Hillary Clinton kicked off her presidential campaign in New York on Saturday with a speech that showed the political center in America is shifting to the left.
The frontrunner by far for the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential nomination, Clinton must nevertheless woo left-wing voters. The former secretary of state is perceived as something of a centrist so she was always expected to speak out on issues that appeal to party activists, like gay marriage (which she now supports) and women’s rights (of which she has long been a champion).
Politico reports that these were the two issues that drew the most applause in New York. Clinton’s newfound social liberalism should help energize especially young voters.
But this is also the easy part. America as a whole is becoming more liberal. A majority of Americans now supports gay marriage. 63 percent say gay couples should be able to adopt children. Almost no one believes women shouldn’t be able to have a career anymore with the same rights and benefits as men.
What will be more difficult for Clinton is uniting her party over economic policy.
All Democrats, Clinton included, pay lip-service to inequality and wage stagnation but really attacking those problems could divide the party by sparking fights over trade pacts, raising taxes or forcing companies to accept intrusive government interventions.
One such fight has already broken out. Democrats in the House of Representatives voted on Friday against giving President Barack Obama the authority to negotiate a free trade treaty with Pacific nations, afraid that liberalizing 40 percent of world trade will depress wages in the United States and see more manufacturing jobs outsourced to Asia. Clinton has shied away from staking out a clear position on the issue.
She did talk about inequality on Saturday, lamenting, “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.”
Beyond a promise of tax reform — “so it rewards hard work and investments here at home, not quick trades or stashing profits overseas” — Clinton didn’t offer much in the way of shrinking the gap between rich and poor. But the fact that she is now comfortable talking about an issue she avoided the last time she ran for president, in 2008, for fear of being seen as too far to the left shows the political climate increasingly favors Democrats — even if Republicans control both chambers of Congress and most state governments.
The left has long argued that life is too hard for ordinary Americans. Republicans are coming around to that view as well. As the Atlantic Sentinel reported in April, the two parties are starting to talk about the same issue: middle class decline.
When he announced his candidacy for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination than month, Marco Rubio warned that too many Americans were wondering if the “American Dream” is still within their reach. Jeb Bush, who is expected to announce his candidacy on Monday, has said, “Tens of millions of Americans no longer see a clear path to rise above their challenges.”
That is progress from the last presidential election campaign when Republican Mitt Romney infamously dismissed the “47 percent” of Americans who get government handouts while Democrats spent more time whining what an out-of-touch plutocrat he was than challenging his laissez-faire policies.
Of course, the parties still disagree about what to do. Democrats want more redistribution. Republicans argue that reforming education and ending welfare dependency is key to equalizing opportunity. But they can’t disagree about the problem.
Although the economy is adding jobs at its fastest rate since 1999, Federal Reserve survey data show that families in the middle fifth of the income scale earn less and their net worth is lower than at the start of Obama’s presidency.
Between 2010 and 2013, the average net worth of families in the middle fifth shrank 19 percent. Those in the top 40 percent, by contrast, became richer as stock prices recovered.
Similarly, the average earnings for families in the top 10 percent grew more than 9 percent from 2010 through 2013 while those at other levels stagnated or declined. For the middle fifth, earnings fell 4.6 percent on average.
The decline in middle incomes can be attributed in part to a steep decline in the values of homes between 2007 and 2010. The housing crisis, that led to a broader financial crisis, wiped out nearly half of the median family’s wealth in those years.
Clinton’s proposals to “make the economy work for everyday Americans, not just those at the top,” as she put it on Saturday, include tax relief for working families, a higher minimum wage and making child care and education more affordable.
Few voters would dislike that. The difficulty is getting such things done while keeping the economy working at all.
Asking employers to pay higher wages after Democrats already put an extra burden on those with fifty workers or more — requiring such medium-sized businesses to buy health insurance for all their staff — could push some over the edge.
Improving education will be hard if Democrats continue to shield their allies in the teachers unions who resist any move toward accountability, competition and transparency. Clinton opposes vouchers, for example, seeing them as a gateway to a two-tier education system that disadvantages the poor. But such a two-tier education system already exists and it disadvantages not just the poor but every American family that is unable to get their children into a quality private school.
Clinton recognizes that the national mood is more favorable to left-wing rhetoric than it was eight years ago. But old-style Democratic policies could still fail to convince moderate voters. Arresting the middle class’ decline, reducing inequality and improving opportunity will take more than tax-and-spend policies that America has rejected so often in the past.