THE BLOG
12/15/2014 08:31 am ET Updated Feb 13, 2015

Hillary on the Cusp: It's the Economy, Stupid

Stacy Revere via Getty Images

There's actually some deep thinking going on as 2016 presidential hopefuls configure their campaigns and their positions. The lesson of 2014 is there to be learned: It's The Economy, Stupid. Some will learn the lesson. Some won't.

For Republicans, the task is simple but difficult. Their electorate is way to the right of the establishment and the country. While Karl Rove and Wall Street could weed out individual Senate candidates, it will be much tougher to whip red meat voters into line in a presidential year. Immigration, immigration, abortion, guns, impeachment and immigration trump economics in Republican primaries. How Jeb Bush or Chris Christie, who pass for moderates these days, get by this problem to a general election is a big unknown.

For Democrats, it's more complicated, but easier. With Hillary assuming the position, there's no real primary contest. She can craft an image and an agenda with an economic message that can win in a general election. But so far, there's not much out there but charm and inevitability.

Hillary is electorally vulnerable to a Republican campaign that paints her as the candidate of economic extremes. Here's the Republican argument: She's good for the top 10 percent of Americans who are wealthy and comfortable, and she's good for the bottom 10 percent of Americans who are poor and rely on government programs. For the 80 percent in the middle, like all Dems, she's nowhere.

If you listened carefully to the Republican campaigns in 2014, it's the argument they made and Democrats had no real comeback. The Obama coalition of communities of color and progressives seem more concerned with social and identity issues, important to be sure, but not the priority of voters. The economic insecurity and anger of the Great American Middle ended up routing Dems. Hillary's got a problem.

Lest you think that this is a Red State phenomenon, take a hard look at the election in New York, the bluest of Blue States. Incumbent Governor Andrew Cuomo had $45 million, a weak, unfunded opponent, a free hand in developing signature issues, considerable skill and experience. The result: A bad showing in the Dem primary against an unknown, and an awful showing in the general election, falling to an 11 point margin from a 27 point margin four years ago.

The reason was clear. Cuomo was a strong progressive on identity and social issues like gay marriage, guns and reproductive rights. But on economics he was a Tea Party, cut taxes, cut spending, corporate welfare austerity bug. He eliminated the bank tax, cut the estate tax, cut the income tax for those making more than $300,000, reduced school aid and put billions in the hands of big corporations. Just like Paul Ryan. It didn't play. Dems and Independents revolted, some by moving to third party candidates and some by staying home. Cuomo had the lowest voter turnout in New York in eighty years.

Hillary could make the same mistake. Anything short of a populist, prosperity for working families, anti-1 percent, middle class economic agenda will be a prescription for electoral disaster. There's reason to worry. Bill had a fondness for Wall Street, and Obama leaned on the Wall Street Dem establishment. It won't be enough for Hillary to seem sympathetic and rely on women and progressives.

She needs an easy-to-understand economic message that focuses on good-paying middle class jobs, investment in physical and human infrastructure, getting Wall Street and the 1% to pay their share of taxes. an end to corporate welfare and attention to the retirement needs of average Americans. She doesn't yet have one.

Eight years ago she tried to coast in. Didn't work. If she presents early and often in 2015 as the candidate of an economy that works for average citizens she will establish herself on the key issue just when Republicans start their tribal gyrations on immigration and Obama. If not, she goes the way of Andrew Cuomo and Wall Street Democrats. Like in 2014 all over again.