Hillary's big speech: Light on details, but a generous dollop of progressive themes

Clinton laid out some economic policy ideas, made some promises, and took a justified swipe at Marco Rubio

Published July 13, 2015 7:22PM (EDT)

  (AP/Pat Sullivan)
(AP/Pat Sullivan)

Hillary Clinton gave her big economic speech this morning, proposing a whole array of policies that she argues will “build a ‘growth and fairness’ economy.” She wasn’t especially forthcoming on details, which is a shame, but she had some interesting and ideas and made some promises that she should be held to going forward. After listening to the speech, these were the portions that stuck out in my mind as being substantively or politically important.

Paid family leave. One of the best arguments Hillary made in laying out her economic agenda was her pitch on expanding paid family leave. She didn’t get into the details of the policies she has in mind – “we can do this in a way that doesn’t impose unfair burdens on businesses” was all she had to say on how to implement her proposals – but she framed them both as a moral imperative and as smart economic policy.

“We are in a global competition, as I’m sure you have noticed, and we can’t afford to leave talent on the sidelines, but that’s exactly what we’re doing today,” she said, arguing that the terrible policies we have for sick days and family leave discourage qualified workers from entering the workforce. “Fair pay and fair scheduling, paid family leave and earned sick days, child care are essential to our competitiveness and growth.”

What would those policies look like? Again, Hillary declined to go into detail. But the Center for American Progress put out a big report earlier this year that offered a number of policy recommendations for achieving a greater measure of economic fairness, and it called for “implementing a national paid family and medical leave insurance program” and expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act to cover more workers.

“Enhancing” Social Security. The hot trend for Democratic presidential candidates is to call for an expansion of Social Security to collect more revenue and provide more generous benefits than the system currently pays out. Both Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley have endorsed adjustments to the payroll tax structure that will bring a bit more fairness to the system, and they both support legislation to boost wages and legalize undocumented immigrants, which would result in more people paying more into Social Security.

Up to this point, Clinton has been cautious when talking about Social Security, saying only that she would “defend” the program against Republican efforts to cut it. In her speech today, though, Hillary said she would “help families look forward to retirement by defending and enhancing Social Security and making it easier to save for the future.”

What does “enhancing Social Security” mean? Well, she didn’t explain. But it’s different than what she’s been saying previously! I’d imagine Hillary’s vision for “enhancing” Social Security probably shares quite a bit with those of Sanders and O’Malley – she also backs higher wages and comprehensive immigration reform. But the tax question is still unresolved. The last time she ran for president, Hillary was firmly against raising additional payroll taxes, and her overall plan for what to do about the Social Security’s long-term health was to appoint a “commission” that would figure something out. Saying she wants to “enhance” the program is vague and will require much more in the way of detail, but hopefully it means she’s moved beyond the passive, hands-off approach to Social Security she took in 2008.

Taking a swing at Marco Rubio. Hillary name-checked several Republican presidential contenders during her remarks, but I thought it significant that she singled out Marco Rubio for criticism when it came to tax policy:

CLINTON: Now we hear Republican candidates talk a lot about tax reform. But take a good look at their plans. Senator Rubio’s would cut taxes for households making around $3 million a year by almost $240,000 – which is way more than three times the earnings of a typical family. Well that’s a sure budget-busting give-away to the super-wealthy. And that’s the kind of bad economics you’re likely to get from any of the candidates on the other side.

Rubio’s tax plan – which by any measure is an insane and irresponsible giveaway to the wealthy – is noteworthy in that it represents an effort to bridge the divide between two factions in the Republican tax policy world: the supply-side traditionalists and the “reform” conservatives. The supply siders still place all their faith in rate cuts (especially for the rich) as the pathway to economic growth. The “reform” conservatives want to move the party away from tax-cut mania and focus more on using the tax code to bolster middle-class incomes. Rubio’s plan attempts to do both without making any real compromises, and the result is a wildly expensive proposition that will explode the deficit.

Hillary clearly wants to make Rubio’s plan – with all its unworkable contradictions and obscene price tag – the face of Republican tax policy. Calling it a “budget-busting give-away to the super-wealthy” is less punchy than Martin O’Malley’s way of characterizing Rubio’s economic philosophy, but it achieves largely the same effect.

Prosecuting Wall Street criminals. One of the Obama administration’s great failures has been its unfulfilled promise to prosecute the titans of Wall Street in the aftermath of the financial meltdown that damn near collapsed the economy. There was no shortage of securities fraud to go after and there were enthusiastic and elaborate attempts to cover it all up, but rather than seek criminal prosecutions, the Obama Justice Department instead levied fines against the major banks and allowed them room to deny any explicit wrongdoing.

Hillary obliquely acknowledged this failure in her speech today and promised that under her watch, criminality on Wall Street would be met with prosecution:

CLINTON: I will appoint and empower regulators who understand that Too Big To Fail is still too big a problem. We’ll ensure that no firm is too complex to manage or oversee. And we will prosecute individuals as well as firms when they commit fraud or other criminal wrongdoing.

It’s amazing that we’re even at the point of seeing a top-tier presidential candidate vowing to get tough on white-collar crime, but here we are. The question, of course, is whether Hillary would prove more successful on this score than the Obama administration.

One of the chief liberal complaints against Clinton is that she’s too close to Wall Street and too sympathetic to the agenda laid out by the masters of the financial universe. Vowing to prosecute criminals on Wall Street might seem like a good way to head off those complaints, but really she’s just promising to enforce and uphold the law – something we should expect her (or any president) to do anyway. But the relationship between Wall Street and DC has become so thoroughly corrupt that I guess this is what now counts as reform.

Diversity of broadband providers. It got only one line in the speech, but Hillary touched on one of the more significant economic policy battles happening right now: the fight to improve broadband access and the need to regulate the broadband marketplace. “Let’s build those faster broadband networks,” she said, “and make sure there’s a greater diversity of providers so consumers have more choice.”

Earlier this year, the Obama administration released an aggressive set of net neutrality rules, including reclassification of broadband internet service so that it becomes subject to “common carrier” regulations. Hillary, shortly after those rules were announced, offered her full support to the administration and indicated that she would like to go even further. “It's a foot in the door,” she said, “but it's not the end of the discussion.”

It would be nice to hear more from Hillary along these lines, but for now it’s good just to hear a major party candidate talking about the need to reform the broadband industry to boost competition and improve network speeds, even if only in passing. It doesn’t get nearly enough attention given how critically important broadband access is to the economy, and how irredeemably abusive and awful the existing cartel of broadband providers has grown in the absence of real competition.

By Simon Maloy

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