The 2016 presidential primary situation has media types in a bit of tizzy because it doesn’t seem to echo their favorite cliché: Democrats fall in love, and Republicans fall in line.
With about a year and a half until the election, Republicans are only getting in line to run for president, with Ohio’s John Kasich and Michigan’s Rick Snyder now edging toward joining more than a dozen grasping, preening, bumbling GOP candidates in telling Clinton roast jokes that Jay Leno would have rejected in 1998. (STYLE GUIDE TIP: 14 Republican candidates for president shall be known as an “embarrassment.”)
Meanwhile, the political press refuses to believe that the reason Hillary Clinton has cleared the field of her strongest competitors and is holding a presidential incumbent-like lead over the others could be that Democrats actually are quite fond of her. Possibly even “in love.”
The woman who would likely have been the 2008 Democratic nominee had she not faced the extraordinary political talent and ninja-like caucus-targeting strategy of the Obama campaign has skipped exploratory theatrics — and launched a campaign that makes more news with its lunch orders than most Republicans make by announcing their candidacy or threatening to bomb Iran.
And though she was blasted for not including an “issues” page on the website for the launch of her campaign last Sunday, Clinton has checked off an array of stands this week that put her directly in line with the progressive mainstream. She came out for a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United, backed driver’s licenses for the undocumented, backed a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, supported the president’s action to delay deportations of those brought here as children and family members of citizens, and — perhaps, most importantly — named Gary Gensler, the “scourge of the big banks,” as her campaign’s chief financial officer.
Now these actions and even her support for the Iran nuclear negotiations will probably not be enough to assuage liberal critics who still fault Clinton for her early support of the Iraq War and PATRIOT Act. For those critics, the numerous progressive victories of Bill Clinton’s administration — reversing trickle-down economics while passing the Motor Voter Act, Family and Medical Leave Act, the Children’s Health Insurance Program — are marred by its triangulating, not-progressive approach to the drug war, welfare reform, same-sex marriage, and deregulation of financial markets. For this 19 or so percent of the party, there is likely nothing she can do, barring going back in time and reversing these policies or never marrying her husband, will ever win them over.
But Clinton faces a larger challenge when it comes to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The labor movement is summoning all its power to stop Congress from granting the president the “fast track” negotiation power he wants, which will make the already-secretive process even more disconnected from the public. Republicans’ sudden willingness to grant a president they often accuse of tyranny more executive power, worries the left, which counts NAFTA as one of the Clinton administration and the American economy’s worst open sores.
Last Friday, Clinton’s spokesman laid down a few careful markers on the TPP that left room for the candidate to be attacked from the left. And she will surely be forced to take a stand on the negotiations soon.
On most every issue that matters, Clinton has aligned herself with Obama. Defending his legacy on health care, climate change, and LGBTQ rights, along with the prospect that the next president could appoint up to four Supreme Court Justices, helped to lay the foundation for massive Democratic support for her candidacy. Whether she ends up supporting him or opposing him on the TPP, however, she will pay a political cost.
It would be nearly unprecedented for Mrs. Clinton to conquer the primaries without any serious opposition. But until or unless a viable opponent arises, most of the debate that happens in a primary will take place inside her campaign. Even if they cannot win on every issue, progressives can still influence that process by making clear, realistic demands. If they’re loud enough, Clinton will be forced to fight for their approval.
Here are five popular progressive policies that Clinton could support to signal that both she and progressives can win together.
1. A clear vision for sustaining and continuing financial reform.
In a short piece for Time, Mrs. Clinton praised Elizabeth Warren for keeping the feet of the powerful (including “presidential aspirants”) to the fire. The senior senator from Massachusetts would be Clinton’s most serious primary competition. But Warren appears much more interested in influencing the debate from the Senate. Her four-step plan to secure and continue the work of financial reform intends to flip the script on Republicans, arguing that to allow the big banks to write their own rules is fundamentally anti-market. Clinton’s embrace of Gary Gensler cheered reformers. But those who are worried by Wall Street’s unfettered embrace of another Clinton candidacy need a checklist of policies that back up the rhetoric obviously designed to reassure them. She also needs to remind them that any Republican will roll back the achievements of Dodd-Frank, and again leave America vulnerable to the kind of financial shock that cost us trillions in wealth and millions of jobs.
