Hillary Clinton's populism problem: What her awkward campaign trail comments reveal about her biggest weakness

As the former secretary of state eyes a 2016 bid, she's struggling to come to terms with the new Democratic Party

Published October 27, 2014 5:32PM (EDT)

  (AP/Susan Walsh)
(AP/Susan Walsh)

Such is the absurdity of American politics that Hillary Clinton -- who voted for the financial industry's bankruptcy "reform" bill as a U.S. senator, graced the cover of Fortune magazine in 2007 as corporate America's presidential candidate of choice, and has spent her post-diplomatic career giving paid speeches to the likes of Goldman Sachs and the medical device industry -- is now the subject of Republican attacks that she's an anti-business radical.

The impetus for this rather disingenuous claim came Friday, as Clinton campaigned in Boston for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley. Channeling the Massachusetts' senior senator, Elizabeth Warren -- a potential 2016 presidential rival -- Clinton struck a populist chord in her speech, assailing trickle-down economics and championing an increase in the minimum wage. But the former secretary of state ignited a political firestorm with her remarks about businesses and job creation.

"And don't let anybody tell you, that, you know, it's corporations and businesses that create jobs," Clinton told the crowd. "You know, that old theory, trickle-down economics. That has been tried. That has failed. That has failed rather spectacularly."

Gleeful at the chance to seize another "you didn't build that" moment, Republicans pounced. "How then did private sector people get jobs?" former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer asked on Twitter. Meanwhile, the right-wing blog HotAir asserted that Clinton's comments reflected "Hillarynomics." But just as President Barack Obama wasn't actually saying that entrepreneurs "didn't build" their businesses, it's unlikely that Clinton truly believes that businesses don't create jobs. Instead, her remarks likely represented what Tim Miller of the conservative super PAC America Rising called "a ham-handed attempt to pander to liberal voters."

Emphasis on "ham-handed." Clinton's clumsy language reveals a politician woefully out of sync with her party's progressive populist base. Her awkward attempt to relate to the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party calls to mind Mitt Romney's cringe-inducing efforts to woo GOP conservatives during his last presidential bid. Michael Kinsley aptly compared Romney's rhetorical red meat to serving haggis to your Scottish cousins when they're in for a visit. "You can’t stand the stuff, but they’re supposed to like it," Kinsley wrote. Likewise, it was hard not to get the sense that Clinton, so unable to relate to the progressive strain of Democratic thinking, simply thought that this is the kind of talk Warren Democrats like to hear.

Compare Clinton's inartful populist pandering with Warren's extemporaneous paean to the social contract in 2011, just as Warren launched her campaign for the U.S. Senate against Scott Brown.

"You built a factory out there? Good for you," Warren told a Massachusetts house party. "But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did."

"Now look," Warren went on, "you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."

Recognizing that that message has resonated in the party -- and cognizant of poll numbers showing that Democratic primary voters are increasingly worried about Clinton's close Wall Street ties -- Clinton paid tribute to Warren in her Boston appearance on Friday.

“I am so pleased to be here with your senior senator, the passionate champion for working people and middle-class families, Elizabeth Warren!” Clinton roared. “I love watching Elizabeth, you know, give it to those who deserve to get it,” she added. And who might "those who deserve to get it" be? Clinton, whose family foundation has collected up to half a million dollars from Goldman Sachs and whom many Wall Street Republicans are already prepared to support in 2016, didn't elaborate.

It's telling that just after she lauded Warren's principled liberalism on Friday, Clinton ventured to neighboring Rhode Island, where she hailed gubernatorial nominee Gina Raimondo as a key part of the Democratic Party's future. Last year, Raimondo earned the enmity of public workers in Rhode Island when she gutted their pensions in her role as state treasurer. Very Serious centrists and the right-wing Wall Street Journal editorial board applauded Raimondo's move, while party progressives decried her so-called pension reform. In September's gubernatorial primary, 58 percent of Rhode Island Democrats voted for a candidate other than Raimondo.

Democrats like Warren -- who spends as much time excoriating Wall Street Democrats like Robert Rubin as she does launching broadsides against Republicans -- recognize that Democrats like Raimondo pose an even more dire threat to a progressive economic agenda than conservative Republicans do. The neoliberal capture of the Democratic Party narrowed the range of policy alternatives available to American voters, and what excites voters about Warren is that she represents a break from that sordid history. And Clinton's inextricable link with that history -- not some clumsy campaign stump gaffe -- is the real problem.

By Luke Brinker

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