In a Populist Moment, Hillary Clinton’s Left-Leaning Economic Vision

Richard Eskow

Hillary Clinton gave a speech on the economy in Toledo, Ohio on Monday. Her primary topics, corporate predation and a broken economy, leaned left. Some of the speech’s most important ideas were hidden in plain sight but could have long-lasting significance.

The speech wasn’t perfect, and some will undoubtedly question her sincerity. But it showed just how far the candidate, and her party’s leadership, have come in a very short time.

Characteristically, Clinton’s speech blunted its message with hedging phrases like, “There are lots of principled law-abiding business leaders out there who are horrified by all this.”

And Clinton couldn’t resist boasting that “I’ve been endorsed by very successful people,” while “not a single CEO of a Fortune 100 company supports the Trump campaign.”

To millions of American voters, that will look less like validation and more like guilt by association. Those CEOs aren’t avoiding Trump because they’re patriots. They’re probably more concerned that his unpredictability would be bad for business. And many would lose out if Trump ever followed through on his anti-trade-deal rhetoric.

Still, the speech showed that Clinton is grappling with this populist moment, and is accommodating herself to it.

Donald-Baiting Put To Good Use

She spent a good portion of the speech attacking Donald Trump, of course. It would be political malpractice for a candidate in her position not to dwell on her opponent’s venality, vulgarity and greed.

But the outsized and cartoonish nature of Trump’s villainy can also be an impediment, a distraction from the deeper debate that we need. Every moment spent discussing Trump’s personal failings is a moment spent not addressing the fundamental injustices built into our economy.

At least Clinton put her Donald-baiting to good use, by linking his faults to broader concerns. “Trump represents the same rigged system that he claims he’s going to change,” she said. “He’s taken corporate excess and makes a business model out of it.”

Trade is the one subject where Trump has a populist edge. While Clinton could not bring herself to condemn past trade deals, she said that she would “ramp up enforcement of trade rules by appointing a new chief trade prosecutor and tripling the number of enforcement officers.” And she repeated her recent, more forceful language on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, saying “I oppose TPP now, I will oppose it after the election, I will oppose it as president – because it is one-sided and unfair to American workers.”

That language would be more convincing if Clinton were to personally lobby Democrats in Congress, asking them to vote against TPP in the lame-duck session. And if Clinton opposes the TPP because “it sets up a dispute resolution system that favors large corporations over everyone else,” she should fight to renegotiate or remove the same provision from NAFTA. A recent study confirmed that it has benefited extremely wealthy individuals and very large corporations.

Still, her words of opposition are a step in the right direction, reflecting the deep unpopularity and poor outcomes of past trade deals.

Wall Street “Bully”

Rhetorically, Clinton got the Wells Fargo scandal exactly right. “One of the nation’s biggest banks, bullying thousands of employees into committing fraud against unsuspecting customers” – that’s a good summary of the scandal.

Then there was this: “It is outrageous that eight years after a cowboy culture on Wall Street wrecked our economy, we are still seeing powerful bankers playing fast and loose with the law.”

At this point, some left-leaning readers will undoubtedly be expressing doubt about the sincerity of Clinton’s outrage, given her history with Wall Street. That’s a legitimate concern. Clinton even boasted in Monday’s speech about Warren Buffett’s endorsement, and Buffett is a major investor in Wells Fargo, reportedly losing $1 billion in a single day as the latest scandal broke.

But, by reflecting and channeling the public’s anger, Clinton is acknowledging that the political reality about Wall Street fraud has changed. Former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders and his millions of supporters, along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other key players, have moved her to the left on this subject, at least rhetorically. Activists can use these fierce words to press for additional bank reform, should she become president.

“Often we find unjustified spikes in the prices of long-standing, lifesaving drugs,” Clinton said of Big Pharma. “We should slap penalties on companies trying to cheat people who need those drugs.”

Clinton also expressed support for importing drugs from Canada, speeding up the approval process for generic alternatives, and allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices.

(Her other major drug proposal, to cap the out-of-pocket cost working families pay for medicine, is not unreasonable. Unfortunately, it would shift the cost burden from individual families to the public at large without ending the drug company exploitation that is the root cause of the problem.)

While more can be done to rein in Big Pharma – the Bayh-Dole patent and trademark law, for example, provides a president with additional tools – this is a much stronger agenda against pharmaceutical predation than any presidential candidate has offered in the recent past.

Underappreciated Gems

Most of the speech’s media coverage missed its most transformative proposals – understandably, because they sounded uninspired and technical. But, if properly executed, they could change the way the nation does business.

The first was a call to end mandatory arbitration in corporate agreements. As Clinton noted, “there was a provision in the very fine print of (Wells Fargo customer) contracts that kept them from going to court to sue the bank for being cheated. Instead, they are forced into a closed-door arbitration process without the important protections that you get in a court of law.”

Most major corporations – including banks, credit card companies, and telecommunications providers – use arbitration to rig the system in their own favor. They have considerable influence over the arbitrators, while customers are robbed of the class action suits that are often their only path to justice.

“We are not going to let corporations like Wells Fargo use these fine print ‘gotchas’ to escape accountability,” said Clinton. If that policy was enforced strictly, and broadly, it would change the way large corporations treat their exploited customers.

Clinton also made this health care promise: “In most of the country, the three largest health insurance companies in each state control 80 percent of the market. No wonder premiums are going up. As president, I will appoint tough, independent authorities to strengthen antitrust enforcement and really scrutinize mergers and acquisitions, so the big don’t keep getting bigger and bigger.”

If President Hillary Clinton were to honor that pledge, the effects could be far-reaching. In recent decades the federal government has done little to address monopoly and near-monopoly conditions in a number of markets. It stood idle as mergers and acquisitions created one dominant player after another. An aggressive antitrust policy could lower prices, give consumers more choices, and reduce the political power of today’s mega-corporations. It might even slow premium growth for health insurance.

The question will inevitably be asked, “Does she mean it?”

A shadow fell across the Clinton campaign’s left flank this week when leaked audio of Clinton from a February fundraiser contained dismissive comments about Bernie Sanders and his millennial supporters. Clinton has long described herself as a “centrist,” telling the February crowd that she occupies a political space “from the center-left to the center-right.”

So, does she mean the progressive things she says now?

Clinton undoubtedly has “centrist” tendencies. But she has also been willing to embrace the rhetoric and policies of the left at times, especially in recent months. Whatever is in her heart, this much is clear: Hillary Clinton has shown that she can be moved. That suggests a way forward for progressive activists.

In what is almost certainly an apocryphal story, Franklin D. Roosevelt was said to have told an activist (sometimes in the story it’s Sidney Hillman, sometimes it’s A. Philip Randolph), “I agree with you, now go out and make me do it.”

Does Hillary Clinton really support the left-leaning economic agenda she laid out on Monday, or doesn’t she? There’s no way to know. Either way, if she becomes president the mission will be the same: someone will have to go out and make her do it.

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