Hillary Clinton's Coalition of the Aggrieved

Her speech announced an intent to fight for her base at the expense of those outside it.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Compared to most presidential announcement speeches, Hillary Clinton’s in New York Saturday was certainly unusually long. She spoke almost 12 minutes longer than her husband in 1991; more than 15 minutes longer than Al Gore in 1999; almost twice as long as Barack Obama in 2007.

Compared to the announcement speeches of her predecessors, Clinton also skimped on the acknowledgements of her beloved spouse. There was no equivalent of Bill’s, “I want to thank…Hillary for being my wife and friend and partner, for the love we’ve shared, and the work she’s done to make life better for children and families of this state and this country…” Nor did she bother with the “all praise and honor to God” that opened Barack Obama’s announcement. In other words: points to Clinton for sincerity.

On the other hand, the highly detailed policy message of her announcement was not unique. In that regard, her announcement followed the examples of Clinton, Gore, and John Kerry, too—although the heft and specificity of her policy detail far exceeded theirs. It was Obama’s grand thematic style that was exceptional among recent Democratic announcements.

Democrats thrilled to Obama’s announcement speech at the time. In retrospect, however, its message doesn’t stand up so well: America’s divisions are illusory, concocted out of nothing by shadowy interests to fragment a fundamentally united people. The way to overcome those divisions? Leadership. "What's stopped us from meeting these challenges is not the absence of sound policies and sensible plans. What's stopped us is the failure of leadership.” (Obama’s more liberal supporters now deride journalists who ask, “Why won’t Obama lead?” But Obama himself defined the issue in exactly that way.)

But if it was ever unclear, it’s a lot clearer in 2015 that the divisions in U.S. politics are not caused by misperceptions. American politics is shaped by three great facts:

1.  The slowness of economic growth in the past decade and a half—punctuated in middle by the shock of the Great Recession—has depressed the material resources available to American society at exactly the time when

2. The baby-boom generation has begun to claim retirement benefits from younger cohorts that have grown up during more difficult economic times, despite

3. Multiplying ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity that promotes every battle over income distribution into a culture war, as well.

“Leadership” can’t overcome the arithmetic that says today’s slow-growing U.S. economy cannot afford to preserve the tax rates of the 1980s and 1990s and sustain Social Security and Medicare in their present form and offer health coverage, child care, and cheap college tuition to people in their 20s and 30s.

“Leadership” can’t stop each American subgroup from noticing that their competitors in the fiscal competition look different, come from different places, and live in different ways.

Hillary Clinton may praise Barack Obama, but her message delivered a stinging criticism of his approach to the presidency—a criticism that her party is ready to hear. Her repeated emphasis on “fighting” effectively proclaims: Yes, we are divided. I am dispensing with the feel-good talk. The other side is battling for their team: older, whiter, more affluent, more married, and more rural. I’ll battle just as hard for my team: younger, more diverse, less affluent, unmarried, and more urban. A vote for me isn’t a vote for ‘unity.’ It’s a vote to claim a larger piece of the nation’s dwindling resources from people you don’t like and who don’t like you. They don’t like me either, but following Franklin Delano Roosevelt, rather than my oversensitive former boss, I don’t care.

Hillary Clinton’s speech had to be long because the coalition she seeks to assemble is made up of so many different sub-units, each of which needed to be assured that its claim would be included in the total: unauthorized immigrants, indebted college students, working mothers … schoolteachers …Obamacare enrollees …: a coalition of interest groups who may not always recognize each other as allies and who cannot automatically be relied upon to show up on voting day.

Very strikingly, the speech contained no mention of either Social Security or Medicare. In four separate places, the speech criticized as insufficient the taxes paid by wealthy people. It offered only the most glancing reference to farmers. These are the groups from whom much must be required in order that to others, much might be given. Despite her own great personal wealth, and long association with people even wealthier than herself, Clinton is frankly presenting herself as a politician of inter-class struggle.

Clinton did leave open a door for some allies from the other side of the barricades. She made clear, however, that their entry into her coalition depends upon their acceptance of her terms, not her acceptance of theirs: “There are public officials who know Americans need a better deal. Business leaders who want higher pay for employees, equal pay for women and no discrimination against the LGBT community either. There are leaders of finance who want less short-term trading and more long-term investing.” She promised soon to unveil policies to “reward businesses who invest in long term value rather than the quick buck.”

But the rewards are conditional on good behavior. Her disapproving eye falls severely on the "financial industry and many multi-national corporations have created huge wealth for a few by focusing too much on short-term profit and too little on long-term value ... too much on complex trading schemes and stock buybacks, too little on investments in new businesses, jobs, and fair compensation.”

Again, much of this has been heard before. Her line, “America succeeds when you succeed,” echoes a line in John Kerry’s announcement in 2004. (“If Americans aren’t working, America’s not working.”) What is new this time is not what is said, but who is saying it: a politician who self-advertises as the toughest, fiercest, most relentless fighter Democrats have seen in a very long time. Some people (you know who they are) might imagine leadership as inspirational rhetoric and necessary compromise. Hillary Clinton disagrees. “Leadership means perseverance and hard choices. You have to push through the setbacks and disappointments and keep at it.”

In 2007, Barack Obama again and again referenced hope. Hillary Clinton did not use the word once. What she repeatedly offered instead is fighting, and lots of it. On this, at least, she seems likely to keep her word.