The Clinton Express wheezed its way into New York City this week, rolling into Greenwich Village to offload another "big speech," this time on the economy. Whoever is driving this train must have considered Cooper Union as a possible station stop; a speech Lincoln gave there in 1860 may have made him president. But this speech wasn’t that big, not by a long shot. The campaign settled on a spot a few blocks away, a smallish auditorium over at The New School.
Even that venue was a bit of a reach. The New School has a history of innovative economic inquiry dating to its 1919 founding by such progressive lights as John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen, neither of whom, it’s safe to say, would be backing Clinton today. When the school opened, the New York Times said its announced purpose was “to seek an unbiased understanding of the existing order, its genesis, growth and present working.”
The country could use a fresh, unbiased analysis of the existing order. Clinton’s speech provided nothing of the sort.
Still, it was well received in some quarters. At Vox, where much of what Clinton says is well received, Matthew Yglesias called her pledge to prosecute financial crimes “the most important words she has spoken thus far in the campaign.” It’s not saying much, as she hardly ever says anything substantive, let alone important. Yglesias likens her rhetoric to Elizabeth Warren’s, but why Warren when so many other politicians now promise the same thing? He notes Clinton’s “trust gap” with “activists focused on the issue” but says those activists can take “succor” knowing that bringing such cases is one of the few ways a “sharply constrained” President Clinton would have of “leaving a mark.”
In other words, count on her doing it because she won’t be able to do much else.
In a piece written before the event and based on campaign backgrounders, Yglesias claims the speech marks Clinton’s passage from neoliberalism to "paleoliberalism," as in the Paleolithic Age of hunter gatherers. He says it “hints at a fundamental philosophical difference” Clinton now has with her husband, her old boss and her old self, and that it shows she is now “less inclined to favor a market-oriented approach than a left-wing approach” in which the financial sector is “deliberately regulated in a heavy handed way rather than allowed to lead the economy.”
Yglesias says “left-wing interest group leaders” tell him they’re skeptical but he says “history suggests that presidents generally try to implement the agendas they have promised.” He also says Clinton was never “purely” a neoliberal—she backed a minimum wage hike and was willing to let government play a bigger role in health care—and that as president she’d extend financial regulation and help strengthen unions. He noted that Clinton would not be delivering a “laundry list” of specifics and that until she did no one could be quite sure what she was up to.
The Times’ David Brooks also thinks Clinton is “best viewed… as a new paleoliberal.” To Brooks it denotes a faith that “government is more competent at steering companies toward their own best interests than are the companies themselves.” He says that many of her ideas have been proven wrong, that voters don’t share her fondness for central planning and that she has “no plausible chance” of getting her agenda through Congress. Still, he says, she “hasn’t gone crazy” or ruined herself by “wandering into the class warfare swamps.” He thus concludes that politically she has “cleared the first hurdle of this campaign” by offering “a coherent response to today’s economic conditions.”
The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne said “Clinton is making a major bid to shape the conversation” that “could mark the beginning of a genuinely substantive debate between Democrats and Republicans over how to define the nation’s economic problems.” He quoted a "campaign official" accusing Republicans of peddling “the same old proposals every Republican presidential candidate has been offering since Reagan”; unlike Clinton, whose package of new benefits includes “family leave, child care and more affordable access to college.” The official seemed not to know that, good as some of Clinton’s ideas may be, they are mostly the same ones Democratic candidates have been offering since Reagan.
Yglesias, Brooks and Dionne are fine writers. But their somewhat overlapping analyses, like Clinton’s speech, perpetuate some habits we need to break. Clinton is no "paleoliberal," a more than faintly pejorative label liberals would do well to challenge. She, Bill and Barack Obama practically invented neoliberalism and remain members in good standing until proven otherwise. If your speeches are long on weepy tales of "everyday Americans" you met on the campaign trail, but short on policy prescriptions, the credit goes to David Axelrod, not Paul Krugman. If you’d raise the minimum wage but won’t say how much, you’re Mitt Romney. If you back the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership--and despite recent evasions she’s all for it--you’re fighting for capital, not labor.
