Listen to Martin O’Malley’s campaign stump speech and you would think he was running against a candidate named Goldman Sachs. Jim Webb insists the Democratic Party “could do better with white working people.” Bernie Sanders describes himself as a democratic socialist.
Are the Democrats ready for Hillary? The polling makes the question seem absurd. In four of the last five national polls of Democratic voters, the former secretary of state has taken at least 60 percent of the vote. Even drops in Clinton’s ratings for honesty and overall favorability haven’t seemed to dent her support among the party rank-and-file.
In a late May CNN/ORC poll, Clinton was at 61 percent among liberals to Sanders’ 18 percent. Senator Sanders and Vice President Joe Biden—who is unlikely to run—were the only alternatives breaking into the double digits. Former Maryland Governor O’Malley, the declared Clinton challenger who most looks like a president, barely registered at 1 percent.
Ask the question another way: are Democrats ready for a return to neoliberalism? Hillary may seem like a dove compared to Lindsey Graham or Marco Rubio, but she is more hawkish than Barack Obama. You would be hard pressed to find a foreign intervention with bipartisan support that she has opposed since her youthful advocacy against Vietnam. As secretary of state, she helped lead the country into yet another war of choice, this time in Libya.
What about neoliberal economics? Despite her feminist background and stated desire to smash a glass ceiling on her own, it is difficult to untangle Hillary Clinton from her husband’s legacy. Taken together, the Clintons have not really been known for their assaults on the 1 percent.
Democrats know this—which is why there was a constituency for the futile effort to draft Sen. Elizabeth Warren into the presidential race—but they take heart in the fact that the Clinton of 2016 isn’t running as a centrist. In fact, she was using Warren-like rhetoric about corporate America as far back as her first presidential campaign. Clinton called for a 90-day foreclosure moratorium and a five-year freeze on subprime adjustable rate mortgages in 2007, both positions that put her to the left of Obama.
Clinton certainly isn’t making many feints toward social conservatism. She has endorsed gay marriage, issuing a statement with her husband praising a Supreme Court decision gutting the Defense of Marriage Act that he signed into law and that she supported for over a decade. Hillary Clinton once told Newsweek abortion is “wrong.” She now calls for changing “religious beliefs and structural biases” that stand in the way of access to abortion.
During her first run for president, Clinton opposed drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants. Today she supports them and is trying to outflank President Obama on deferred deportations. Clinton’s campaign announcement video featured symbols of ascendant cultural liberalism even more prominently than the candidate herself.
Hillary Clinton is not Bill, progressives tell themselves. Moreover, Bill Clinton ran for president in a different time. The Democratic Party had enduring political liabilities that made it possible to lose national elections even to politicians as lacking in charisma and electoral success as George H.W. Bush—before 1988, Bush had never managed to get elected to more than a House seat, which he held for two terms, without Ronald Reagan.
The Democrats’ perceived weakness on crime and foreign policy, their weirdness on cultural issues, and their presumed hostility to economic growth created a need for “New Democrats” to win presidential elections. That’s why Bill Clinton was more supportive of war, Wall Street, deregulation, and the death penalty than your average liberal.
Those Sister Souljah moments distancing the Democratic nominee from the political liabilities of liberalism are no longer necessary. The economic and ideological climate is different. The issues that drove the Democrats to neoliberalism are less salient, insofar as they remain important at all. Demographics have changed to the point that the coalition behind George McGovern—which even Clintonite Democrats like Paul Begala not long ago dismissed as “eggheads and African Americans”—can now win national majorities.
Yet burrowed deep within the most progressive circles of the Democratic Party there is a sense of unease with the Clintons’ coziness with Wall Street. Already there has been a New York Times best-selling book explaining, as the subtitle puts it, “How and why foreign governments and businesses helped make Bill and Hillary rich.”
Where Republican readers see potential high crimes and misdemeanors, principled progressives should at least sense danger. Liberals generally detest the influence of special-interest money on politics. They speak of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision expanding permissible corporate political spending in terms conservatives reserve for Roe v. Wade. If there were ever to be some insuperable wall between finance and government, the Clintons would not build that.
The Clinton Foundation, the gigantic nonprofit base for Hillary and Bill outside of government, has done plenty of bona fide charitable work, including some ambitious projects other less well-funded entities would have been hard pressed to undertake. But as Richard Kim observed in The Nation, it is also a “global plutocrats’ social club,” a “Davos on the Hudson where corporate executives pledge millions for the privilege of rubbing elbows with celebrities and world leaders.”
The Clinton Global Initiative, founded in 2005, in particular thrives off corporate connections, accumulating tens of billions of dollars in pledges. “For corporations, attaching Clinton’s brand to their social investments offered a major p.r. boost,” wrote Alec MacGillis in a detailed New Republic piece. “As further incentive, they could hope for a kind word from Clinton the next time they landed in a sticky spot.”
The Clintons have partnered with Walmart, Goldman Sachs, Michael Bloomberg, Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, and Tom Golisano of Paychex. The big three soda makers—Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and the Dr Pepper Snapple Group—announced their commitment to help cut the sugary soft drink calories Americans consume through the Clinton Global Initiative.
“This is huge,” Bill Clinton boasted to the New York Times. “I’ve heard it could mean a couple of pounds of weight lost each year in some cases.” The Clintons also won a commitment from Coca-Cola to “economically empower five million women entrepreneurs by 2020,” in what the Clinton Foundation described as a “refreshing investment in women entrepreneurs.”
One needn’t find fault in any of these lofty objectives to ask if the links between the Clintons and corporations have really loosened since the 1990s. People from far more privileged backgrounds than the Clintons, such as the Kennedys and the Rockefellers, have entered politics as self-styled champions of the poor and the working class. Bill Clinton comes from genuine poverty.
