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AP Photo of Hillary Clinton by Evan Vucci
The event, held in December in Boston’s famed Faneuil Hall, was called “Hardhats for Hillary.” Under globe lights and gilt trimmings, union and political leaders lined up to support the Democratic presidential contender.
“She’s got heart and she’s got grit,” declared Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. “Get your sledgehammers ready, we’ve got a glass ceiling to demolish!”
Laborers’ International Union President Terry O’Sullivan told the crowd, “We all know what we’re up against. They’re out to destroy the labor movement, destroy it, brothers and sisters . . . . It’s not only the future of our economy and our country.” Hillary has secured the endorsement of at least sixteen of the country’s major labor unions.
Clinton also won an early endorsement from the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund. Tiernan Sittenfeld, the group’s senior vice president for government affairs, joined in singing her praises.
“We think she’ll be the most effective on the campaign trail and once she’s in the White House the most effective in combating climate deniers,” Sittenfeld told me. “The stakes couldn’t be higher.”
Clinton has lined up astonishing support—from most of the Congressional Black Caucus, feminists, and Democratic officeholders up and down the ranks. And maybe she will succeed in rebuilding the Democratic voter base and make it into the White House. But then, will Clinton, once described as a “cautious centrist,” really fight to right this country?
Or will she, like her husband, “triangulate” and compromise with rightwing policies—as President Bill Clinton did in dismantling support for poor people when he signed welfare reform, and when he deregulated the banks by lifting the Glass-Steagall Act’s protections against a banking meltdown. His former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, for one, wonders.
“The question is not her values and ideals,” Reich has written. “It’s her willingness to be bold and to fight, at a time when average working people need a President who will fight for them more than they’ve needed such a President in living memory.”
Just before the Boston labor rally, Clinton unveiled a five-year, $250 billion plan to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure. She’s promoted the idea of climate jobs and “taking the opportunity posed by climate change to grow our economy.” Her rhetoric is suitably soaring.
“I will do everything I can to heal the divides—the divides economically, because there’s too much inequality; the racial divides; the continuing discrimination against the LGBT community—so that we work together and, yes, finally, fathers will be able to say to their daughters, you, too, can grow up to be President.”
She is struggling to show she would take on the economic threat posed by big finance.
But, given her longstanding and continually renewed ties to corporate America, Clinton has a credibility gap that she needs to overcome, to win over progressives and turn out young people and the discouraged and disaffected who made the difference for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
She is struggling to show she would take on the economic threat posed by big finance. She was known as the “Senator from Wall Street” when she represented New York State. Out of office, she, along with her husband, earned millions in speaker fees from banks and Wall Street companies. She charged as much as $350,000 per talk and reportedly made $11 million from January 2014 to March 2015 alone, according to Federal Election Commission disclosure forms.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, the key legislative scourge of Wall Street, still had not endorsed Hillary as she moved into critical primary races, long after all the other Democratic women senators stepped up to give Hillary their support. That sends a concerning message. Clinton laid out a strategy to take on Wall Street in a recent op-ed in The New York Times, calling for adding teeth to the Dodd-Frank banking reform law, sending Wall Street lawbreakers to jail, and curbing banks with fees on short-term trading so they are not “too big to fail.”
But she stopped short of backing Warren and John McCain’s bill to reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act to once again split retail banking from investment banking. Instead, she controversially focused on the role of “shadow banks,” like big insurance in that op-ed. Yet there is new risk in the consolidation that has swept banking since the crisis: The nation’s five biggest banks now control 45 percent of bank assets, up from 25 percent in 2000.
Her plan for an income tax hike on those earning over $250,000 was sufficient to win the endorsement of tax campaigner Warren Buffett. She also borrowed from Europe by proposing a 4 percent “fair share” surcharge on incomes over $5 million per year. But she backs her husband’s cut in the long-term capital gains tax on investment income to 20 percent, even though this contributed to the widening inequality we suffer today. And while she has made an important proposal to raise estate taxes (another way to challenge inequality), she and Bill put their Chappaqua home in a trust that evades those taxes.
Clinton has received significant backing from lobbyists tied to Big Oil, raising concerns among environmentalists. She came late to her position opposing the Keystone XL pipeline. The same goes for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which green groups say will basically overturn environmental protections, treating them as an illegal restraint to free trade. And she oddly champions her leadership role while Secretary of State during the Copenhagen climate change meetings that are generally regarded as a complete failure.
I even witnessed the enthusiasm gap among those arguably in Clinton’s core base: middle-aged white women who will vote for her. (Democratic women support Hillary over Democratic opponent Bernie Sanders by almost two to one.) One woman said simply, “My heart says no but my head is telling me yes.”
“I just didn’t warm to her,” one woman told me—that is, until she saw Clinton make her heroic eleven-hour stand at a Congressional hearing in October, where committee members tried again to blame her for the murder of State Department personnel in Benghazi, Libya, while she was Secretary of State.
