Hillary Clinton is reportedly set to end the biggest non-mystery in American politics today by announcing her presidential candidacy. But even as we learn that she’s running, along with when and how she’ll make the announcement (via social media and video, we’re told, on Sunday afternoon), it seems the only actual mystery about the race will remain unsolved: How does Clinton propose to restart the engines of American opportunity that built a broad middle class after World War II, which began to sputter and fail over the last 30 years?
With neither a grand thematic backdrop for an announcement – Seneca Falls? Ferguson? McAllen, Tex.? Outside a small-city McDonald’s during a fast food workers’ strike? – nor a big address to outline the themes of her campaign, Clinton will leave defining what she stands for to the media for a little while, at least, and that’s risky. So far, journalists only seem able to define Clinton in contrast to a past or future opponent, asking whether she’ll attack President Obama (it’s a dumb media given that she has to), distance herself from her husband, the popular former president, or push back against the economic populism of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, even without Warren in the race.
If that limbo is risky for Clinton, it’s even more dangerous for progressives. As we wait to find out how Clinton will respond to the increasingly populist pulse of her party’s base, we’re beset by substitute, over-personalized storylines, heavy on drama but light on issues: Will Clinton co-opt the Warren wing of the party, or will she stand up to it? Is she going to rebuke Wall Street, a la Warren, or offer succor?
We’ve even got a surrogate battle of Ivy League economists: Is she closer to Harvard’s Raj Chetty, whose studies of upward mobility focus on how to restore it (which is said to be a more optimistic, plutocrat-friendly analysis), or Columbia’s Joseph Stiglitz, who recently wrote, in an essay shared with the Clinton team, that an effective economic policy must go beyond incremental policies like raising the minimum wage and improving education, to include “redistribution” of income – a once-routine assumption of public policy that now sounds like communism to a lot of business-oriented Democrats. (For the record, Clinton has met with both men.)
Without a Clinton challenger – and specifically, without Warren – most of the media struggle to explain what will matter to Democrats in the race. Witness this bizarre exchange between CBS’s Charlie Rose and Warren herself last week. Exasperated at Warren’s failure either to declare her own candidacy or critique Clinton’s, the respected interviewer – the “Charlie Rose” brand has long stood for substance, at least – began to badger the senator for more “specifics” about her agenda – after she’d already talked about reducing student loan interest rates and hiking the minimum wage.
ROSE: It's hard to get to you be more specific. You talk about the Democratic Party’s a fluid thing and is going here and there and it’s always changing. But we want you to really-
WARREN: I'm sorry, what was nonspecific about let's reduce the interest rate on student loans to 3.89%?
ROSE: You've been saying that in a lot of different–
WARREN: I'm there.
ROSE: I know. You've been saying that in a lot of different places and that's a very specific position.
WARREN: And I have supported our efforts to try to get the minimum wage—
ROSE: And you say, well—
WARREN: I've supported it at $10.10. I would support it at a higher number. And I'm willing to sit down and negotiate with those who are willing to raise the minimum wage.
ROSE: What we're trying to understand is that you represent -- you really have become the voice of a wing of the Democratic Party, and maybe all of the party. What we want to know is where does Elizabeth Warren want to see this party go?
WARREN: Oh golly, how could you not know?
ROSE: In terms of minimum wage. In terms of income inequality. In terms of a whole range of things.
WARREN: I'm ready.
ROSE: You're ready to tell them where you are and where you think the country…And where you differ from former Secretary of State Clinton. Why can't you tell us that? Why isn't that interest in the interest of a full debate about the future of the country, the future of the Democratic Party and who the nominee ought to be?
WARREN: Charlie, I'll tell you where I stand on all of the key issues. It's up to others to say whether they stand there as well or they stand in some different place. I'll tell you where I stand on minimum wage. I'll tell you where I stand on equal pay for equal work. I’ll tell you where I stand on expanding—
ROSE: Name me one thing you would like to see -- name me one thing that you would like to see Hillary Clinton do and say and commit to that she has not committed to?
In fact, Warren has laid out her agenda in an eight-point plan to restore the middle class, which includes a minimum wage hike, protecting and expanding Social Security, strengthening labor laws, restoring a more progressive tax code, and building infrastructure. Similar ideas are in the “Ready for Boldness” statement the Progressive Change Campaign Committee is organizing around (Senators Harry Reid and Al Franken are among 5,000 Democrats who've signed their names to the statement), trying to "incentivize" Clinton to move to the left. PCCC leaders recently met with members of Clinton's campaign team.
But if journalists can’t frame these ideas in terms of someone “attacking” Hillary Clinton, they’re not interested, and they'll insist there's no progressive agenda.
Meanwhile, frustrated in their efforts to gin up a fight between two popular Democratic women, some will find surrogates elsewhere that let them frame the narrative in terms of “centrist” Clinton facing down and “taming” progressive critics -- or being tamed by them. Politico gave us an example this week with “Rahm shows Hillary how to tame the left.”
As Elias Isquith explained, however, the piece took itself apart, as it argued that Emanuel won because he co-opted progressive ideas, not because he ran away from them. Still, it was framed as a “lesson” for Clinton to thumb her nose at the party’s base. Let’s hope she’s not listening.
There are real divisions among Democrats – and maybe even within the Clinton camp – over both tone and substance when it comes to economic policy. Personally, I’m with Joseph Stiglitz, who wrote in an essay shared with the Clinton campaign:
The increase in inequality and the decrease in equality of opportunity have reached the point where minor fixes — such as modest increases in the minimum wage and continuing to strive to improve education and educational opportunity — will not suffice. A far more comprehensive approach to the problem is required, entailing redistribution and doing what one can to improve the market distribution of income and to prevent the unfair transmission of advantage across generations.
But we have no evidence that Clinton herself disagrees, and progressives should ignore the distracting game of mirrors the media will continue to play with the Democratic frontrunner and her base. Personally, I’m not seeing Sunday as the kick-off to Clinton’s campaign (though there are reports that her announcement tweets will deal with issues). That will come when she begins to outline her own substantive agenda for closing the widening income and opportunity divide.