Searching for Hillary Clinton’s big idea
By: David Nather
July 7, 2014 05:07 AM EDT
Here’s one thing you won’t find in Hillary Clinton’s book: a clear reason to run for president again.
The “Hard Choices” book tour has had all the trappings of a warm-up for 2016, and even though Clinton insists she hasn’t decided yet, she keeps dropping hints that she has ideas for the future of the country. “You’ve got to ask people who want to run for anything, but particularly president, what’s your vision? What is your vision for our country, and do you think you can lead us there?” Clinton said at a CNN “town hall” forum.
But if Clinton has a big idea for 2016, the book — all 596 pages of it — is not the place to look for it. Policy experts in the Clinton orbit say that’s not the right way to read the former first lady’s latest tome — it’s mostly a foreign policy memoir, and any hints of other themes, like the advancement of women and climate change, are there to wrap up the issues she has already worked on throughout her career.
But any campaign has to have a big idea it’s wrapped around, and that means Clinton still has to spell one out — assuming she has one in mind.
If Clinton gets into the race, the pressure will be on to make clear what she would actually do in the White House and what she thinks will be the unfinished business after eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Any Democratic nominee would have the same problem: It’s especially challenging to follow a president of the same party and make the case that you’d really provide something different. But the problem would be especially tough for Clinton since she served in the Obama administration — and since she’s already talking about the need for a policy “vision.”
The early consensus in Democratic circles is that Clinton’s best bet is a campaign about the economic challenges that will remain after Obama’s presidency, either income inequality — which Clinton is already mentioning with increasing frequency — or the general problems of the middle class, according to interviews with a dozen Democratic strategists and policy thinkers.
That’s the best way for her to play to her strengths, the strategists and policy experts say, since she has been talking about income inequality for years and can also talk about the economic growth that helped middle-class Americans during Bill Clinton’s presidency.
She’d have to decide which issue should get more weight, since that’s one of the biggest simmering disagreements among Democrats. The more populist ones think inequality is the bigger issue right now, and Clinton herself has been talking about it more than she used to. But the centrists and some Bill Clinton alums say the middle class is more important — and the former president is reminding Democrats not to overlook middle-class concerns, saying in a speech that “the absence of social mobility is a far bigger problem than income inequality.”
She may be able to resolve that tension by nodding to both camps, as she did at the Aspen Ideas Festival last week. Clinton sounded a populist tone, saying Americans should “feel they have a stake in the future and that the economy and political system is not stacked against them.” But she also spoke to more general, middle-class anxieties: “Of course, you have to work hard. Of course, you have to take responsibility. But we’re making it so difficult for people who do those things to feel that they’re going to achieve the American dream.”
Most Democrats believe voters will see the economy as the major unfinished business of Obama’s presidency, and they’ll be looking for any ideas Clinton can offer on how to speed up the economic recovery and improve the quality of their lives.
“We survived the recession — now, how do you get the economy from second gear into third gear?” said Jim Kessler, senior vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. He said there’s “no one better in the Democratic Party” to lay out the next steps in 2016: “She was part of an administration that understood the economy extraordinarily well.”
Officially, Clinton’s aides say she’s not doing anything other than talking about the issues she’s always considered important. “There’s no candidate, so there’s no campaign, but the themes you are hearing are ones she has cared about and worked on all her life, and always will,” said Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill.
But there’s already a strong interest in how she’d move the Democratic agenda forward if she does jump in. And Clinton noted, almost as an aside, at the Aspen Institute that “I’m thinking a lot about what we might do and how we can do it.”
In many of these conversations with Democrats, there’s a clear hope that Clinton can re-create her appeal to white, working-class voters that she displayed when she ran against Obama in 2008 — a demographic that Democratic strategists say the party must start winning in greater numbers.
That assumes, however, that Clinton will be able to shake off the tone-deafness she has shown on the book tour with comments like the one she made about being “dead broke” — and the Clintons’ struggle to buy “houses” — and later, her insistence that the Clintons “pay ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off.”
“One of the big tests for her will be, is she in touch with ordinary folks?” said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, a former adviser to Bill Clinton. “But it’s so clear that this will be the main problem facing the country that that will force her to be in touch. I think she’ll welcome the chance to do that.”
Some Democrats say she can make the case that economic growth is the single best strategy to fight income inequality, based on her husband’s record in the 1990s. “She had a ringside seat to what a growth agenda can do. It can narrow wage and income gaps, and it will mitigate inequality,” said Will Marshall of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute, a longtime adviser to Bill Clinton who helped develop the “new Democrat” ideas that shaped his presidency.
“You can’t go back and re-create the policies 20 years later. You need an update. But she knows what prosperity looks like,” Marshall said.
Others argue that Clinton could adapt other longtime causes of hers — such as early childhood development and education in general — as an entry point to talk about the bigger themes of economic growth and inequality.
It’s “a major idea that’s both economically and socially important and plays to her strengths … and is central for both economic growth and for reducing inequality,” said Austan Goolsbee, a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in Obama’s first term. “It’s a space that she’s always been identified with, and it’s a contrast with the Republicans, who tend to say the federal government shouldn’t be involved.”
And Heather Boushey, executive director and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, notes that Clinton has already talked about how the struggles of middle-income and low-income families drive economic inequality. “These issues are intricately intertwined — inequality and what happens to families,” Boushey said. “Talking about these issues together — and how they affect each other — is a compelling and logical next step.”
