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Hillary Clinton: From Symbolism to Specifics

04/12/2015 09:21 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2015

We progressives should feel pretty good about ourselves after watching Hillary Clinton's launch video. The core economic theme was there -- most American's aren't getting ahead; the top is taking too much. And the social theme was stunning--a heavy emphasis on the racial and ethnic mosaic that is America, the gay couple holding hands, the strong focus on women and families. Among other things, it was a delicious if belated rebuke to those Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) types of the first Clinton era who disparaged "identity politics."

The video appealed to the best in American aspirations, and shamed the hateful negativity in the squabbling camp of Republican contenders. In a real sense, Clinton didn't build this politics, the progressive movement did. Economic circumstances combined with an activated base made this kind of campaign the only one Clinton could plausibly run.

Yet Clinton's strategy isn't just about winning over the progressive base. It's about energizing the electorate. If all the people who recognize themselves in this video -- the young, the poor, minorities, single women -- actually get excited and turn out to vote (as they did not do in the mid-term elections of 2010 and 2014), Clinton wins.

But the devil will be in the details. Clinton cannot sustain this sort of aspirational politics in the more than 18 months between now and November 2015 without getting very specific.

She will be under pressure to do so from candidates running to her left such as Martin O'Malley, and from people who wanted Elizabeth Warren to run; from the labor movement; and from such groups as Campaign for America's Future, which is spearheading a convention this week calling for a new populism (populism2015.org), and from Readyforboldness.com, which calls on Clinton to embrace "big, bold, economic-populist ideas" such as debt-free college, expanding Social Security benefits, Wall Street reform, campaign finance reform, higher wages, and millions of clean-energy jobs.

The only Democratic pressure group holding back this winning politics is... Clinton's own funders. With so many very wealthy people financing her campaign, can Clinton truly embrace the sort of populism implied in her announcement at more than a level of rhetoric and platitude?

The trouble with billionaires as funders of Democrats, is that with rare exceptions they tend to reflect their own class interests, even when they sincerely try to take off their corporate hats and put on their civic ones.

In Democratic financial circles, hedge fund and private equity billionaires are viewed as independent sources of funding. But in what they for a living, they often make quick killings by stripping assets from companies and forcing down wages and gutting jobs.

In Silicon Valley, too many Democratic entrepreneurs are great on questions involving liberties and diversity -- but dismal when it comes to economic justice requiring government intervention.

For both for her funding and her economic advice, Clinton is still in bed with the Robert Rubin crowd. There are some very creative people around her, like campaign chair John Podesta, who hope to bridge the gap between the program Clinton needs to run on and the campaign's financial backers.

But this is an awfully tricky straddle. Either you think Bob Rubin is a fine fellow with the interests of the Republic at heart or you think he is a scoundrel who entangled the Democrats in the deregulation that led to the collapse -- and then compounded the damage by promoting the Bowles-Simpson crusade for budget austerity, with Social Security cuts as frosting on the cake.

Can Clinton pull this off? She is the odds-on favorite for the Democratic nomination -- but if she turns out to be just another centrist embracing the economics of the forgotten man and women only at the level of rhetoric, not only will America be denied the reforms we need; but she probably won't be elected because the appeals will ring hollow.

She can't duck this one. Progressives will hold her feet to the fire and so will her challengers in primary after primary, debate after debate.

A video launch is the easy part. You control the venue, the timing, the atmospherics, the symbolism. Nobody upstages you or challenges you, and you can paper over the hard stuff. On Sunday, Clinton and her team showed that they can do this part brilliantly.

In many ways, the most interesting political contest to come is not the battle for the nomination or even the likely campaign between Clinton and her Republican rivals. No, the contest to watch is the fight between the campaign Clinton needs to wage and the one that will be acceptable to her Wall Street sponsors.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a visiting professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.
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