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How Hillary Clinton found her populist side (and why she’ll have to lose it)

The Democratic party has moved left under Obama. It’s not a look that suits the former first lady

18 April 2015

9:00 AM

18 April 2015

9:00 AM

The centrist Democratic party bequeathed to President Barack Obama by Bill Clinton is not the one he will leave to his successor. By every measure, it is more left-wing, and more populist both in spirit and ideological composition. And this poses serious problems for the campaign of the candidate seen as America’s most likely next president: Hillary Clinton. That she knows it’s a problem is obvious from the way her campaign has begun. ‘Everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion,’ she declared in a video released last weekend. Almost a year ago, launching the memoir of her time as Secretary of State, Clinton had begun testing populist themes. The nation, she said at the time, must ‘deal with the cancer of inequality’.

A few days earlier, she had warned that the country faced a new ‘Gilded Age of the robber barons’. Clinton must mouth these platitudes because the mood in America, at least on the left, has changed since she and her husband occupied the White House. The robust liberal internationalism that bombed Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, along with the business-friendly policies of the New Democrat movement (inspiration for New Labour) are a shadow of their former selves. The Democratic Leadership Council, the think-tank that helped to create the New Democrats, shut its doors in 2011. In fashion today, thanks largely to Obama’s influence, is American foreign policy retrenchment and fire-and-brim stone speeches attacking the rich. Unlike her husband, who grew up in a trailer park and had an incomparable human touch, Hillary Clinton does not make a convincing populist. Since leaving the State Department three years ago, she traipsed around the country and the world racking up speaking fees of $200,000 an event. Asked about these earnings last year by ABC News, Clinton declared that she and Bill were ‘dead broke’ when they left the White House. There is also the perception that she is too close to the finance industry. A recent analysis conducted by the Wall Street Journal found that, over the course of two decades, she and her husband raised more than $1 billion from American corporations for their political campaigns, paid speeches, and in donations to their charitable foundation. This was big machine politics at its most efficient. During Hillary’s four years as America’s top diplomat, a variety of foreign governments — from the Norwegians to the Qataris — donated millions of dollars to the foundation.


Clinton’s record on economic issues also concerns the progressive populists. ‘There’s a general uncertainty of where she stands on key economic issues,’ Roger Hickey, co-chairman of the left-wing advocacy group Campaign for America’s Future, told the Journal. ‘A lot of people would prefer to have someone who is a real populist crusader, who is clear about what she would do.’ As for who that ‘populist crusader’ may be, there are several potential candidates. Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, scourge of greedy bankers everywhere, is the most talked about, though she does not possess anywhere near the ambition (never mind the fundraising potential) of the former first lady, who has been preparing to be president since she left the womb. Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who may mount a gentle challenge to Clinton in hopes of a vice-presidential nomination, recently called for the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act, a Depression-era law separating commercial and investment banking that was repealed by Bill Clinton. A surprising contender is Lincoln Chaffee, an aristocratic former Republican senator from Rhode Island who switched parties two years ago and announced his intention to run for president last week. A notable feature shared by many of vocal populists is their patrician bearing; derided as ‘limousine liberals’, they are the American analogue to champagne socialists. A feature of American politics is that those who fly first class tend to vote Republican while private jet owners often pull for the Democrats. Chaffee, who succeeded his father as senator and whose family is the Rhode Island version of the Kennedy clan, obliquely took a swipe at Clinton in his announcement, stating, ‘I don’t think we should have a president of the United States who voted for the huge mistake that is the Iraq war, and certainly we shouldn’t have a Democratic nominee who voted for the war.’Clinton’s support for that war was what opened the way for the junior senator from Illinois to best her in 2008, and it may yet do her in again. Her perceived hawkishness has long been an irritant to populists, and her unconvincing attempts to distance herself from the more disastrous foreign policies of the president she served for four years may pose major headaches. But the central problem for Hillary is that she must cater to populists in the primary and then revert back to her centrist self in the general election, while keeping the Democratic base happy. It’s a challenge — but not an impossible one. Remember, economic populism does not have the same cachet here as in Europe. Most Americans, left or right, believe that most politicians are corrupt and that special interests are too powerful.

Yet these beliefs do not necessarily translate into economic populism. Holistically, they’re better described as anti-elitist rather than populist. Social security, to which all Americans contribute and from whose coffers all Americans benefit, is popular with voters; welfare not so much. The growing gap between rich and poor, on the other hand, which President Obama has harped on repeatedly to the delight of his base, barely registers among the general electorate; a 2014 poll found that just 4 per cent of Americans named it their primary concern. Americans, unlike Europeans, do not hate the rich. We want to be them, not soak them. Perhaps the winning strategy for Hillary, then, is to quit the unconvincing pose of being one of the little guys and stop apologising for and explaining away her wealth. That, after all, would be the American way.

James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative in Washington and a Daily Beast correspondent.

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