Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Hillary Clinton, populist poseur?

Hillary Clinton, heroine of the working stiff. Give me a break.

Her big economic speech yesterday, in which she assailed the “income inequality” of the Bush era, was really a bit much. There she was in New Hampshire, deploring the gap between rich and poor, the exodus of U.S. jobs thanks to globalization, the wage stagnation that plagues the average worker…yet she somehow omitted the fact that, for eight years during the 1990s, her own husband was repeatedly assailed – by liberals and labor activists in his own party – for his ongoing failure to tackle those very same issues.

This is a bit of recent political history that few people seem to remember. Notwithstanding Hillary Clinton’s efforts yesterday to paint the 1990s as a golden economic age, the truth is that liberal Democrats were generally frustrated by Bill’s refusal to address the gap between rich and poor, the exodus of U.S. jobs thanks to globalization, and the wage stagnation that plagued the average worker. They wanted him to run for re-election in 1996 as a populist who would address those problems. He did not. Nor is there any evidence that his influential spouse had urged him to do so.

So, for Hillary’s sake, maybe it’s just as well that yesterday’s populist speech didn’t get much coverage (only three paragraphs today in The New York Times). She was decisively trumped by Barack Obama’s health care speech in Iowa; actually, they were probably both trumped by the coverage of Lindsay Lohan’s latest rehab stint. If Hillary’s speech had dominated the news, attentive Americans who remember the ‘90s might have wondered, “If income inequality is such an important issue, why didn’t she and Bill make it a priority when they had the power?”

Yesterday, she voiced these complaints about the Bush era: “Companies also think nothing of shipping our jobs – even entire factories – overseas. Today, competition no longer stops at the water’s edge…Unfortunately, we’re not managing globalization properly. Instead of working for all of us, globalization is only working for some of us…(W)hile productivity and corporate profits are up, the fruits of that success just hasn’t reached many of our families. It’s like trickle-down economics without the trickle. As a result, the gap between those who are enjoying the fruits of the modern economy and those who aren’t is growing wider….Well, now we haven’t heard much from Washington in the past six years about how to solve this growing problem of inequality.”

I’m not contesting her economic assessment of the Bush era. But the fact is, liberals in her own party voiced the same complaints about the Clinton administration, in virtually the same language. I know this, because they told me all the time.

During the 1996 campaign, when Bill Clinton was cruising toward re-election and arguably had the luxury of picking and choosing his campaign issues, liberal economic think tanks were putting out statistics showing that (a) the typical family was making less than in 1989, the first year of the senior George Bush’s presidency, and (b) that the gap between rich and poor had widened since Clinton took office. Even a member of Clinton’s Cabinet, Labor secretary Robert Reich, had declared in a 1996 speech that “the paychecks of large segments of our population have gone nowhere” – but he never did that again, because, in Clinton White House parlance, he was subsequently “shut down.”

Liberals and labor activists complained that Clinton was governing as an “Eisenhower Republican,” (actually, that’s how Clinton once described himself); that he was stressing fiscal austerity and balanced budgets as a sop to Wall Street; that he favored unfettered free trade and globalization over protections for domestic workers; and that he was indifferent to the plight of unions, which were being marginalized in the private sector. Indeed, the U.S. Census Bureau in June 1996 reported that the share of national income earned by the top five percent of households grew faster in the first two years of the Clinton administration than during the Ronald Reagan years.

Jeff Faux, a liberal economist and occasional advisor to congressional Democrats, told me in September 1996 that the Clinton regime lacked political courage: “To pull up the wages of working people, you need solutions that are not ‘acceptable’ in politics today. You’d need a politician to say, ‘We need more unions,’ but that would mean going up against business. On free trade, you’d need some sort of protection for domestic workers who are threatened by low-wage foreign competitors, but that would mean going up against the multinational business community, for whom low wages are the point. It would mean big redistribution changes in the tax code. It would mean (laws) making corporations more accountable. All of these solutions require political conflict. But let’s not be naïve – politicians don’t want to tackle that, and disturb all their business money.”

That same month, I asked a Clinton campaign official why the president was not stumping as a populist. His reply: “We made a very conscious decision, early last spring, not to talk about the wage issue. Some people argued that our message should be, ‘We dug the country out of the (recessionary) hole, so now we’ll move on to tackling wage stagnation.’ But (Clinton pollster) Dick Morris said, ‘Let’s just talk about the good stuff, let’s not muddy our own positive message.’”

This decision didn’t sit well with the liberal/labor faction, and Robert Reich sounded off publicly after he quit as Labor secretary, In a 1998 interview with the online magazine Salon, he said: “(T)he assumed necessity of balancing the budget still has public policy in a straitjacket. President Clinton’s programs might look like a lot of new spending, but $100 billion out of a $1.7-trillion budget is rather small, relative to the challenges facing the country right now: Over 41 million people without health insurance, far more than were without it in 1992 (when Clinton won the presidency); over 20 percent of our children in poverty; the median wage, adjusted for inflation, below where it was in 1989; a growing gap between rich and poor; and so on.”

Hillary Clinton, in her speech yesterday, touted some ‘90s achievements (“22 million new jobs”), and the Census Bureau did report in 2000 that median household income had jumped for the fifth straight year, and that the poverty rate was the lowest since 1979. But the same census stats showed that the gap between rich and poor had actually increased during the Bill Clinton era: In 1999, the top five percent of households captured 21.5 percent of the total national income pie; seven years earlier, they had 18.6 percent. The lowest category of households (those with incomes below $17,196) actually lost ground; they had 3.8 percent of the national income pie in 1992, but only 3.6 percent in 1999. In fact, every household category up to $80,000 lost ground during the ‘90s.

But now Hillary is calling for “opportunity for all and special privileges for none,” for laws that would stop American companies from shipping jobs overseas, for laws that would “help more workers join unions,” for “a new vision of economic fairness.” Perhaps she is sincere; perhaps she is instinctively more “progressive” (her word) than Bill; perhaps she is privately frustrated that her husband’s administration did not sufficiently address the problems she now bemoans. On the other hand, lest we forget, the Clintons are master tacticians who know that populist rhetoric is red meat for liberal primary voters. Lest we forget, Bill campaigned as a populist in 1992, complaining about how “the rich get the gold mine” while everybody else “gets the shaft,” and about how average folks were “working harder for less,” only to trim his sails once in office.

So which is the real Hillary?


Happy anniversary to Dick Cheney. Two years ago today, he said this: "The level of activity that we see today, from a military standpoint, I think will clearly decline. I think we're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency."