Robert Reich: Hillary's appeals to the middle class are tone-deaf

The former secretary of labor explains how the Democratic candidate can rally the "downwardly mobile"

Published July 1, 2014 4:30PM (EDT)

This originally appeared on Robert Reich's blog.

What’s the reason for the tempest in the teapot of Hillary and Bill Clinton’s personal finances?

It can’t be about how much money they have. Wealth has never disqualified someone from high office. Several of the nation’s greatest presidents, who came to office with vast fortunes – JFK, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his fifth cousin, Teddy – notably improved the lives of ordinary Americans.

The tempest can’t be about Hillary Clinton’s veracity. It may have been a stretch for her to say she and her husband were “dead broke” when they left the White House, as she told ABC’s Diane Sawyer. But they did have large legal bills to pay off.

And it’s probably true that, unlike many of the “truly well off,” as she termed them in an interview with the Guardian newspaper, the Clintons pay their full income taxes and work hard.

Nor can the tempest be about how they earned their money. Most has come from public speaking and book royalties, the same sources as for most ex-presidents and former First Ladies.

Then what’s it about?

The story behind story is that America is in an era of sharply rising inequality, with a few at the top doing fabulously well but most Americans on a downward economic escalator.

That’s why Diane Sawyer asked Hillary about the huge speaking fees, and why the Guardian asked whether she could be credible on the issue of inequality.

And it’s why Hillary’s answers – that the couple needed money when they left the White House, and have paid their taxes and worked hard for it — seemed oddly beside the point.

The questions had nothing to do with whether the former first couple deserved the money. They were really about whether all that income from big corporations and Wall Street put them on the side of the privileged and powerful, rather than on the side of ordinary Americans.

These days, voters want to know which side candidates are on because they believe the game is rigged against them.

According to new Pew survey, 62 percent of Americans now think economic system unfairly favors the powerful, and 78 percent think too much power is concentrated in too few companies. Even 69 percent of young conservative-leaning voters agree the system favors the powerful.

Other potential presidential candidates are using every opportunity to tell voters they’re on their side. Speaking at last week’s White House summit on financial hardships facing working families, Vice President Joe Biden revealed he has “no savings account” and “doesn’t own a single stock or bond.”

The same concern haunts the Republican Party and is fueling the Tea Party rebellion. In his stunning campaign upset, David Brat charged that Eric Cantor “does not represent the citizens of the 7th district, but rather large corporations seeking insider deals, crony bailouts, and constant supply of low-wage workers.”

But the Republican establishment doesn’t think it has to choose sides. It assumes it can continue to represent the interests of big business and Wall Street, yet still lure much of the white working class though thinly-veiled racism, anti-immigrant posturing, and steadfast opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

The Democratic Party, including Hillary Clinton, doesn’t have that option.

Which means that, as the ranks of the anxious middle class grow, the winning formula used by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama may no longer be able to deliver.

That formula was not just to court minorities and women but also to appeal to upscale Republican-leaning suburbs, professionals, moderates on Wall Street, and centrist business interests.

Accordingly, both Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s economic plans called for deficit reduction as part of a “responsible” fiscal policy, trade expansion, and “investments” in infrastructure and education to promote economic growth.

But in a world of downward mobility for the majority, Democrats need to acknowledge the widening divide and propose specific ways to reverse it.

These might include, for example, raising taxes on the wealthy and closing their favorite tax loopholes in order to pay for world-class schools for everyone else; enacting a living wage and minimum guaranteed income; making it easier to unionize; and changing corporate and tax laws to limit CEO pay, and promote gain-sharing, profit-sharing, and employee ownership.

In this scenario, Democrats would seek to forge a new political coalition of all the nation’s downwardly mobile – poor, working class, and middle class; white and black and brown.

It’s a gamble. It would make big business and Wall Street nervous, while ignoring Republican-leaning suburbs and upper-middle class professionals. The GOP would move in to fill the void.

But as the middle class shrinks and distrust of the establishment grows, a new Democratic strategy for the downwardly mobile may be both necessary and inevitable. If she runs, Hillary may have to take the gamble.

And if America is to have half a chance of saving the middle class and preserving equal opportunity, it’s a gamble worth taking.

By Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written 15 books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good." He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's also co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism."

MORE FROM Robert Reich

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Class Downward Mobility Hillary Clinton Middle Class