Hillary Clinton's Fainthearted Populism

Don’t believe the hype: There was precious little class warfare in the Democratic frontrunner’s kickoff speech.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

You may have heard that Hillary Clinton, in launching her campaign over the weekend, gave a speech marked by class-warfare themes. The New York Times said she issued “a populist promise to reverse the gaping gulf between the rich and poor.” Politico said “her economic-inequality rhetoric could have been comfortably uttered by the likes of Elizabeth Warren,” the crusading liberal senator from Massachusetts. Not (ever) to be outdone, the New York Post featured her on its cover in full Sherwood Forest drag, under the headline “RODHAM HOOD! Hillary reboots campaign with attack on rich.”

But here is what Clinton actually said:

You see corporations making record profits, with CEOs making record pay, but your paychecks have barely budged. While many of you are working multiple jobs to make ends meet, you see the top 25 hedge fund managers making more than all of America’s kindergarten teachers combined—and often paying a lower tax rate….

Prosperity can’t be just for CEOs and hedge fund managers. Democracy can’t be just for billionaires and corporations….

The financial industry and many multinational 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….

Republicans trip over themselves promising lower taxes for the wealthy and fewer rules for the biggest corporations without regard for how that will make income inequality even worse... They pledge to wipe out tough rules on Wall Street, rather than rein in the banks that are still too risky….

The middle class needs more growth and more fairness. Growth and fairness go together.... There are allies for change everywhere who know we can’t stand by while inequality increases, wages stagnate, and the promise of America dims….

[We should] reward businesses who invest in long-term value rather than the quick buck, because that leads to higher growth for the economy, higher wages for workers, and yes, bigger profits—everybody will have a better time. I will rewrite the tax code so it rewards hard work and investments here at home, not quick trades or stashing profits overseas.

Here are some things Clinton didn’t say: She didn’t directly call for higher taxes on the rich. She didn’t directly blame Wall Street or financial deregulation for the economic crisis. (In fact, she mentioned Wall Street and banks just once in the speech.) She didn’t say, as Warren frequently does, that “the game is rigged” against ordinary Americans. She didn’t mention the gap between rich and poor at all, and her two mentions of inequality (both quoted above) were indirect. CEO benefits and hedge-fund salaries weren’t directly attacked, but used as a point of contrast. Rather than rage against the perfidy and greed of the rich and powerful, as Warren routinely does, or insist that economic villains must be punished, Clinton posited that a better economy could lift all boats—that under her policies, “everybody will have a better time.”

This may seem like a subtle distinction, but it’s at the crux of the economic debate on the left. Economic liberals like Warren, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, and economist Joseph Stiglitz believe inequality is structural, the result of rules and policies that benefit those at the top. The other side—centrist Democrats like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Delaware Governor Jack Markell, and John Delaney, a Democratic congressman and former financier—prefers to blame the wealth gap on globalization and technological advances.

There are, after all, two ways to fix inequality: You can lift up those at the bottom—or you can bring down those at the top. The centrists think you can narrow inequality just by lifting those at the bottom, by hiking spending on social programs and infrastructure. They believe addressing inequality doesn’t necessitate raising taxes, reining in big business, or punishing greedy CEOs. But the Warrenites think you can't fix the problem unless you do both at once—lift those at the bottom and bring down those at the top.

Stiglitz—a Nobel Prize winner, former World Bank chief economist, and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Clinton—explicitly argued the case in a speech at the National Press Club last month, at an event hosted by the Roosevelt Institute and headlined by Warren and de Blasio. “What are the underlying drivers [of inequality]?” he asked. “A lot of people say things like globalization, technology. But those things, globalization and technology, are global.” Yet the United States has by far the lowest equality of opportunity of any advanced country, he said. “What does that tell us? ... It’s about policies—policies and politics.”

The report that Stiglitz authored for the Roosevelt Institute is called “Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy.” The bulk of its recommendations concern what it calls “Taming the Top”—bringing Wall Street and economic elites to heel through a slew of new taxes, regulations, and incentives. “The Dodd-Frank Act was an excellent start,” the report states, “but the legislation did not change the structure of the dysfunctional system. Further reform can and should reduce the risks of the financial sector to the economy as a whole.”

Clinton tiptoed up to some of these ideas in her speech, but she stopped short of embracing them. Echoing Stiglitz, she said global forces weren’t solely to blame for middle-class economic difficulty: “Advances in technology and the rise of global trade,” she said, had “displaced jobs and undercut wages”—but “the choices we’ve made as a nation, leaders and citizens alike, have also played a big role.” Nonetheless, for those anxious to “tame the top,” Clinton offered precious little.

Some on the left worry that this is intentional—that Clinton purposely left herself wiggle room for a set of economic policies that will seek to lift the middle class without troubling Wall Street much. Saying, as Clinton did, that everybody will be better off “refuses to pick a side when some interests are against others—namely, when big corporations are trying to hurt workers or consumers,” Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told me. “This unwillingness to name villains and say publicly that someone will have to lose power is what really worries progressives.”

Based on the way the speech has been received, Clinton appears to be getting credit for a populism she didn’t really espouse. While she spoke on Roosevelt Island, her rhetoric of shared prosperity was a far cry from that of F.D.R., who called out monopolists, reckless bankers, and profiteers as “enemies of peace,” and declared, “I welcome their hatred.” In fact, the most populist line in Clinton’s speech may have been one she didn’t write. Quoting F.D.R., she called for “the ending of special privilege for the few.” The audience of loyal Democrats erupted in cheers. It was one of the biggest applause lines of the speech.