Hillary Clinton has a unique asset if she runs for president — Bill Clinton, who presided over a booming economy and an era of sunny Democratic centrism.
But she also faces a singular challenge: convincing voters who are skeptical of some Wall Street-friendly policies during his tenure that she can connect with their concerns at a time when the wealth gap is massive between the very rich and everyone else.
After a decade and a half of being tethered to her husband’s record, Hillary Clinton established her own political identity as senator and as secretary of state. But a string of questions from interviewers during her book tour about her husband’s tenure as president underscores the ongoing issue she will face reconciling their past with her future.
“The 1990s taught us that even in the face of difficult long-term economic trends, it’s possible, through smart policies and sound investments, to enjoy broad-based growth and shared prosperity,” Clinton said in a speech in May at the New America Foundation, adding, “Yes, a rising tide really did lift all boats.”
Her challenge is largely among Democrats, and is far easier if she faces only nominal opposition from her party’s liberal base. Bill Clinton’s popularity among Democratic voters remains high, and he can be a powerful spokesman in making the case for America’s place in the global economy and helping the middle class, an appeal that President Barack Obama has struggled with over the past five years. Obama’s team used him repeatedly as a surrogate in 2012, in part as a reminder of a rosy economy that preceded the George W. Bush era.
What’s more, Bill Clinton has acknowledged that times have changed on a range of policy issues since he was president. He has even poked fun at himself, as he did throughout the 2012 race, as a member of the 1 percent who should be taxed more.
Bill Clinton’s great gift — and his political innovation — was his ability to tack right. Yet his strategy wasn’t timeless, and he was a man of his own times. Hillary Clinton doesn’t have that option or luxury — the base of her party is much more liberal than her husband’s Democratic Party, and it doesn’t want DINOs — Democrats in Name Only — any more than tea partyers want RINOs. Obama made pledges to the base that progressives felt disappointed by, and they hope to collect the dues from the next nominee.
The test for Democrats in the Clinton era was proving they supported Big Business. Their challenge now is proving they are serious about holding Wall Street accountable. And Clinton, whose gaffes about her own wealth made headlines on her book tour, will need to demonstrate that she can connect with the policies her party cares most about in the lead-up to 2016.
“You would not want to dissociate yourself from the overall results of the Clinton years because obviously it was a very strong economic performance,” said Mike McCurry, who served as Bill Clinton’s White House press secretary from 1994 to 1998. “But it’s a very different time now and it wasn’t apparent in the 1990s that you had this growing huge disparity in wealth. That’s largely a 21st century phenomenon, and she will need a broad economic vision to deal with it.”
Among the possible big-ticket, middle-class friendly items Clinton could champion are infrastructure spending, closing the carried interest loophole that gives a lower tax rate to wealthy private equity executives and expanding trade, according to policy experts.
Some of the policies that more moderate Democrats favor and that Bill Clinton championed — such as more open trade deals with Europe and Asia — are less popular than ever with left-leaning Democrats and their powerful allies in the labor movement. And progressives’ unease with Bill Clinton-era policies was on full display last year when the Elizabeth Warren wing of the party killed Obama’s attempt to install Larry Summers — who served as Clinton’s Treasury secretary and supported Wall Street deregulation — as Federal Reserve chair.
The Democratic Party has also shifted over the past decade on social policy issues, most related to LGBT rights, and Clinton has had to grapple with them during her book tour, sometimes with significant difficulty.
Without a chief messaging strategist guiding her right now, her answers have seemed off-the-cuff and in some cases in direct contrast to her husband’s record.
Clinton recently told The Guardian that she and her husband pay “ordinary income tax” rather than lower rates paid by some who are “truly well off.” Yet close watchers of economic policy noted that it was Bill Clinton who in 1997 signed into law a measure lowering the top capital gains tax rate paid by some wealthy Americans.
Hillary Clinton also recently criticized the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case in which the justices ruled 5-4 that the craft store chain could cite religious opposition to decline to offer certain contraceptive coverage to employees, calling it a “slippery slope.” That’s a position the Democratic Party has taken broadly.
But the suit was brought based on the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed into law by Bill Clinton. When an interviewer pointed that out, Hillary Clinton said, “The reason that was passed and Bill signed it in the ’90s was because, at that point, there were legitimate cases of discrimination against religions. This is certainly a use that no one foresaw.”
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