Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton on Wednesday departed from the running exchange of insults with Donald Trump to present her strategy to create an economy “that works for everyone, not just those at the top.”
Clinton presented herself as a populist progressive. The measure of our economy, she argued, is “how much incomes rise for hardworking families. How many children are lifted out of poverty? How many Americans can find good jobs that support a middle class life…jobs that provide a sense of dignity and pride?”
To achieve that, she called for “five ambitious goals” for the federal government. Clearly, the "era of big government is over" is over.
First, public investment: “the biggest investment in new good paying jobs since World War II.” Second, investment in education, with emphasis on “debt free college” or training for all (and some relief for those already burdened with student debt). Third, new rules to encourage companies to share profits with their employees, and ship fewer profits and jobs abroad, including opposition to bad trade deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership. Fourth, progressive tax reform requiring “Wall Street, corporations and the superrich to pay their fair of taxes.” Fifth, “put families first,” with a broad range of reforms to lift the floor under workers including raising the minimum wage, paid family sick days and vacation days, and predictable scheduling. And to achieve all this, curbing the influence of big money in politics: “I will fight hard to end the stranglehold that the wealthy and special interests have on so much of our government…."
Public investment to rebuild America green. Investment in education from preschool to debt-free college. Rules to curb corporate abuses. Tax hikes on Wall Street and the superrich. Lifting the floor under workers. Curbing the influence of “unaccountable” big money and special interests in politics. Clinton‘s agenda and rhetoric pay tribute to Bernie Sanders’ victory in defining the agenda for change.
The Sanders Critique
The Sanders critique of Clinton still holds. The actual programs are less bold than the goals. The public investment agenda is grander in rhetoric than in financial commitment. The rules on corporate abuses don’t end deferral, the central loophole that gives companies an incentive to report profits as if they were earned abroad to avoid paying taxes. Tax reform doesn’t include taxing income from investments at the same rate as income from work, or raising the estate tax or passing a financial transaction tax. Clinton pledges to defend Dodd-Frank bank reform, but says nothing about breaking up the too-big-to-fail banks or passing a 21st-century Glass-Steagall act to curb Wall Street’s casino. Clinton states her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership but offers no alternative trade strategy or policy. The political promise not to raise taxes on the middle class makes sensible taxes on carbon difficult. Her positive comments on unions and collective bargaining include no promise of executive action to give preference in contracting to employers that accept their workers‘ right to organize and bargain collectively.
That said, it is clear Clinton is choosing to run on a progressive populist agenda, not a neoliberal Third Way agenda. She explicitly contrasts her agenda with the failed trickle-down economics that Republicans, including Donald Trump, continue to champion.
The Trump Insult
Trump offers, as Clinton has rightly emphasized, more attitude than agenda, more insults than ideas. Trump’s scripted attack on Clinton on Tuesday revealed the thrust of his charge. After scorning Clinton as the “most corrupt” person ever to seek the presidency, Trump made three big points, each about posture, not policy.
First he attacked frontally the trade deals supported by both Clintons, arguing that they have damaged this country and undermined its workers. Second, he argued that Clinton is about more of the same, and Trump is about change. Third, he stated that those who rigged the rules can’t be trusted to change them.
Clinton correctly states that Trump “offers no real solutions for the economic challenges we face.” The chaos of Trump’s campaign mirrors the chaos of his mind and his agenda. But Trump is media savvy and politically sly. His run will continue to be framed as an angry "screw you" to a failed establishment. That gives it power despite his hateful buffoonery, and puts Clinton to the test.
The Clinton Theory of Change
Clinton understands that “Washington is broken,” but recycles her argument that change can happen: “I really think that progress is possible…Republicans and Democrats can work together, because I’ve done it…I am a progressive who likes to get things done and we can do this.”
Anyone who has witnessed the perverse and pervasive Republican obstruction of the last years will find this implausible. Obama held the same hopes after his historic victory in 2008. Progressives quickly learned bipartisan cooperation was a false idol. Many of the Clinton reforms are on the Obama agenda that was blocked by Republican majorities in Congress.
With the collapse of the Republican establishment, the breakup of its coalition, and the divisive buffoon heading the Republican ticket, Clinton would be better served by calling on Americans to come together to give her an overwhelming mandate for change. Republicans will cooperate only when they have been so repudiated that the survivors have to seek cover. Trump’s insult of large swaths of the American electorate offers the opportunity.
The challenge for Clinton remains the same: Can the establishment candidate tap the populist temper of the time and lead a popular revolt for dramatic change? Even modest progress is unlikely unless Americans make it overwhelmingly clear that they are out of patience with business as usual.
Clinton remains an improbable populist champion. The big money behind her campaign, the Clinton Foundation and the family fortune will continue to raise doubts. Her repudiation of much of the flawed legacy of her husband’s New Democrat triangulations is welcome, but not trusted. Her campaign will have to act boldly to dramatize her commitments.
She should call on Obama to shelve the TPP, and organize Democratic congressional leadership to announce they will fight against any attempt to pass it in the lame-duck session of Congress. She could stand with striking workers, and pledge executive action to reward employers that respect their workers right to organize and bargain collectively. She could return to Goldman Sachs, tell the bankers the old ways of operating are over, and televise the speech. Trump will keep trying to drag her into the muck. It will take imagination and effort to avoid descending into a running spitball fight.
What is clear is that Trump’s hateful and shallow politics open the door for a sweeping victory. But it will not be won by an establishment defending its record and ways of doing business. It will be won only if Clinton can convince Americans that she is in fact following in FDR’s footsteps, and ready to force a better deal for Americans.