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Hillary Clinton shows she's really a liberal on economics

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the New School on July 13, 2015, in New York City.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the New School on July 13, 2015, in New York City.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

If there's one thing that frustrates liberal Democrats the most about Hillary Clinton's politics, it's that she doesn't seem to share — or maybe even get — the base's gut instincts. She's bad at explaining her motivations in a way that connects with core Democrats.

But as she laid out her economic vision in a Monday speech that rejected Republican theories without embracing hard-left policies, Clinton did something that's been difficult for her in the past: She spoke to both the head and the heart of the Democratic Party.

Clinton promised to prosecute financial fraudsters, defend and expand the Affordable Care Act, and "fight back against these mean-spirited, misguided attacks" on unions.

More broadly, Clinton succeeded in articulating a vision for reshaping the American economy to promote growth by directing help to working- and middle-class families. In classic Clintonian fashion, she drew her sharpest contrasts with Republicans — calling out Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio by name — while glossing over some of the differences on the Democratic side of the national policy debate.

"It was both an intellectual and emotional appeal," said Jared Bernstein, a liberal economist who served as an adviser to Vice President Joe Biden. He praised her, in particular, for a comprehensive connection of policies affecting middle-class Americans to economic growth, from collective bargaining to profit sharing. "She covered every corner of the debate."

She didn't read a white paper on tax reform. How do I know whether she's really liberal?

Clinton stayed at the 30,000-foot level for most of the speech, declining to get into the nitty-gritty of how she would use executive power — or work with Republicans in Congress — to implement her agenda.

What Clinton did articulate, though, is the set of fundamental concepts guiding her campaign's economic agenda. Taken as a whole, that vision is clearly left of center. Some of what she laid out sounded pretty progressive — for example, creating incentives for companies to share profits with their employees, increasing regulation of the financial industry, and prosecuting the financial crimes of individuals at big institutions. (Liberals have criticized President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder for failing to win convictions on Wall Street and for selling low in settlements with banks).

The broad strokes often aren't enough for many liberals. They worry that if not nailed down, she'll eventually tack toward a "third way" like President Bill Clinton. They want to be convinced that she's motivated by the same instincts they are, and they want to know that the set of advisers around her won't pull her in another direction.

Clinton's campaign released a set of advisers on the speech that includes liberal economists Joseph Stiglitz and Alan Blinder, as well as Neera Tanden, a former Clinton aide who is the head of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress.

In its construction — in terms of both language and who played a hand in writing it — Clinton's speech on Monday should have gone a long way toward assuaging those concerns. It's not that she's ready to adopt Bernie Sanders's platform. She'll never do that because she's simply not that far left. But she's starting to talk about the theory behind her policy, and it should comfort liberals because it matches up well with their heads and hearts.

Clinton's big move: explaining her motivations

The most important thing Clinton did Monday is explain why she wants to target government benefits to working- and middle-class Americans.

"The defining economic challenge of our time is clear," she said. "We must raise incomes for hard-working Americans so they can afford a middle-class life. We must drive strong and steady income growth that lifts up families and lifts up our country."

There's no more core progressive belief than the idea that boosting the lower and middle classes is how you spur sustainable economic growth.

And there are two reasons to think she would follow through on her plans. First, we know presidents try to fulfill their campaign promises. Second, Clinton has developed a policy process for her campaign that resembles that of the White House, with Jake Sullivan, the former deputy chief of staff at the State Department, playing the coordinating role. The vision and big decisions are made at the top, but the constituent parts are put together through the input of inside and outside advisers. That is, there are a lot of fingerprints on the plan and a lot of stakeholders to be kept on board.

Clinton won praise from Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate and chief economist at the Roosevelt Institute, who was one of the scores of advisers who helped build the foundation for the speech.

"Growth is not achieved by pulling a number out of thin air but by focusing on and investing in our families and communities, ensuring Americans can earn enough to afford a middle-class life, and making our financial markets work for everyday Americans rather than the short-term interests of CEOs and speculators," Stiglitz said. "Today Hillary Clinton began to offer the kind of comprehensive approach we need to tackle the enormous economic challenges we face, one that is squarely in line with what we have called for at the Roosevelt Institute."

That's not to say Clinton went far enough to win ringing endorsements from everyone on the left — or on all of topics she raised.

Clinton talked about trade, but refused to pick a spot on the Democratic spectrum.

"We do need to set a high bar for trade agreements," she said, evading the question of whether she will back the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership pact. "We should support them if they create jobs, raise wages, and advance our national security. And we should be prepared to walk away if they don’t."

Ultimately, it will matter less where Clinton would be rated on a progressive's scorecard than whether she can convince liberals that they should be excited — or at least comfortable — with where she wants to take the country and why.

The other key to the speech was her contrast with Republicans

Politicians like to say that elections are about choices. On Monday, Clinton framed her vision as the antithesis of Republican economic theory. She ripped Bush for saying American workers should work "longer hours" — though he may have meant moving from part-time to full-time employment — upbraided Rubio for a tax plan that would help millionaires, and said union-busting efforts by Gov. Scott Walker and other Republicans are "mean-spirited" and "misguided."

More important than the individual digs, which served to illustrate her larger point, was Clinton's basic attack on GOP economics.

"For 35 years, Republicans have argued that if we give more wealth to those at the top — by cutting their taxes and letting big corporations write their own rules — it will trickle down, it will trickle down to everyone else," Clinton said. "Yet every time they have a chance to try that approach, it explodes the national debt, concentrates wealth even more, and does practically nothing to help hard-working Americans."

Even in reaching out to progressives, Clinton all but said any flavor of Democrat is better than a Republican.

"Twice now in the past 20 years, a Democratic president has had to come in and clean up the mess," she said. "I think the results speak for themselves."

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