But the Clintons, as the old saying goes, have done well by doing good. Their combined net worth is $55 million. Despite their poor-mouthing—regular references to Bill’s relative lack of wealth when he was elected president and the Clintons’ debt upon leaving office—whatever riches the Clintons once lacked, they have more than made up for in time.
The Clintons have even practiced a form of trickle-down economics. Some of the people around them have become quite wealthy too. To cite just one example, former longtime Clinton aide Doug Band, whose initial duties included carrying bags and fetching Diet Cokes, was ultimately able to afford $8.8 million in Manhattan real estate holdings. (Band’s relationship with the family crumbled as he worked his Clinton connections too aggressively even for the former president’s comfort.)
In the realm of policy, too, as opposed to pay-to-play, it is not clear that the Clintons’ neoliberalism has waned. Former Bill Clinton Treasury Secretary Larry Summers—a Third Way Democratic Leadership Council-type if there ever was one—has been advising Hillary Clinton. His task? According to the New York Times, working with 200 experts to help the would-be 2016 Democratic nominee figure out “how to address the anger about income inequality without overly vilifying the wealthy.”
All this follows a great deal of commentary about how Hillary Clinton will win over the working class in next year’s presidential election. She did well with working-class white Democrats in the 2008 primaries, winning places like Kentucky and West Virginia by landslide margins. She was, of course, running against Obama, the candidate of “eggheads and African Americans.” This might have had at least as much to do with her appeal as her penchant for downing drinks in front of the television cameras at blue-collar pubs.
Nevertheless, the Clinton dynasty was built by appealing to ordinary Americans who believe the system should reward people who “work hard and play by the rules.” Even the welfare-reform proposals that irritated some Democrats to the Clintons’ left were premised on a working-class-friendly desire to shift resources from the indolent to the hard-working, deserving poor—making welfare a “second chance, not a way of life.”
More recently, however, Democratic candidates for the House won a scant 34 percent of the working-class white vote in 2014. Democrats competing in key Senate races didn’t do much better, even in Iowa, a rare state where Obama managed to win whites without a college education in both 2008 and 2012. “If Democrats can’t figure out how to appeal to today’s working-class voters, then they don’t deserve to lead,” Bill Clinton’s 1992 pollster Stan Greenberg told the Los Angeles Times.
Ruy Teixeira, a demographer known for his confident predictions about the Democrats’ long-term electoral prospects, put it in less moralistic terms. “Democrats, to win regularly, not just the presidency but other levels of government, they need to do better among … noncollege whites than they’ve been doing,” he told National Journal last year. “You can’t … just rely on the coalition of the ascendant.”
Not all Democrats agree. The noncollege white men who have been the biggest problem for the party in recent years are shrinking as a share of the electorate while minority voters are growing. The latter delivered Obama a second term while many of the former either stayed home or voted Republican.
That’s good news for a party that hasn’t won the white vote in a presidential election since 1964—though when Democrats have won the presidency, they have at least been competitive with those voters while winning supermajorities of most minority voting blocs. “The vote of a tattooed 20-something hipster in Des Moines is no less helpful than that of the 60-something farmer who lives a hundred miles north,” the liberal writer Paul Waldman observed in the Washington Post late last year.
The Democrats’ decline among working-class whites clearly hurts the party at the congressional level, however. Minorities are concentrated in urban areas where the white working class is more broadly distributed. These white voters helped deliver Congress to the GOP in 2010 and 2014. And it makes Democrats very dependent on high turnout among the “coalition of the ascendant” at the presidential level, something that only Obama has so far been able to deliver.
That’s why Hillary Clinton’s vaunted appeal to the white working class is one of her selling points. Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who worked for Clinton’s 2008 campaign, told the Wall Street Journal that she “demonstrated a significant ability to not only win votes from working-class white women but to connect with them on a personal level.”
Perhaps. But now effectively running with rather than against Obama, her numbers among working-class voters have returned to levels more typical of a 2010s Democrat. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Clinton went from a slight 43 percent to 44 percent deficit among whites without college degrees to being viewed positively by just 32 percent, with 48 percent having a negative view, in 2014.
Observing that working-class whites have been alienated by “an increasingly urban, culturally cosmopolitan” Democratic Party, National Journal’s Alex Roarty argues, “The most pressing need for Clinton, however, might be devising an economic agenda and message able to convince some of those voters to back Democratic candidates.”
Is there any candidate less equipped to do this than the Hillary Clinton of 2016? The Clintons are the anti-Buchananites: culturally liberal, economically and politically globalist, hawkish on foreign policy, representing what Irving Kristol called the New Class to a far greater extent than they stand for anyone in Middle America.
Even Bill Clinton’s legacy is as much NAFTA and GATT, financial deregulation, and a not terribly Keynesian approach to economics—“Rubinomics” held that increased tax revenue would stimulate the economy by reducing the federal budget deficit and lowering interest rates—as welfare reform and an expanded earned income tax credit. He was the last Democratic presidential candidate to win in places like Arkansas, Louisiana, and West Virginia, but he also cemented the party’s status among socially progressive upscale whites.
Despite her campaign’s hope to win over working-class “waitress moms”—a typically condescending description dreamed up by political consultants—Hillary Clinton represents all this without the charm. She speaks for a strange new liberalism where the rich and the politically powerful rub elbows and exchange favors, where the rewards flow to the most affluent parts of the Democratic coalition while the inner cities remain worse off than the neighborhoods of the noncollege whites who have abandoned the party.
That might still be enough to beat a Republican. But progressives may find once again that even in victory, they can only lose with a politician like Clinton.
W. James Antle III is politics editor of the Washington Examiner.