Liberals have spent much of the past year trying to pull Hillary Clinton to the left, even betting behind a phantom Elizabeth Warren candidacy to exert pressure on her. But now that Clinton in the early going of her campaign sounds a lot like the senator from Massachusetts, progressives should be pretty pleased.
But several leading figures of American liberal groups say that, so far, they are not much impressed.
In the week and a half since she launched her campaign, Clinton has done her damnest to blast the skyrocketing rate of pay for CEOs, called for higher taxes on hedge fund managers, and lamented wage stagnation, and has adopted the phrase “The deck is stacked in favor of those at the top” into her rhetorical arsenal.
She has called for a constitutional amendment to reform the campaign finance system, come out in favor of a constitutional right for same-sex marriage and drivers licenses for illegal immigrants, and pushed for free community college for all.
She even penned a fawning op-ed about Warren in Time magazine.
“All of the early focus in Secretary Clinton’s campaign on income inequality shows why there is still significant interest in getting Elizabeth Warren into the race,” said Neil Sroka, spokesman for Democracy for America, which has been central to the effort to draft Warren. “If income inequality became the focus of so much attention without her in the race, if she got in it would become central to what the 2016 campaign would be about in both parties. “
And yet, when there is so much agreement between Clinton and progressive priorities, it raises the question: How much of progressive yearning for an alternative is grounded in policy differences, and how much is about rhetoric and style?
Clinton will never camp out in Zuccotti Park, or rail against the malefactors of great wealth, but if she supports a higher minimum wage (she recently tweeted in support of those marching for $15 an hour), paid family leave (Ann O’Leary, a newly hired campaign aide, is a nationally recognized expert on such policies), or strict oversight of Wall Street (as another campaign aide, Gary Gensler, has pushed for), who cares?
Bernie Sanders, the independent socialist senator from Vermont who is considering a run for the presidency, scoffed at the notion that the difference between Hillary and the left was merely stylistic.
The opening days of the Clinton campaign “were a very good format for her. But as always the devil is in the details. The central issue we face, and I don’t want to be overly dramatic about it, is that this country is moving very rapidly towards an oligarchic society, where a small number of billionaires control not only most of the economic life of the country but the political life as well.”
Free community college, a higher minimum wage and campaign finance reform, he said, merely put Clinton in line with what 90 percent of Democrats in Congress want.
Sanders called for a trillion-dollar stimulus to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure and put people back to work, the public financing of election, and a carbon tax.
“It’s one thing to give lip service to it, but what you have done, what are the specifics, and are you prepared to fight for it?” he said. “The bottom line is people are going to have to make a judgment about what candidates out there are really prepared to take on Wall Street and the billionaire class and fight for working families.”
Many progressives, including Sanders, were forgiving of Clinton’s failure to flush out a robust progressive agenda by Week Two.
The campaign is still in its earliest stages, after all, and Clinton is in the “meeting with voters” stage, not the “dropping 500-page policy book” stage.
But liberals said an early test of whether or not she was one of them would come soon as Congress prepares to take up the Trans Pacific Partnership, a new trade deal that nearly all labor unions have come out strongly against.
She didn’t ask for this, but it comes with the territory. It is going to be a definitional moment,” said Dan Cantor national director of the Working Families Party, whose New York branch which has signed on to the Draft Warren movement and is close ally of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. “This is one of those things that will determine how energized the progressive base is for her.”
Robert Borosage, the president of the Campaign for America’s Future, which was formed in the mid-’90s in reaction to the Clinton-allied centrist Democratic Leadership Council, said that social security would be a major issue for Clinton going forward.
Most Republicans have called for curtailed benefits, while a growing moving to expand the program has found supporters in Sanders and Martin O’Malley, another 2016 hopeful.
“There is no question she is making gestures towards the Warren wing of the party, but as we get into more policy issues, she is going to have a unique problem,” Borosage said. “How is she going to be different from Obama? Clearly she will be different from Obama on foreign policy in a way that many don’t support. So, can she be more populist than Obama on domestic policy?”
Robert Reich, a longtime Clinton friend and former Secretary of Labor in the Bill Clinton White House, said Hillary deserved credit for her language on CEO pay and taxes, but added that most of what Clinton has discussed so far on the campaign trial would not do much to alter the structural reasons for the widening inequality.
If Clinton wants to reassure the progressive base, he added, she should call for the restoration of Glass-Steagall (which her husband dismantled) and break up the big banks.
It is one thing to call for higher taxes on hedge fund managers, a continued Democratic talking point, he said, it is another to talk about restoring workers’ bargaining power and making it easier for workers to organize.
“This is where the rubber is going to meet the road,” he said. “My hope is that as the campaign progresses she will get more specific, and get to these underlying structural problems, and I think it would be enormously helpful for her, not just for solidifying the progressive base and getting people enthusiastic. Turnout is going to be central in this campaign, it is going to determine who gets elected, and in 2016 she is going to have to motivate the base.”
But Reich said the differences in the party now were nothing compared to what they were in the ’90s, talk of a “Warren Wing” notwithstanding.
“I think it is way overstated. In the 1990s, you had the Democratic Leadership Council that was self-consciously created as a counterweight to the progressive and union wing of the party,” he said. “But now you have a grassroots that is not DLC nor knee-jerk union. It is mostly concerned with jobs and inequality, and those concerns are not limited to the Democratic base.”
Neera Tanden, the head of the Center for American Progress and a former Clinton aide, agreed. She said polls show not just close policy agreement among Democrats, but a deep popularity with Clinton among liberal Democrats.
“There is a tendency to create a false equivalence between the parties,” she said, noting there was no real Democratic Tea Party targeting incumbents and dragging the party leftward. “I told everybody, ‘Wait until the campaign. Wait until you hear what Hillary has to say. She is in the progressive mainstream of the party.’ We aren’t having arguments about our core values. We are having arguments about how best to achieve the same thing.”