interview on the PBS NewsHour.
Did Clinton Mean It?
Many Democrats remain skeptical and do not accept that Clinton meant it when she said she opposes passage of TPP. They wonder if Clinton only came out against TPP for strategic political reasons – to defuse Sanders and O'Malley and get union endorsements – or is she committed to stopping it? An example of the skeptical voice is this popular Friday diary by "SalamMorcos" at Daily Kos, "Hillary Clinton's Opposition to the TPP Is Not Wrong... It's Insulting." It is typical of what one reads almost daily on many Democratic sites, or hears on many progressive-oriented radio shows.
The diary lists reasons for not believing Clinton is actually opposed to TPP and concludes:
"That's why I believe that Hillary Clinton opposition to the TPP is dishonest and disingenuous. It’s not so difficult to see that it was a calculated decision, and not authentic by any measure. She's the type of politician that would do whatever it takes to win… where political expediency is the norm and strategy. I find it insulting and so should you."
This is just a single example, singled out for recency. Multitudes of op-eds, diaries, posts, online comments, progressive radio hosts and callers continue to express similar opinions. People do not believe that Clinton means it, and so far Clinton has not given them reason – through actions instead of just words – to believe she does.
Is Clinton really opposed to TPP? Or is she only saying this to get votes, ready to turn against Democrats on trade issues after the election, as too many others have done?
There is a test for that: What is Clinton willing to actually do to stop TPP? Actions vs. words. If she means what she is saying about reversing inequality, unrigging the system and restoring the path to a middle class the first thing she should be doing is fighting and fighting hard to stop TPP.
Will she actively and boldly lobby against TPP, calling and visiting and working to convince the representatives and senators who voted for fast-track trade authority to vote against TPP?
Will she appear at anti-TPP rallies? Will she speak out again and again at her own campaign events? Will she express opposition on radio and TV interviews? Will she work to rally the media and public in opposition?
Will she take it to the next level? Will she declare that Democrats in Congress who vote for TPP will be out of favor, will not receive reelection support, not get a job in her administration if she is elected? Will she declare that her administration will fight to overturn the bad trade deals and policies that got us into this mess?
Right now too many Democrats supported fast track and by inertia are drifting toward a vote for TPP. It is on a path to passage. Active lobbying against TPP by Hillary Clinton could make a big difference. Stopping TPP, fighting currency manipulation and renegotiating past "corporate-oriented" trade deals would help unrig the system and restore millions of American jobs and the middle class.
Clinton may well be able win the nomination without the support of the most progressive Democrats. But she still has to win the general election. Considering the "clown show" of candidates for the Republican nomination, she may well even be able to win the general election in spite of the enthusiasm gap and the lower turnout it promises to bring with it.
But if she wants to have "coattails" so she doesn't have to face a Republican-controlled House and Senate as president she will need the support and enthusiasm of all Democrats to accomplish this. To close the enthusiasm gap she needs to stop just talking like a progressive and start acting like one – and demonstrating to people that she means it. Clinton is going to have to make it clear that she wants TPP to be stopped and she is going to have to join the front lines of the fight to stop it – or voters won't believe her.