So far, there’s no sign that Clinton or her advisers are having the “what if” conversations about policy ideas just yet. One longtime Democratic operative, speaking anonymously to give a candid read of the situation, says Clinton’s advisers haven’t reached out for ideas yet because that would require acknowledging that she’s running — even though everything else about the book tour suggests that she is.
There are places in the book where Clinton teases her readers with some broad themes that wouldn’t sound out of place in a 2016 campaign — a taste of everything from inequality to the plight of the middle class to gridlock in Washington.
“Citizens and leaders alike have choices to make about the country we want to live in and leave to the next generation,” she writes at the end of the book. “Middle-class incomes have been declining for more than a decade, and poverty has increased as almost all the benefits of growth have gone to those at the very top. We need more good jobs that reward hard work with rising wages, dignity, and a ladder to a better life. Investments to build a truly 21st-century economy with more opportunity and less inequality. An end to the political dysfunction in Washington that holds back our progress and demeans our democracy.”
But policy advisers who are close to the Clintons argue that the book doesn’t really break new ground for her — even in the few policy discussions that go beyond her record as secretary of state — so it shouldn’t be seen as a road test for 2016 ideas.
“She’s worked on income inequality for a very long time,” including the 2008 campaign, said Neera Tanden, who was Clinton’s policy director in that campaign and is now the president of the Center for American Progress. “They’re not indicative of a campaign. They’re the issues of her life, and that’s what this book tells us.”
Gene Sperling, who served as an economic adviser in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, argues that “many of the ideas she discusses from inequality to women and girls to jobs to early childhood education come from decades of a road well traveled with the type of hands-on policy leadership you just saw from her at a global level at State.”
There are some themes that would be sure to come up, even if they’re not the centerpiece of the campaign. On foreign policy, Clinton writes about America’s place in the world as the “indispensable nation” — noting that “while there are few problems in today’s world that the United States can solve alone, there are even fewer that can be solved without the United States.”
That can’t be the central theme of a campaign, especially since Democratic voters aren’t likely to put foreign policy at the top of their priority lists. But Clinton can use that viewpoint to define her approach to foreign policy, as she did in her CNN town hall interview to answer her critics on the attacks in Benghazi, Libya: “When they say the United States shouldn’t be in these dangerous places, I just fundamentally disagree. I don’t think we should be retreating from the world.”
And Clinton makes clear in the book — and repeatedly in interviews on the book tour — that the advancement of women’s rights and opportunities is an important subject that was undervalued not only by many foreign leaders but by Obama administration officials as well. Clinton clearly feels free to talk about these issues now that she’s left the administration, and Democrats say they expect the advancement of women to be a natural theme of a Clinton campaign — though not necessarily the central one.
Income inequality, however, has been an increasingly important part of Clinton’s speeches as the topic has gained importance among Democrats — not just Obama but other liberal stars like Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
In a Facebook video promoting the book, Clinton said the nation needs to deal with the “cancer of inequality.” And in a recent speech to the New America Foundation, Clinton talked about how the well-being of families — and the strength of community institutions like schools, churches and civic organizations — help determine how many people can build comfortable lives.
It’s that prescription — “healthy families and inclusive communities” — that suggests that Clinton could drive the inequality debate forward, according to Anne-Marie Slaughter, president of the New America Foundation and Clinton’s former director of policy planning at the State Department.
“Her notion of family is very expansive,” said Slaughter. “This idea that you start with the family, with the community and you build from there — you can’t have a successful society or prosperous economy without digging into the roots. I’d not heard that before.”
Those themes could help Clinton rally Democrats and build on the momentum of other efforts already underway, like Obama’s White House Summit on Working Families and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s economic agenda for women and families.
Even so, Clinton would have to spell out what she thinks the federal government could do about those issues and what it couldn’t do. And so far, the few hints she’s dropped suggest that her prescriptions for improving working families’ lives would be cautious. When asked in the CNN town hall interview whether paid maternity leave should be a required benefit throughout the country, she said, “I think, eventually, it should be” — but not now “because I don’t think, politically, we could get it now.”
Clinton’s biggest challenge would be navigating the tensions between Democrats who think addressing income inequality is the biggest challenge of our time and those who think it’s better just to focus on building a strong middle class, not to worry about what rich people are earning.
Boushey, for example, argues that economic inequality has larger economic effects, and that “if you look at the economy broadly, that’s the most important thing that is going on.” But that’s not a universally shared view. James Carville, who rose to fame in Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, recommends a “laser-like focus on rebuilding and revitalizing the middle class,” adding that he’s “more into getting incomes up” than worrying about the difference between incomes.
And Third Way’s Kessler argues that “the middle class decides every election. They want to believe that there are jobs that will allow them to have the kind of jobs that they expected to have. Everything else is a sideshow.”
It may just be a matter of emphasis, though Democrats will be watching closely to see what balance she strikes.
“It can’t just be inequality (though she’ll talk about it) because, while people think inequality’s out of control, their real gripe is that it prevents them and people like them from getting ahead,” Ruy Teixeira, author of “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” said in an email. “In other words, it’s about opportunity and mobility, not just fairness (though they do think it’s unfair).”
Regardless of how Clinton frames it, most Democrats say a sluggish economy would be the most important unfinished business she would have to tackle when Obama leaves the White House.
“I don’t expect there to be sudden, miraculous growth in the next 18 months where everyone would say, ‘Everything is solved,’” said Kessler.