Attending Hillary Clinton’s speech here at The New School on Monday, I was impressed, though not inspired. In person, she seemed to me to be as wooden as she appears on television. Yet especially now, a tough day later with bad news from Greece and good news from Iran, I think its pretty clear that she is developing a position that addresses the economic challenges of our times.
After hearing the speech, I decided to do something completely different. I intended to write this post, but first wanted to clear my head to find some perspective. I went to the Neue Galerie, one of those small boutique museums that I especially like, but then I stumbled on the steps exiting, landing on the concrete sidewalk, directly on my knee. I planned on writing this note yesterday, but my knee got in the way.
Now I am writing in the emergency room of Phelps Memorial Hospital, near my home, and I am thinking that Clinton also stumbled a bit. But, as I hope that my injury is nothing serious, I believe Clinton’s stumble indicates more a stylistic limitation, far from fatal to her candidacy.
As expected, she contrasted herself with her potential Republican opponents. Linking names with problematic solutions to our economic problems, she dismissed the idea that Americans just need to work harder to increase economic growth (Jeb Bush); she questioned the tax reform that would save households making three million dollars a year almost two hundred forty thousand dollars, three times the average person’s income (Marco Rubio), and she supported unions as Republicans make their names by attacking and weakening them (especially Scott Walker). She gave a Clintonesque laundry list of needed reforms, from the tried and true, and necessary — early childhood education and equal pay for equal work, to the new and intriguing — a developing proposal for profit sharing. And she embraced the economic policies of her Democratic predecessors: her husband and her former boss, as she criticized the trickle down folly of Republican presidents past, noting that the prospective Republican presidents promise more of the same.
Clinton presented an overriding theme: “an agenda for strong growth, fair growth …,” beyond “second to second financial trading, and quarterly earnings reports, and too little on long-term investments.” And she even promised a critical epistemology to inform public policy: “making decisions that rely on evidence more than ideology. That’s what I’ll do as president. I will seek out and welcome any good idea that is actually based on reality.”
I particularly appreciated her epistemological note, which other commentators have not highlighted. I am a long time observer of ideological politics of the 20th century, with grave concerns about 21st century varieties based on dogmatic beliefs in the market, nation and religion. Clinton clearly is not a market fundamentalist, as all her potential Republican rivals are, and hers is clearly not a politics based on ideological true belief.
Yet, I was not inspired. Clinton is not a great speaker, unsteadily expressing conviction, uneasily embodying her words, and poorly connecting with her audience. But more than this, I don’t think she firmly gets what should be her underlying economic theme. She doesn’t appreciate how profoundly problematic inequality has become in America, or at the least she doesn’t demonstrate such appreciation. What Tocqueville understood as being definitive of democracy in America, equality, is no more. Senators Sanders and Warren understand this with urgency in a way that Clinton doesn’t, it seemed to me after hearing her speak. Her pragmatic evidence based policy proposals were not sufficiently tied to the core problem. To quote George H. W. Bush, “the vision thing” escaped her. I have hopes that nonetheless she will get and express it.
Perhaps some young political operative should hang up in her campaign headquarters a sign: “It’s inequality, stupid!” to help her focus on what she suggests, but doesn’t yet embody. And perhaps the Sanders candidacy will push her. This is my hope for Clinton’s candidacy and presidency. I don’t like the fact that she appears to be inevitable. But it could be worse. She revealed yesterday that she understands that economic growth is not an end in itself; it won’t do if it benefits only or even primarily the one percent. Clinton is running to the left of her husband’s and Obama’s presidencies. This is the result of the long struggle for social justice, in my judgment a fruit of Occupy Wall Street, as it worked to reinvent American political culture. Many cynics observe that Sanders is forcing her into this position. Perhaps, but it doesn’t matter. Yesterday in presenting the terms of her approach to the economy, she made public commitments. I am indeed favorably impressed and hopeful.
And I am hopeful about my knee too. No broken bones, they tell me. But it still hurts.