As she struggled to keep her 2008 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination alive, Hillary Clinton took a turn toward economic populism. It helped; after a series of setbacks in early caucus and primary states, Clinton’s abandonment of frontrunner caution and embrace of “I’m in this race to fight for you” rhetoric played a significant role in securing her big wins in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. Ultimately, she gained more votes than Barack Obama and came close to wrestling the nomination from him. If Clinton had run from the start as a populist, there is no telling what might have happened. But the important thing to remember is that Clinton did not turn up the volume until she felt she had no other choice—and by then it was too late.
Now, as she launches a new bid for her party’s nomination, Clinton is starting with populist talk. In a slick announcement video released Sunday she gripes that “the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top.”
“Everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion,” says the former First Lady, US Senator and Secretary of State, on the various platforms employed for the carefully coordinated social media launch of her long-anticipated candidacy.
This is conscious positioning by Clinton. She sounds the same themes in more detail in a freshly-released epilogue to her book, Hard Choices. Reflecting on the birth of her granddaughter, she writes, “I’m more convinced than ever that our future in the 21st century depends on our ability to ensure that a child born in the hills of Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta or the Rio Grande Valley grows up with the same shot at success that Charlotte will.”
“Unfortunately,” adds Clinton, “too few of the children born in the United States and around the world today will grow up with the same opportunities as Charlotte. You shouldn’t have to be the granddaughter of a President or a Secretary of State to receive excellent health care, education, enrichment, and all the support and advantages that will one day lead to a good job and a successful life.”
That’s a fine line, and there is no point in questioning Clinton’s sincerity. Undoubtedly, she would prefer that everyday Americans enjoy successful lives. But there is every reason to ask whether the candidate—whose $2.5 billion campaign will rely heavily on money from folks who are on the winning side of the income-inequality gap—shares the specific vision of grassroots Democrats about how best to achieve the goal. On too many issues, Clinton’s record is that of “corporate Democrat,” says Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement executive director Hugh Espey. In the first caucus and primary states, there are plenty of progressives who agree with New Hampshire state Representative Marcia Moody when she describes Clinton as “fundamentally a person for Wall Street and not the people.”