Hillary Clinton's big challenge: Here's how she matches this populist moment

Clinton's rhetoric has been good, but not sufficient. Why she must go bold in 2016

Published June 23, 2015 11:59AM (EDT)

  (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Jim Cole/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Jim Cole/Photo montage by Salon)

Hillary Clinton wants to be known as an economic populist. She also wants to be known as a supporter of the American Dream who celebrates when people move from rags to riches.

These two ideals are not mutually exclusive, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren proves consistently when she tells her story of moving up from the ragged edges of the middle class while calling for our economic system to be unrigged so more Americans can enjoy upward mobility. But Clinton appears to be feeling a tension right now, trying to figure out how to present a vision that represents both of these ideals.

Two months ago she said, “The deck is stacked in favor of those at the top” and “my job is to reshuffle the cards.” At her kickoff rally this weekend, she said "everybody will have a better time” on her watch – Wall Street bankers and the poor alike.

These are vastly different things. One signals she will challenge power, the other does not. One challenges ill-gotten gains, the other does not.

Clinton seems more pensive now than in 2008 – attempting to apply a heightened authenticity and level of reflection. But her laudable attempt to find language that meshes populism with an optimistic celebration of success has resulted in unnecessarily parsed words that risk hurting her authenticity and could be read as taking positions that one hopes she does not actually hold.

Rhetoric about lifting the fortunes of “all Americans” sounds good until you consider bad actors: Wall Street bankers who break the law and pad their pockets as millions of people lose their jobs and homes. Hedge fund managers who enrich themselves by gambling away people’s pensions. Credit card scammers who profit by miring people in years of spiraling debt. Crony capitalists who invest millions in political donations in order to skew the tax and regulatory codes and get a return on investment of billions.

This is the opposite of the American Dream – some Americans actively hurting other Americans, cutting corners to enrich themselves while taking away the dream for others. Clinton’s pronouncement that “I’m not running for some Americans, but for all Americans” papers over the question of whether she will pick a side when powerful interests attack everyday families.

Especially after Wall Street banks admitted to fraud, the illegal taking of people’s homes, and other criminal activity that hurt millions of families, Americans need to hear more than a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats message from our next president. To inspire voters, and be a populist champion in this populist moment, Clinton needs to acknowledge that bad actors exist and show that she will fight to take away their power and ill-gotten gains.

To be clear, this does not mean vilifying all wealth or success. After all, most Americans don’t lump the Google and Netflix founders in the same class as the Koch brothers, Jamie Dimon or Bernie Madoff. Clinton is right when she said recently in New Hampshire, “I don’t think Americans are against success.”

But she limits the potential of a Clinton presidency, and hurts her authenticity and populist bona fides as she seeks that presidency, when she unnecessarily narrows the scope of her argument to saying, “Americans are against people who get on the top of the ladder and start pulling it up.”

Greed is one thing. Law breaking that destroys our economy and hurts millions of people’s lives is another. Greed has existed forever. Law breaking by increasingly large Wall Street actors is what led to the financial collapse that took away the American Dream for so many everyday families.

There are more than 400,000 chief executives across our nation. If Clinton wants most CEOs to see their own economic fortunes rise by paying employees larger wages and pumping up the demand side of our economy, that’s great. If she wants to make America’s economic pie bigger so everyone has a shot at earning a bigger piece, that’s a great part of the solution.

But when we know that some of the most powerful CEOs and hedge fund managers break the law and profit by taking away people’s dreams, and when we know crony capitalists use campaign donations to bend the law and avoid taxes and regulation, it is insufficient to say, "Prosperity can’t be just for CEOs and hedge fund managers.”

Americans need to hear explicitly that Wall Street lawbreakers and crony capitalists would not see their piece of the economic pie grow under a Clinton presidency. Instead, the ill-gotten gains and power of bad actors must be reduced – not because of jealousy, but because they are mutually exclusive with millions of hardworking Americans being able to fully live out their dreams.

Therefore, Clinton saying "prosperity can't be just for CEOs and hedge fund managers" is good, but not sufficient.

It should not be controversial for Clinton to say what Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders have both said – that if a bank is too big to fail, it is too big to exist. That’s just obvious. So is the idea that Wall Street bankers who break the law should go to jail – a proposition that Iowa voters agree with by nearly 20-to-1. And Clinton should assure voters that her Treasury secretary, attorney general, SEC commissioners and appointed regulators would crack down on Wall Street bad actors who put our economy at risk.

For Clinton to embrace this economic populist moment and inspire primary and general election voters alike, she must show a willingness to challenge power – plus offer big ideas that invest in our economy like debt-free college, massive investment in infrastructure and clean-energy jobs, higher worker wages, and expanding Social Security benefits. That’s the bold economic vision Americans want and need.

By Adam Green

MORE FROM Adam Green

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

Bernie Sanders Editor's Picks Elections 2016 Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton Martin O'malley