As she struggled to keep her 2008 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination alive, Hillary Clinton took a turn toward economic populism. It helped; after a series of setbacks in early caucus and primary states, Clinton’s abandonment of frontrunner caution and embrace of “I'm in this race to fight for you” rhetoric played a significant role in securing her big wins in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. Ultimately, she gained more votes than Barack Obama and came close to wrestling the nomination from him. If Clinton had run from the start as a populist, there is no telling what might have happened. But the important thing to remember is that Clinton did not turn up the volume until she felt she had no other choice—and by then it was too late.
Now, as she launches a new bid for her party’s nomination, Clinton is starting with populist talk. In a slick announcement video released Sunday she gripes that "the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top."
"Everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion," says the former First Lady, US Senator and Secretary of State, on the various platforms employed for the carefully coordinated social media launch of her long-anticipated candidacy.
This is conscious positioning by Clinton. She sounds the same themes in more detail in a freshly-released epilogue to her book, Hard Choices. Reflecting on the birth of her granddaughter, she writes, “I'm more convinced than ever that our future in the 21st century depends on our ability to ensure that a child born in the hills of Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta or the Rio Grande Valley grows up with the same shot at success that Charlotte will.”
“Unfortunately,” adds Clinton, “too few of the children born in the United States and around the world today will grow up with the same opportunities as Charlotte. You shouldn't have to be the granddaughter of a President or a Secretary of State to receive excellent health care, education, enrichment, and all the support and advantages that will one day lead to a good job and a successful life.”
That’s a fine line, and there is no point in questioning Clinton's sincerity. Undoubtedly, she would prefer that everyday Americans enjoy successful lives. But there is every reason to ask whether the candidate—whose $2.5 billion campaign will rely heavily on money from folks who are on the winning side of the income-inequality gap—shares the specific vision of grassroots Democrats about how best to achieve the goal. On too many issues, Clinton’s record is that of “corporate Democrat,” says Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement executive director Hugh Espey. In the first caucus and primary states, there are plenty of progressives who agree with New Hampshire state Representative Marcia Moody when she describes Clinton as “fundamentally a person for Wall Street and not the people.”
This is why there has been so much organizing on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire for progressive-populist alternatives: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has been actively exploring a run against Clinton, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who says she is not running. And this is why the organizing must continue on behalf of alternative candidacies and a competitive race for the Democratic nomination. Clinton is way ahead in the polls, but it would be political malpractice for progressives to be satisfied with a few good turns of phrase at this point. The frontrunner must be pressed to make real commitments on real issues.
Clinton’s decision to open her second presidential campaign on a populist note is a reflection of her savvy recognition that plenty of Democrats have doubts about her past support for free trade deals and her closeness to financial elites that are far more committed to their own self-interest than to the public interest. But the times demand more than just a populist note. They demand progressive populist specifics.
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This is not 2008, when the economy was turning bad. This is 2015, and tens of millions of Americans have experienced a rough seven-year period of unemployment, wage stagnation, uneven recovery and growing inequality. Through a portion of that period, the country had a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress; Obama, Pelosi and Reid delivered some relief, as well as mild healthcare reform and banking regulation. But the polls suggest that Americans are unsatisfied.
When Republicans took charge of the House in 2011, gridlock replaced whatever remained of hope and change. Yet, now, Republicans such as Jeb Bush pitch themselves as born-again champions of working Americans, griping about depressed wages and slow growth. That’s cynical. But it will not be enough to simply call Bush and Scott Walker out on their cynicism, and it will not be enough to echo their vapid expressions of concern for the vast majority of Americans for whom the economy is not working.
The Democratic nominee in 2016 has to propose a specific populism that recognizes the failure of free-trade deals such as NAFTA and join Elizabeth Warren in rejecting proposals to “Fast Track” a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that critics warns will be “NAFTA on steroids.” The Democratic nominee has to recognize that the Dodd-Frank reforms were insufficient and that Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown is right when he proposes to break up “too-big-to-fail” banks. The Democratic nominee must recognize the need to raise new revenues, as Congressman Keith Ellison has with his proposal for a “Robin Hood Tax” on financial speculation. The Democratic nominee must, as Congresswoman Barbara Lee does, recognize the need to steer money away from bloated Pentagon budgets and toward meeting human needs. The Democratic nominee must, as Bernie Sanders does, recognize the absolute necessity of massive federal investments in infrastructure and programs that create and sustain living-wage jobs.
Those are the basics—along with commitments to expand Social Security, address climate change and reduce the influence of corporate interests on our politics and governance. To achieve baseline credibility as a contender, not just for the nomination but for the presidency, Clinton must offer specifics on all of these issues. No one should presume she will do this on her own. This is why progressive groups such as National People’s Action and the Campaign for America’s Future are arguing that a detailed “populist agenda” is essential to victory. This is why the Progressive Change Campaign Committee has launched a "Ready for Boldness" campaign—playing off the “Ready for Hillary” message of Clinton’s early supporters—with support from US Senators Harry Reid, Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken, Jeff Merkley, and Sheldon Whitehouse; former US Senators Tom Harkin and Ted Kaufman and hundreds of activists in Iowa and New Hampshire. PCCC co-founder Adam Green is certainly right when he says that, "It's a great general election strategy to embrace these economic populism issues that are wildly popular across the political spectrum."
Unfortunately, Democrats presidential frontrunners have frequently failed to recognize the logic of economic populism—and even more frequently spoken about economic issues in such tepid terms that the message was muted. Every evidence is that New Hampshire state Representative Renny Cushing is right when he says “there’s only one way” to get Clinton or any other frontrunner to get specific. “If you’re in the electoral arena, you really need a candidate,” explains Cushing, who has been working to draft Warren into the competition. “You can’t do it without a candidate.”
Clinton is running another race for the presidency, and this time she is starting with the populist themes she used at the end of her last race. That's progress—for her, for her party and maybe for her country. But that’s not enough progress. Clinton needs to be pinned down on the details and prodded to go big.
Activist pressure is essential, and it may move Clinton some. But a real race for the nomination, as opposed to a coronation, is the best guarantee that the party will produce a sufficiently populist nominee to strike the chords that will inspire voters. If Clinton is not up to the task, then Democrats had better find an alternative. If Clinton recognizes that she must not merely note the crisis but address it—recognizing the concerns about her record and answering them with an economic agenda that makes real the populist promise—then she will have the right message for a nomination fight and for a November fight that will require a lot more than platitudes.