WASHINGTON — Will the 2016 presidential campaign continue to be held hostage to Trump-mania and stories about a rope separating Hillary Clinton and journalists at a New Hampshire parade?
You can be certain that Donald Trump will not allow himself to be ignored. But the coming week could mark the beginning of a genuinely substantive debate between Republicans and Democrats over how to define the nation’s economic problems and relieve its economic anxieties.
Clinton made her bid on Monday to shape the conversation with an economic speech in New York that will be followed over the next two months with rollouts of specific proposals in nearly a dozen policy areas. Her campaign knows that she has work to do on her personal image. But like her husband two decades ago, she is betting that the voters who will decide next year’s election are focused primarily on their household balance sheets.
The turn toward economics was accelerated, inadvertently, by Jeb Bush when he told the New Hampshire Union Leader that spurring the economy means, among other things, that “people need to work longer hours.”
Bush later explained that he was talking about part-time workers who wanted to work full time getting the chance to do so. But his comment nonetheless allowed Clinton to highlight how her economic approach differed from “trickle down” policies rooted in the past and endorsed by Bush and the other Republican candidates.
Bush and his GOP rivals preach tax cuts for the wealthy as a way to spark growth, and Bush has promised a hard-to-achieve 4 percent annual growth rate.
Clinton, by contrast, argued that wage stagnation is the country’s central economic problem and criticized an “arbitrary growth target untethered to people’s lives and livelihoods.” Working longer hours for stagnating wages is hardly attractive to most Americans, especially in households where both members of a couple are already working full time, and Clinton was thinking of them when she said of Bush: “Well, he must not have met very many American workers.”
She, too, emphatically pledged allegiance to growth, but of a particular kind. Her mantra was “strong growth, fair growth and long-term growth.” It would come courtesy of increased purchasing power among middle- and lower-income Americans.
Her package included new benefits for individuals (family leave, child care, more affordable access to college) and new incentives to encourage companies to think long term, not short term, while also improving rewards to their workers.
She strongly endorsed profit-sharing, and her advisors say that she will, over time, make proposals on executive compensation along the lines of a bill introduced by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. It would give CEOs less favorable tax treatment for their bonus packages unless they offered wage hikes to their workers matching increases in productivity and the cost of living.
Clinton’s ideas reflect a wide center-left consensus on behalf of bottom-up or, as many progressives call it, “middle-out” economics. They also underscore how the nomination challenge she faces from Sen. Bernie Sanders differs from the problem created for Republicans by Trump.
By pulling the political conversation to the left generally and toward specific benefits government could confer on Americans in particular, Sanders is creating new political space for Democrats and highlighting issues that most of them (including Clinton, if she wins the nomination) want at the heart of the campaign next fall.
Trump, on the other hand, is pulling Republicans far off message, and his offensive comments on Mexican immigrants threaten to aggravate the GOP’s large deficit among Latino voters.
It’s true that Clinton is broadly trying to re-create the electoral alignment that won President Obama majorities in two elections. But the Obama Coalition is often misunderstood as excluding working-class whites. In fact, winning a substantial share of their votes — 42 percent in Ohio, 45 percent in Wisconsin — was essential to his 2012 victory. The white working class may be out of the Democrats’ reach in most of the states of the Deep South (Obama won only 11 percent of its ballots in Alabama and 10 percent in Mississippi), but it is vital elsewhere.
Hillaryeconomics is a wager that voters across racial and ethnic lines, very much including members of the white working class, want a raise and better benefits. And it’s a sharp challenge to Republicans. To be competitive in 2016, the GOP needs to make a plausible counteroffer. It’s the bidding war an economy mired in inequality and stalled mobility needs — and it’s one Clinton thinks she can win.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.
Photo: Marc Nozell via Flickr
This post has been updated to reflect Clinton’s speech on Monday.