A Populist Challenge to Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton in the video announcing her 2016 presidential candidacy. (Image: Campaign handout)

A Populist Challenge to Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton's decision to "go small" by formally announcing her presidential campaign in a video, before heading off for "intimate" meetings in Iowa, touched off saturation national press coverage that other contenders can only envy. The former first lady, former senator, former presidential contender, former secretary of state has been in the public eye for nearly a quarter of a century.

Hillary Clinton's decision to "go small" by formally announcing her presidential campaign in a video, before heading off for "intimate" meetings in Iowa, touched off saturation national press coverage that other contenders can only envy. The former first lady, former senator, former presidential contender, former secretary of state has been in the public eye for nearly a quarter of a century. She's the prohibitive favorite to get the Democratic Party nomination this time, and odds-on to win the presidency.

Yet hurdles remain. Clinton's biggest challenge probably isn't in capturing the middle from the Republican nominee. Republicans have already virtually ceded that. Her challenge is to inspire the Obama majority coalition to vote in large numbers, not only to guarantee her election but also to help Democrats take back the Senate, gain seats in the House and capture a clear mandate.

This won't be easy. Historically, after eight years of one party in the White House, voters are ready for change. The Republican base will be roused by venom toward Clinton that is almost as poisonous as that directed at President Obama. In contrast, many Democrats are discouraged by the disappointments of the Obama years. Key parts of Obama's base -- African Americans, Latinos, millennials -- haven't exactly thrived during his presidency. The election of 2014 took place in a low-turnout, by-election year, but it showed how destructive a lack of enthusiasm could be on the Democratic side.

Some pundits suggest 2016 will be a foreign policy election. Some Democrats are tempted to turn it into a culture clash, since Republicans are now on the wrong side of a growing range of concerns -- gays, women, immigrants, voting rights and global warming. But as Clinton's campaign acknowledges, the central question is still about the economy: how to make this economy work for working people once more, to rebuild a broad middle class, increase wages and reduce income inequality. Here, although Clinton has been in the public eye for decades, her views are largely unknown, if not unformed.

And on these questions, a populist temper is building in the party -- symbolized by the split between the "Warren" and Wall Street wings of the party, and by the spread of the movement to draft Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to run for the presidency. And Clinton will find that this movement will force her to decide where she stands early and often.

This week, a new resolution to give the president "fast track" trade authority will be introduced into the Senate. The measure -- designed to shorten debate and ease passage of Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord still under negotiations -- will set off a furious debate. President Obama, joined by the Republican leadership and much of the Fortune 500, is pushing for fast track and the treaty. The vast majority of House Democrats are opposed, as are Senators Warren, Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and other progressives in the chamber, as well as a broad array of unions and citizen groups, from environmentalists to students. Two potential rivals for the Democratic nomination -- Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley -- oppose the treaty, while former Virginia senator Jim Webb is skeptical of such agreements. Does Clinton stand for a continuation of the trade policies that her husband championed, that have racked up over $6 trillion in trade deficits since 2000, savaging domestic manufacturing and costing good jobs? Or does she agree that this is part of how the rules are rigged, and call for reconsideration?

On April 15, tens of thousands low-wage workers across the country -- from Wal-Mart, McDonald's and retail stores, as well as adjunct professors at universities and others -- will walk off the job out in some 200 cities, demanding a $15-an-hour minimum wage and unionization. Clinton favors raising the minimum wage, but will she join the workers' fight or try to duck it? Will she speak forcefully about empowering workers to organize and bargain collectively or decline?

With baby boomers retiring without pensions or adequate savings, progressives -- led by Sen. Warren -- have proposed that Social Security benefits be expanded, not cut, with lifting the current lid on the payroll tax as the first step of covering the cost. President Obama, in contrast, proposed cuts in benefits as part of a "grand bargain" with Republicans on deficit reduction, a position greatly appreciated on Wall Street. Clinton, like all candidates, will promise to protect Social Security, but she'll find herself pressed to support expanding it.

At the same time, progressives are organizing a range of efforts to drive the debate on a populist economic agenda.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, after convening a group of progressive leaders, proposed collecting thousands of endorsements on an Economic Contract with America, and hosting a bipartisan presidential debate on inequality.

Sen. Warren has joined with Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) to launch the Middle Class Prosperity Project, planning to convene hearings across the country on economic policies threatening the middle class, including, most recently, the need to relieve the burden of student debt. Progressives are gearing up a major campaign for four years of free public college.

Next week, the Campaign for America's Future will announce an alliance with three major national grassroots organizations -- National People's Action, USAction and the Alliance for a Just Society -- to drive a populist platform into the political debate. Moveon.org, the Progressive Congressional Campaign Committee and Progressive Democrats of America are all mobilizing online support for the demand that candidates address "bold ideas" for economic reform. Warren is joining the Center for Community Change Action as it launches a campaign for jobs. The AFL-CIO will hold convocations in each of the early primary states focused on the issue of raising wages.

Clinton's potential rivals for the nomination all clearly see an opening for a populist challenge. Webb has been a compelling critic of our trade policies; O'Malley has gone after Wall Street, calling for reviving the Glass-Steagall regulations that were repealed under Bill Clinton. Sanders has released a bold "Economic Agenda for America" and challenges the corruption of big-money politics, a clear contrast with what is likely to be unrelenting revelations about money and the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, even as Clinton sets off to raise a staggering $2.5 billion for her campaign and associated super PACs.

Clinton has already shown she is aware of the populist temper of the time. In the video announcing her candidacy, Clinton echoes Sen. Warren, arguing that while Americans have fought back from the Great Recession, "the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top. "She vows to be the champion of "everyday Americans." Given the populist energy that is driving the debate inside the Democratic Party, she'll have every opportunity to prove it.

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