I.F. Stone once counseled young reporters not to develop inside sources. He said reporters do more for sources than sources do for them, and that anyway most of what we need to know lies right under our nose, hidden like Poe’s purloined letter in a speech or a public record. It’s sound advice, but especially if you’re covering the Clinton campaign. Background interviews with insiders are catnip for reporters, few of whom would miss a chance to get out ahead of the pack. But if they’d wait for the transcript they might reap the full rewards of textural criticism. To wit:
Yglesias’ notion that presidents try to deliver on campaign promises may be right, notwithstanding Obama’s spotty record. (See ethics reform, whistleblowers, the surveillance state, the public option, the minimum wage, etc.) But if you parse Hillary’s speech you find that despite talking for 55 minutes she didn’t make any promises, or at least none specific enough to be politically actionable. Her handlers did a fine job of prepping the press for yet another dearth of detail. But at this point "instructions to follow" isn’t a viable message for Clinton, nor should any reporter react to such assurances from any politician with anything but a long, loud groan.
Clinton’s speech didn’t spark a “substantive debate between Democrats and Republicans.” If you’ve so much as glanced at the GOP field, you know they won’t be having one this year. Nor did it move the needle on the Democrats’ debate, which moves away from Clinton even as she runs to chase it down. It’s true for reporters and campaigns alike: If you focus too much on tactics, you miss the meaning of the race. What drives this race is not what the left wants; it’s what middle-class families want. Their economic anxiety and outrage at the condition of our democracy is transforming politics in ways Obama never imagined.
It’s this mood that David Brooks mistakes for the “class warfare swamps.” Voters prize civility and long for a populism without culprits or conspiracies--but sorely want to hear their righteous anger expressed. Clinton won’t do it, in part because she can’t offend the delicate sensibilities of her donors but also because, like Brooks, she mistakes the mood for a leftist insurrection. Many of us--see Paul Rosenberg’s wonderful article right here in Salon--have long argued that the old categories are defunct and that much of what the old order calls radical has long since gone mainstream. Soon everyone will see it. For now, let me suggest a rule: any policy enjoying majority support in every poll must henceforth be called centrist, not "radical" or "left wing." If you aren’t sure, look it up.
Clinton’s speech was on balance another disappointment, but it must be said she packed it with more proposals than any candidate not named Bernie Sanders has offered all year. Her delivery remains a problem. She’s improved, but can’t shake that sing-songy cadence that makes her sound like Al Gore hosting a children’s television show. Aides say she must seem more authentic, but it can’t help that her policies are so vague or that her anecdotes seem so canned. Her full embrace of Axelrod’s politics of biography isn’t helping either. Telling so many personal stories, she gives off more than a whiff of self-involvement. On Monday she recalled a nurse in the hospital where her granddaughter was born thanking her for “fighting for paid leave.” She’d be better served by a story in which she thanks the nurse. What she mainly needs is to tell fewer such stories.
Clinton’s style is problematic but her real problem is policy. Her speech embodied the neoliberal struggle to adapt to changing times and especially to changing public opinion. The early tenets of neoliberalism were economic deregulation, fiscal austerity, modulated militarism, a faint environmentalism and a cultish faith in the potential for technology, economic growth and global trade to solve our problems. The deregulation boom fizzled out in 2008; Republicans don’t even talk much about it in public except in the most abstract terms. Many neoliberals remain deficit hawks, as do most voters, but the Tea Party has tired everyone on the topic.
Clinton learned in 2008 that her less-modulated militarism is a nonstarter with the Democratic base. Its stock has since fallen with the general public. The Iraq War and our bloated military budget belong at the heart of any discussion of what sank our economy in the 2000s and what we must do now to fix it, but don’t wait for Clinton to make the case. Neoliberals would extend the social contract but not in a slow economy, which nowadays means not at all. It’s why Clinton, who does want to extend it, mostly namechecks cherished goals-- universal pre-K, paid leave, lifelong learning--while steering clear of the fiscal weeds. A surprising amount of her economic agenda involved social services and educational opportunity and she was at her best making the case for their importance to the overall economy.
