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How Hillary Clinton nailed the vision thing

Hillary Clinton greets the crowd at her speech on Roosevelt Island in New York Saturday.
Hillary Clinton greets the crowd at her speech on Roosevelt Island in New York Saturday.
Jon Allen

Hillary Clinton gets hit a lot for not having a "vision." For most of the campaign so far, the criticism has fairly centered on her refusal to take positions on some core Democratic issues. Now she's taking flak for getting too deep in the weeds in the speech she gave at her campaign's first big rally in New York. But the truth is, Clinton pretty much nailed the vision thing on Saturday.

She's generally her own worst enemy on that score, constitutionally unable to stop talking about the trees long enough to get her audience to focus on the forest. And that tendency was in full effect again on Saturday.

She may not be thrilling on the stump, she may never please hard-left intellectuals, and her basic themes may not be new on the political landscape. But what she did Saturday is appeal to voters on the core policy issues that they care about and thread them together under an overarching vision of making American more fair for everyone. And she was willing to get more specific on how to do it. So anyone who argues Clinton came up short in articulating a vision for a different version of America wasn't paying attention.

The big ideas

There were more than a dozen policy proposals in Clinton's speech — from incentives for businesses that plow profits into benefits for workers to universal preschool — and almost all of them boiled down to one basic idea: America will thrive if its economic system is fair and inclusive.

That's been the standard-issue Democratic argument since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, whom Clinton quoted as she stood in a park named for his 1941 "Four Freedoms" speech. And while Clinton didn't hand out parchment with fully drafted legislation at her rally, she gave plenty of indication that she'll be addressing the issues her party wants her to address — from wages and paid family leave to climate change and college assistance.

Maybe Jeb Bush — the most wonkish of the Republican presidential candidates — will go beyond the enshrined Republican thematic troika of lower taxes, less government, and a strong national defense when he formally launches his campaign on Monday. But it's fair to say that compared with Clinton, her Republican rivals haven't been as forthcoming on how they would try to use the power of the presidency. None of them have offered a coherent way of addressing the economic inequality that they all now say is a problem.

Left out in the cold

Clinton's speech was hardly received by her rivals and critics on the left as a game changer. Bill Hyer, senior strategist for former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's presidential campaign, said Clinton wasn't bold enough.

"Democrats, and in fact, our nation, will not make progress with status quo thinking. We need someone who can bring new leadership, strong progressive values, and a record of getting things done to the White House -- and that person is Martin O'Malley. He has been fearless and specific in the progressive agenda that we need to rebuild the American Dream -- calling for reining in reckless behavior on Wall Street, stopping bad trade deals like TPP, raising the threshold for overtime pay and the minimum wage to $15 an hour, expanding Social Security, fighting for debt-free college, and understanding that immigration reform is a national economic imperative."

Clinton didn't talk about trade — where she's in the pickle of having backed the Pacific Rim trade deal that most of her party abhors — or Social Security. But she gave strong indications of the direction she'll be going in as she rolls out specific proposals over the coming weeks and how they contrast with those of the GOP.

"They pledge to wipe out tough rules on Wall Street, rather than rein in the banks that are still too risky, courting future failures. In a case that can only be considered mass amnesia."

Some on the left gave Clinton credit for moving toward their comfort zone.

"Clinton's allusions to reining in Wall Street, ending corporate tax havens, and addressing inequality open the door to a corporate accountability agenda — but Americans need to see specifics," Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said. "We need a Democratic nominee ready to take on the powerful financial interests that keep our economy down."

"This was mostly a typical Democratic speech — much better than the direction Republicans offer America, but not the bold economic vision that most Americans want and need."

Clinton even gave a strong indication of her theory of the case that she'll be better at delivering on Democratic priorities than President Obama.

"Our political system is so paralyzed by gridlock and dysfunction that most Americans have lost confidence that anything can actually get done. And they’ve lost trust in the ability of both government and Big Business to change course.

Now, we can blame historic forces beyond our control for some of this, but the choices we’ve made as a nation, leaders and citizens alike, have also played a big role.

Our next president must work with Congress and every other willing partner across our entire country. And I will do just that to turn the tide so these currents start working for us more than against us."

How she sees it

Clinton articulated her own vision by contrasting with Republicans, and she did it without the kind of clever rhetorical flourish that usually wins praise from political analysts.

"Fundamentally, they reject what it takes to build an inclusive economy. It takes an inclusive society. What I once called 'a village' that has a place for everyone.

Now, my values and a lifetime of experiences have given me a different vision for America.I believe that success isn’t measured by how much the wealthiest Americans have, but by how many children climb out of poverty; how many start-ups and small businesses open and thrive; how many young people go to college without drowning in debt; how many people find a good job; how many families get ahead and stay ahead."

It isn't what her husband would call rhetorical "poetry," but Clinton's not a gifted enough orator to pull off one of his riffs. Her style of talking about her vision reflects the way she says she would implement it: more workhorse than show horse.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who represents Four Freedoms Park's Roosevelt Island home, said it's clear where Clinton wants to take the country.

"FDR was really the architect of the modern Democratic party, the New Deal, and her program will very much to grow and expand on the New Deal with opportunities for more jobs, increased wages, lightening the load on the middle class and trying to reverse the trend of that gap that's growing" between the haves and have-nots.