Hillary 'Rewrites' the Economic Debate

05/12/2015 03:47 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2016

One reason Hillary Clinton is a formidable politician is that she's very smart and very comfortable with ideas. Another reason is an uncanny ability to ignore the past, and its mistakes.

Both assets are now on display in the highly public effort by economist Joseph Stiglitz to "rewrite" the economic policies of the past 35 years, all in the name of reducing income inequality and revitalizing an economy that works for everyone.

Stiglitz is even smarter than Hillary. His particular ability is to fashion concrete policies that embody a more wishful and emotional sense that the American middle class is eroding. Even Republicans agree we have a problem. But there's been little out there other than tax the one percent and spend more on infrastructure and jobs.

The Stiglitz agenda has plenty of that, but it's got a whole bunch of interesting specifics that will extend the debate and put Hillary at the center of it.

New slogans abound. An end to "short-termism". That turns into policies that discourage rapid buying and selling of stocks, or corporate stock buybacks rather than expansionary investment. A much tougher take on finance and banking maneuvers as hurtful to free markets. Hmmmm.

"Pre-distribution" rather than "redistribution". Ending tax preferences that benefit the one percent, but do nothing for most working families. Also, hmmm.

The specifics are intriguing and worth a healthy debate. It's been more difficult than thought to put meat on the economic bones of a progressive agenda. Now, as Portnoy said, we can begin.

Sitglitz also goes head on into the interesting criticism that he and the Clintons were part of the failure of economic thought over the last 35 years. Sitglitz was Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers during Clinton I. Hillary was around too, I think.

Never mind. "I was there when some of the decisions were made, and some of them were made in good faith," Mr. Stiglitz said. "But, here we are, and let's not point fingers."

That kind of amnesia is fine, but ought not to be selective. (Imagine what happens when Jeb Bush revisits the Iraq War decision. Wait, he just did and is getting roasted.)

Hillary could pull this off. Austerity economics have failed miserable all over the world and in the U.S. There's been no competing set of ideas. Now there is. They will be tested intellectually and politically, as they should. But, if they make as much sense as they seem to make on first impression, she can end her Elizabeth Warren/Bernie Sanders problem and then smack the Republicans over the head for the next 18 months.

This is why it's a mistake to underestimate Hillary. And it may be reason to hope for an end to 35 years of economic policies that have created concentrated wealth and power in ways that are truly un-American.