During Tuesday’s Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton tried to display a new and more progressive version of the Hillary who Americans have seen for years: as First Lady, U.S. Senator, 2008 presidential candidate and Secretary of State.
Clinton certainly triumphed on the style side. She was composed, confident, articulate and deftly criticized Bernie Sanders on a range of issues, but without sounding too strident or caustic. But what about substance? Is Clinton newly progressive on some issues or mostly defending centrist status quos as before?
The verdict, according to a range of progressive analysts is Clinton is talking a more progressive game than her policy prescriptions would deliver. This is true for some of the bigger issues: expanding Social Security, regulating Wall Street, reforming criminal justice, the latest Pacific rim trade agreement, and stating that being a woman makes her the “outsider” candidate.
Let’s take a look at six issues that highlight the style verses substance gap.
1. Expanding Social Security. As Isaiah J. Poole wrote at The Campaign for America’s Future, “Unless you listened carefully, you might have missed the expanse of daylight between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders when asked about their plans for Social Security at the CNN Democratic debate Tuesday. It’s a gap that is alarming people who are fighting to protect and strengthen Social Security.” Clinton was asked is she would support Sander’s plan to increase Social Security benefits how much the wealthy pay toward the program from their income taxes. Only the first $118,000 is taxed for it.
Clinton said she strongly supported Social Security and opposed privatization efforts, but when asked if she’s raise benefits, replied, “I want to enhance the benefits for the poorest recipients of Social Security… particularly widowed and single women.” As Poole wrote, “What alarmed Social Security activists is that underneath Clinton’s positive language--‘fully support,' ‘enhance’ – appears to lie support for policies, including from leading conservatives like Pete Peterson--that would actually undermine Social Security.”
Republican Paul Ryan, the House Ways and Means Committee chair, uses the same language to protest the poorest people, but “would reduce benefits for the top 70 percent of wage earners while maintaining benefits for the bottom 30 percent,” Poole said. “The last thing we need right now is to fear a Trojan horse from a presidential candidate who says she ‘fully supports’ Social Security.”
2. Wall Street reformer? Beyond the competing rhetoric by Clinton and Sanders that each would take a tougher line with Wall St. practices that undermined the economy and upended millions of lives—such as pushing mortgage-backed securities—the verdict on Democracy Now by 2016 Green Party presidential candidate, Dr. Jill Stein, was clear: Clinton might toughen some oversight but she would not reinstate a law repealed by her husband, President Bill Clinton, which created a new world of risky markets.
“She’s sort of talking out of both sides of her mouth: She wants to go against Wall Street, but she won’t support [reviving] Glass-Steagall,” Stein said. “Glass-Steagall being the law that separated speculative banking from everyday consumer banking and… prevents banks from taking risks at consumers’ burden… it prevents bailouts from going forward. So, you know, Glass-Steagall was repealed under the Clinton administration and needs to be brought back. But Senator Clinton does not support it.”
3. Criminal Justice and Prison Reformer? During one of the few exchanges on criminal justice—when legalizing marijuana came up—Clinton said, “We have got to stop imprisoning people… We need more states, cities, and the federal government to begin to address this so that we don't have this terrible result that Senator Sanders was talking about where we have a huge population in our prisons for nonviolent, low-level offenses that are primarily due to marijuana.”
According to The Marshall Project, an investigative journalism website tracking criminal justice, only a very small percentage of prison overcrowding is due to non-violent drug offenses. In 2014, only 3.6 percent of people in state prison were there for drug offenses, and 0.3 percent were in federal prison for pot. “As TPM’s Dana Goldstein pointed out, any attempt to cut incarceration by as much as 50 percent—the target of some reformers—will require shorter sentences not just for marijuana, not just for drugs, and not just for crimes considered non-violent,” the Marshall Project wrote. “But that’s not an easy sell during a highly competitive campaign season.”
Did Clinton intentionally leave out the toughest part of prison reform in her debate comments? It’s hard to know. But there were other instances where she selectively edited or recast history to avoid bolder stances or to duck revealing responses.
4. It’s not just those "damn e-mails." As Sanders said, enough with covering her use of a private e-mail server while Secretary of State. When asked, Clinton replied, “What I did was allowed by the State Department.” But FactCheck.org has repeatedly noted “that’s not the full story,” saying she didn’t follow the rules on turning over her records for “nearly two years after she left office.”
This issue here is about judgment more than following the fine print of State Department regulation. Her defense was evasive before she said that she erred and let's move on. During the debate, she also ducked answers on U.S. military action in the Middle East by saying that President Obama made the decisions, not her. That may be true, but it also is not quite giving a full picture.
“Clinton has largely sidestepped her tenure at Foggy Bottom on the campaign trail, preferring to focus on domestic issues,” wrote Politico.com. “But she seemed energized by the back-and-forth on global affairs, making no apologies for her record.” In other words, it’s not clear how hawkish she would be as president, especially compared to 2008 when one of her first TV ads featured a red phone ringing in the White House at 3 A.M. and that she was ready to deal with whatever was happening on the other end.
5. The outsider, really? It's also hard to believe that one of the world's most famous and powerful women sees herself the “outsider” in the race. But she does, rejecting moderator Anderson Cooper’s contention that she was asking Democrats to vote for an “insider.” Clinton replied, “Well, I can’t think of anything more of an outsider than electing the first woman president, but I’m not just running because I would be the first woman president. I’m running because I have a lifetime of experience and getting results and fighting for people, fighting for kids, for women, for families, fighting to even the odds.”
Everybody knows that Clinton would be the first women president—it was one of her top rallying points in 2008 as well. And for many women who grew up with her in the 1960s and 1970s, this is very compelling: they are tried of waiting for their turn to be in power. But other feminists feel it’s an insufficient selling point, and more from yesterday than today.
6. The Trans-Pacific Partnership. At the debate, Cooper cited how Clinton had revised her position on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement and asked, “Will you say anything to get elected?" She replied, no, saying that she “hoped” the TPP would be a “gold standard” but the final just-released document did not meet her standards. FactCheck.org, which traces candidates' positions and records, said that Clinton has solidly supported the TPP for a long time.
They quoted her remarks from Australia in 2012: “This TPP sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field.” They cited similar remarks days later in Singapore, but noted that she reserved final judgment in her 2014 book, "Hard Choices." “Clinton wasn’t qualifying her support for the plan back in 2012," they wrote. "She didn’t say she ‘hoped’ it would be a ‘gold standard.’ She said it was a gold standard.”
These six issues bring us back to the key question, how much has Hillary Clinton changed as she makes her second run for president? Is she really a more confident progressive in 2015? Or is she a centrist talking like one?
A range of progressive commentators are still skeptical because they mostly see a status quo-defending centrist and not someone aiming at deeper change. It’s not an illusion to seek systemic change. When Bill Clinton repealed Glass-Steagall, it restructured the financial system and not for the betterment of the nation and world economy. Obviously, there is no comparing of Hillary Clinton to any of the reactionary Republicans running for the presidency. But in the Democratic primary, she still has a way to go to convince the party’s activist grassroots that she has their back.