Glass Ceiling and Class Ceiling: Can Hillary Smash Both?

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File

In this July 30, 2016 file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks in Youngstown, Ohio. 

A version of this story appeared at The Huffington Post.

Bernie Sanders might be the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton. I don’t just mean persuading most of his delegates not to walk out.

Think about it. Without the Sanders campaign, Clinton would be running mainly on three things—her exceptional experience, her breakthrough status as the first woman president, and her embrace of the cultural left that so dominated the Democratic National Convention.

All three elements have as many negatives as positives. Clinton may be the most qualified candidate ever to run for president, but her experience includes some awkward baggage. The first potential woman president runs into headwinds of misogyny, personified by Donald Trump. And the cultural left risks alienating as many voters as it mobilizes.

What Sanders added was to push Clinton and her allies, sometimes kicking and screaming, to advocate a far more progressive pocketbook program. On economics, Clinton has begun to move well beyond her comfort zone—to attack Wall Street, to call for breaking up big predatory banks, to tax the rich to pay for needed infrastructure and jobs, even to challenge dubious trade deals.

All this is the necessary antidote to the risks of what used to be called identity politics. And she needs to do a lot more.

With more of that emphasis, Clinton can securely carry swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Without it, she remains vulnerable.

The narrative of cultural mosaic has been contested territory for Democrats at least since the 1970s. The Democratic Leadership Council was founded in part to push Democrats to the center-right on issues like national defense and social spending, but also to discourage Democrats from campaigning as a rainbow made up of separate group identities. What emerged in 2008 and 2016 as a splendid tapestry was disparaged by the DLC in the 1980s as a tangle of narrow interest groups that alienated regular Americans.

In a famous 1989 paper, DLC theorists William Galston and Elaine Kamarck wrote: “The real problem is not insufficient liberalism on the part of the Democratic nominees; it is rather the fact that during the last two decades, most Democratic nominees have come to be seen as unacceptably liberal.”

The DLC lost that fight, big time. The Democratic base is more liberal than ever, and the party has moved left—but left on what?

Barack Obama’s election and re-election, and continued emphasis of such issues as LGBT rights and immigrant rights certified that the cultural left had won. The separate identities now make up a broad coalition. Unfortunately, however, the DLC and its progeny won on such pocketbook issues as deficit reduction, alliance with Wall Street, disrespect for unions, support for corporate trade deals, and acceptance of lousy jobs and pay.

The mosaic of cultural pluralism on display in Philadelphia was nothing short of astonishing. Lesbian, gay, and transgender people at the podium, joined by Americans with disabilities, immigrants without documentation; lots of black, Latino, and Asian American speakers; proud, even fierce feminism. All of this is cause for great celebration.

Yet, despite the projections of America as a majority/minority country, despite growing acceptance of same-sex marriage, in the present electorate that tapestry by itself doesn’t quite add up to an automatic election win for Hillary Clinton. If it did, a person like Donald Trump would not be running even with Clinton in the polls.

Being culturally avant-garde and economically status quo doesn’t do it.

Here in the progressive bubble, the Philadelphia parade felt joyous. But for tens of millions of American workers and their families, the embrace of undocumented immigrants and LGBT rights suggests a Democratic Party that is on a different planet. If Clinton can start sounding as emphatic on the pocketbook issues as she did on all the other issues, then Democrats can begin savoring a victory over Trump, maybe even a crushing one.

Another stunning thing about the Democratic National Convention was the sheer, glorious feminism of it. All spring and most of the summer, the fact that Bernie Sanders stole the hearts of the young denied Clinton some of the drama and appeal that she deserved.

Now, as Sanders both stood aside and vowed to continue to fight for pocketbook issues, the power of electing the first woman president could start to command the excitement that it hasn’t quite had until now. Based on a small sample, plenty of young voters, especially young women voters whose first choice was Sanders, are genuinely moved and exhilarated by the Clinton who they saw at the convention.

Having doubled down on her feminism—from the white dress of the suffragists to the somewhat overplayed “Fight Song” and the display of strong womanhood at the convention—Clinton will need the largest turnout of women and the biggest gender gap in history. But she will also need more than a few good men.

Her campaign gestured towards the fact that it isn’t just blacks and immigrants and LGBT people who are suffering in America today. There was acknowledgement of general pocketbook distress in her acceptance speech, but not enough. Her three-day post-convention bus tour through the two must-win states of Pennsylvania and Ohio provided more emphasis but did not get enough national press.

Trump is vulnerable on several grounds. One is his lack of specifics; another is his hypocrisy. On pocketbook issues, Clinton needs to show up Trump by being both very specific and a lot bolder than her recent predecessors.

For too long, the Democratic Party of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama has addressed the calamitous downward slide of America’s working people with gestures and with policies too feeble to make enough of a difference. At the same time, that Democratic Party, especially at the presidential level, has gotten into bed with Wall Street.

Barack Obama, passing the torch to Hillary Clinton, delivered one of the greatest presidential convention speeches ever, pointing to both ideals and accomplishments. The contrast with Donald Trump could not be greater. Yet by a margin of 73 to 18, most Americans say that the country is going in the wrong direction. Thus Donald Trump.

For the liberal elite, life is sweet indeed. The food is better than ever, the cities are more vibrant, the technology cooler.

But life isn’t sweet at all for the broad working class. To win big, Hillary needs to be their champion, too.

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