In front of the camera, where the drama of modern politics is performed, Hillary does well. Even Republican pollster and Fox News analyst Frank Luntz thinks so. After the second Democratic debate in Iowa in November, he proclaimed on Twitter, “If [the] GOP thinks Hillary is easily beatable, they’re wrong. It’s not just words, but her tone and style are the best I’ve seen so far.”
Not long ago, Cosmopolitan showcased Clinton by publishing a list of her best quotes from the first Democratic debate in October, including this one: “I believe in equal pay for equal work for women, but I also believe it’s about time we had paid family leave for American families and join the rest of the world.”
Clinton has been strongest and most consistent throughout her life on women’s and family issues and on civil rights. During her tenure as a corporate lawyer with Arkansas’s Rose Law Firm she pushed male allies to take on the gender gap in compensation, and as a member of the Walmart board, she was a “thorn in the side,” pushing women’s advancement as managers. She has a 100 percent approval rating on reproductive rights issues from NARAL. During the October debate in Las Vegas, she defended Planned Parenthood, as she has throughout the campaign.
“You know, it’s always the Republicans or their sympathizers who say, ‘You can’t have paid leave, you can’t provide health care.’ ” Clinton said. “They don’t mind having big government to interfere with a woman’s right to choose and to try to take down Planned Parenthood. They’re fine with big government when it comes to that. I’m sick of it. We can do these things. We should not be paralyzed by the Republicans.”
She also gets credit from African American supporters for her longtime support for black empowerment. While many progressives know she was a “Goldwater girl,” supporting the 1964 Republican candidate for president, fewer know she met Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago when she went to hear him speak with her Methodist church youth group. She credits Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, as an important mentor, and at real personal risk in 1972 she posed as a parent to document discrimination at a segregated white academy in Alabama.
“Race and racism are defining challenges not only in the United States but around the world,” she has said. She’s called for a “new New Deal” to take on persistent poverty in communities of color.
Clinton has drawn criticism from the Black Lives Matter movement, which has highlighted her support for the death penalty. But she has tacked left with proposals for cutting prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, reducing privately operated prisons, and requiring police to wear body cameras. Prominent black intellectual Michael Eric Dyson of Georgetown University argued in the New Republic that Hillary would be better for black people than President Obama.
“If we were betrayed by Bill Clinton, and suffered dashed hopes under Obama, maybe, just maybe, we will get from Hillary Clinton what we most need and truly deserve: a set of political practices and policies that reinforce the truth that black lives must, and do, finally matter,” he wrote.
The United States is facing enormous risks, not just from climate change and the hollowing out of our economy, but also from the rise of rightwing populism and an uncertain political future.
The enthusiasm gap may be more of a problem for Clinton during the general election, should she get the party’s nomination. Then she will need to mobilize new voters in the Latino community and somehow maintain the historically high African American turnout that the Obama years helped nurture. But her moves to the left show her attempts to appeal to these vital constituencies early on.
“I think she decided to lean into immigration reform—the whole Democratic establishment decided to lean in,” says Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, which promotes Latino voter participation. He laughed in delight describing how Hillary backed away under pressure from using the I-word —“illegal,” referring to undocumented immigrants. “They used to run away from us, now they are running to us!”
Gonzalez says he’ll be watching five primary states in particular to see Latino voting trends: Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Texas, and Florida. The Dreamers tend to support Sanders, “who put out a really good immigration document.” But he suggests that Sanders’s nuanced differences with Clinton on immigration reform are probably visible only to motivated activists.
In 2016, people are not talking as much about whether the United States is ready for a woman leader, certainly not as much as during 2008. An October 2015 poll suggested 97 percent of Democrats and 92 percent of Republicans would vote for a woman.
As a former Secretary of State, Hillary was more of a hawk than President Obama, which may render her more attractive to conservative Democrats, while raising concerns among progressives that she would once again support a misguided war, as she did when she voted for the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq.
The United States is facing enormous risks, not just from climate change and the hollowing out of our economy, but also from the rise of rightwing populism and an uncertain political future. The largest political faction people identify with is neither Republican nor Democrat but Independent. The Republican Party is in meltdown, with only 23 percent of the electorate identifying as Republicans and candidates increasingly espousing a far-right agenda. It maintains its power as a fear-mongering attack machine—against unions, people of color, immigrants, and the science of climate change. The GOP standard bearers are fanning the flames of fear.
Hillary’s election would not eradicate these factors, which may limit what she can accomplish. As one former union political director put it, “We’re about to spend tremendous effort in basically trying to maintain the status quo, and the status quo is not tenable.” The key, he says, will not be her election but the regeneration of a unified progressive movement during the campaign year.
Abby Scher is a sociologist and journalist who writes frequently about women’s issues and economic justice. Read her essay "Not Ready for Hillary" from our March 2014 issue of The Progressive.