Clinton structured her speech as a plan for three types of growth: strong growth, fair growth and long-term growth. Strong growth got the lead mention, though unlike Jeb Bush she got no more specific than “getting close to full employment is crucial for raising incomes.” It speaks volumes of all our fears for the future when the leading Democratic candidate for president lowers her sights to “getting closer to full employment” and no one even seems to notice.
Clinton revisited lots of familiar proposals, from immigration reform to enacting the Buffett Rule to investing in infrastructure, so many that such shape and purpose as the speech might once have had was lost. Its one intriguing passage pertained to a promise to promote profit sharing. By the standards of modern politics it was long, a whole paragraph, which suggests Clinton or her people are at least giving some thought to issues of economic structure, though what she offered up was the merest morsel of an idea that is in itself timid.
Clinton’s speech had its isolated moments but if it sparks a debate it won’t be because she made common cause with a category of unicorns called paleoliberals, but because Bernie Sanders seizes the chance it presents. Clinton still doesn’t get it. It is the neoliberals who are paleo now. The ferment Sanders has tapped into is the future. But to get there coalitions must be broadened and policies rethought; when the old order collapses you don’t seek the old center, you invent a new one.
In taking on Hillary, Sanders must not only propose policies, he must expose the false logic of the status quo. Some issues will be easier than others. Sanders is plainspoken about the radical environmental changes we must make to secure our prosperity and avoid an existential catastrophe. The transition to a sustainable economy based on conservation and clean, renewable energy is our most urgent economic task. Yet of the 5,113 words in Clinton’s speech, exactly 60 were on energy and the environment. You can’t run as a Democrat and name-check climate change. Clinton’s a fine debater, but on this topic she’s easy pickings.
In her speech, Clinton didn’t abandon any neoliberal doctrine but she whistled past them all, even the core neoliberal faith in growth, technology and trade. Sanders has the skills to dissect these issues in ways we can grasp. Someone has to. Rising tides no longer lift most boats, let alone all. Even if things go well, we aren’t apt to see the wage growth we once knew. Yet we could create even more disposable income by lowering the costs of basic necessities for average families. It will take big reductions in the costs of health care, education, energy, consumer credit, transportation--and yes, even taxes. We can do it, but only by reining in powerful institutions that now use the political system to mortgage us to the past.
Sanders has long recognized that “fair growth” demands not just a little profit sharing but economic democratization through employee ownership, consumer and producer cooperatives, cooperative banks and a host of other new and old economic forms that struggle to survive under present rules. Clinton says she wants to be the "small-business president." I think she means it, but I don’t think she knows what it means. Again, Sanders is miles ahead of her.
In the ’90s you couldn’t tell Bill Clinton from Newt Gingrich on the topic of new technology. There’s no shame in that. Everybody was a believer then. Not long ago you could be laughed out of politics for saying this technological wave might be the one that finally costs more jobs than it creates. But 20 years into the Age of Information, jobs are in short supply. As we restructure employment and all the many ways in which we provide for one another’s needs, we are less tolerant of technology’s intrusions on our privacy and personhood.
The issue of the day is "trade." I’m amazed when economists invoke the theories of David Ricardo as if nothing’s changed in the 200 years since his passing. Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage asserted that free trade always results in a net benefit to the trading partners since each sells goods on which it enjoys a natural advantage: climate, raw materials, labor supply, etc. But when jobs cross borders in nanoseconds the advantages everyone seeks are low wages and weak governments. Somebody must tell the neoliberals this is no longer about who has the best weather to grow bananas in. In fact, it is no longer about trade. It is about whether democracy rules commerce--or commerce rules democracy. It’s a subject Sanders knows well. Clinton appears clueless.
This is the debate we need: how best to turn back the impersonal tide of globalization and begin conscious creation of a new, intentional economy. This isn't the debate Clinton or the media is prepared to have. But it's the one the country urgently desires, and one progressives can win. Like the polls, the throngs flowing to Sanders’ events and the small-dollar donations to his campaign attest to the ripeness of the moment. The real proof’s in the power of ideas.