2. Champion preserving and strengthening Social Security.
Clinton says she wants to be a champion of working people—and they really need a champion when it comes to protecting Social Security. Chris Christie decided that he’s so unpopular that he can risk running for the GOP nomination by attacking the most popular thing the government does: provide a humane retirement for all Americans. His plan punishes the most vulnerable by raising the retirement age and punishes middle-class families who have planned for their retirement with a massive tax increase. Jeb Bush hopped on board, agreeing that we should raise the retirement age.
There is a real risk that attacking this fundamental achievement of the New Deal will become politically acceptable.
As a progressive champion, Clinton should stare down this challenge by guaranteeing that she will preserve the benefits of Social Security as is. President Obama reportedly was willing to raise the retirement age and back a “chained CPI” method of inflation adjustments that would shrink benefits. Clinton could get to Obama’s left and embrace a position that has been backed by three-fourths of Americans, simply by saying she will preserve Social Security forever by raising the cap on payroll tax and keeping that cap tied to inflation. And she would thrill progressives by taking a step further to call for expanding the program for those who need it most.
This issue would also give Clinton an easy rebuttal to questions about her age: “So Republicans think I’m too old to be president but not old enough for Social Security.”
3. A plan to save or improve Obamacare with a role for a public option.
The Supreme Court may do Democrats a huge favor — and the American people a huge disservice — by gutting the tax breaks in the law. Suddenly the benefits of the law to the middle class will be extremely clear. Running on restoration of those tax breaks, which drive down the premiums of all Americans, will be simple for Clinton. But it won’t be enough. Obamacare is the most successful expansion of government since Medicare, bringing coverage to over 11 million Americans while the predicted costs of health spending have been cut by $2.4 trillion. But our system was so screwed, one law could never fix it.
The most pressing problem for the American economy is the lack of wage growth, made worse by the rising cost of medical care. Obamacare didn’t reverse the trend of high deductibles siphoning away wage gains from families. There are a lot of little fixes that need to be made to the law, but the biggest one needs to be a hedge against high medical costs. The law already has provisions for a “basic plan,” which allows states to start a sort of public option for Americans who earn less than twice the poverty level. New York just became the second state to do this. A national basic plan or public option should be available to all residents in any state where insurers don’t set out-of-pocket costs below a reasonable level. This appeals to a sense of competition and Americans’ biggest need: more money in their pockets.
4. Back worker organizing as a civil right.
Progressives who are really worried about Clinton’s economic ideals should read the Report of the Commission on Inclusive Prosperity. Prepared by the Center for American Progress as a foundational approach to reducing the rapid accumulation of wealth by the richest, it includes a catalog of important approaches, including greater worker representation in the workplace, reforming executive compensation, raising the minimum wage, and increasing infrastructure spending. The report also suggests improvements to the U.S. National Labor Relations Act to strengthen the right to organize. But progressives should demand even more and embrace an idea cited in the report’s footnotes: making the right to organize a civil right. This would fundamentally transform workers’ capacity to negotiate on their own behalf and help reverse the corrosive shift of power from capital back to labor.
5. Propose national decriminalization of marijuana.
This isn’t just a simple way for Clinton to demonstrate that she won’t be the drug warrior Bill Clinton was. It’s also a wedge issue that could really help in the general election. While 59 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of independents support legalization, only 39 percent of Republicans do, as shown in a recent PEW poll. Legalization is probably a leap too far for a national candidate, but decriminalization just makes sense. Letting states flout federal law because we all know a policy that is outdated is bad for the rule of law, and will lead to the sort of unequal prosecution that has defined the drug war. With this one simple stand, Clinton can stake her claim as a candidate of the future by saying, “I trust the states to decide this one.”
Franklin Roosevelt once told activists of his era, “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” With Democrats having won the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections, now is the time for Democratic leaders to meet the Democratic base at the new progressive center.
No one champion can save the middle class. The millions of voters who lean Democratic but stay home on Election Day need to be convinced that they can help transform America. The Democratic nominee — whoever she may be — can play a crucial role in doing that.
By reaching out to the left, Clinton won’t just grow her support, she’ll boost turnout and help to build an enduring progressive majority.
Photo: Alexander Wrege via Flickr
Copyright 2015 The National Memo