I've argued that Hillary Clinton is at risk of being a weak presidential nominee—on several counts. She seems like yesterday's news rather than tomorrow's. The excitement of a having a breakthrough woman president is blunted by the fact that her husband got there first. She will raise a ton of money from Wall Street, just like the Republican nominee, blurring differences and depressing turnout. Despite the absence of a formidable primary challenger (assuming Elizabeth Warren doesn't run), Clinton is still likely to underperform in the primaries.
Still, Clinton is likely to be the Democratic nominee. So what might she do that could improve her own chances—and our chances of getting a president elected in 2016 who is first of all a Democrat, and maybe is some kind of real progressive as well?
The repositioning of candidate Clinton has already begun. One of the fascinating indicators is a report of a commission on inclusive prosperity organized and released in January by the Center for American Progress (CAP). The report, co-authored by Larry Summers (!), sounds more like something Larry Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute or Paul Krugman or Joseph Stiglitz might have written.
Among other things, the report calls for much more public investment, more help for trade union organizing, full employment, disdain for fiscal austerity, taxation of the rich, and lots of other good stuff usually associated with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
It's possible that Summers has had some kind of conversion experience, after a rendezvous with economic realities—and God bless him. It's also possible, and likely, that the CAP-sponsored manifesto is part of the remaking of Hillary as a more populist candidate.
The founder and longtime leader of CAP is John Podesta, who has had senior positions in both the Clinton and Obama White House, and who is expected to be a top campaign strategist for Hillary Clinton. The current head of CAP is Neera Tanden, a longtime intimate of Hillary Clinton.
In short, CAP is the think-tank of the Hillary Clinton presidency-in-waiting. Podesta is also the bridge between the Clinton campaign and the somewhat bolder policies that President Obama is starting to tee up right now, as in his State of the Union Address.
Last year, CAP created a spinoff called the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, headed by Heather Boushey, a quite progressive economist and alumna of EPI. CAP also put out an excellent report last fall whose lead author was economist Robert Pollin, on the connection between the green transition, public investment, and wage-led recovery. Pollin, who heads the Popular Economics Research Institute at UMass Amherst, is also well to the left of the Clinton Wall Street crowd.
It's heartening that these products are bolder than one might have expected. But they may not be enough to engage the voters that the recovery has so far failed to reach—voters Clinton will likely need in 2016.
These are voters that support Democrats when they turn out—but who often stay home. They include the young, the poor, racial minorities, and single women. All of these groups had dramatic falloff in their turnout in the 2014 midterms, relative to the presidential elections of 2008 (hope and change!) and 2012 (anybody but Romney).
So while it's good that Clinton is positioning herself as more of a progressive, I think she needs to be even more radical, both to generate real enthusiasm and to address America's real problems.
Here are five ideas:
1. A Student Debt Jubilee
The millennial generation is the economically stymied generation.
There are lots of modest proposals out there, including some enacted by the Obama administration that cut interest rates on many loans.
But this is the generation that has substantially given up on politics as something that could change their lives for the better. A very substantial write-off of all outstanding debts could surely get their attention. It would put money in the pockets of young adults, and would be a hell of an economic stimulus.
Here's the most radical part—shift part of the outstanding student debt to the overall national debt. That's what we'd do in a war—and America seems to have declared war on its young.
All the jabbering about the debt being too high already is malarkey. What better use of the public debt than to give the next generation a chance at the American Dream?
This proposal would have the added benefit of distancing Clinton from the Bowles-Simpson-Peterson crowd of fiscal scolds, who briefly invaded the brain of Barack Obama and helped depress both the economy and his presidency. (Product Label Warning: Robert Rubin, a big backer of budget austerity, is both very close to Clinton and a sponsor of CAP. This gives you an idea of the obstacles to Clinton doing more than a cosmetic repositioning.)
2. An Alaska-Style Citizen Dividend
Alaska, a state of rugged individualists not famous for left-wingers, has pioneered a model of extractive socialism that should be taken national.
Thanks to a renegade Republican governor back in the 1970s named Jay Hammond, when they struck oil on Alaska's north slope they didn't just give it to the oil companies, but treated it as a resource owned by all Alaskans (imagine that). So under the deal Hammond and the legislature cut with the oil giants, each year every Alaskan man, woman and child gets a share of the oil revenue.
Last year, the check was $1,884 for every man, woman, and child. In some native Alaskan communities, it was the largest source of cash income. Even Saran Palin supports it—she can see the checks from her window. Efforts by the oil companies to roll it back keep being defeated.
My friend Peter Barnes suggests a similar citizen dividend not just for minerals but for any privatization of something taken from the commons—whether publicly subsidized knowledge such as the Internet or energy company profits. You should read his book—better yet, Hillary should.
3. Mandatory Vacations, Paid Sick Leave and Family Leave
America is one of the few countries with no national policy on vacation days or paid leave. If your boss doesn't provide vacation, or has no compassion for a sick child, tough luck.
In an interview last year Clinton said she supported paid family leave in principle, but added that she didn't think the time was ripe politically.
Last week, Clinton said she supports Philadelphia's new paid leave law. And in the budget jousting, 16 Republican senators broke ranks to back Sen. Patty Murray's amendment mandating paid sick leave (every Republican presidential candidate opposed it).
Clinton should stop sniffing around this movement and become its national leader. And the laws should cover not just payroll employees, but temps, part-timers, contract workers and those in a worker-employer never-never land such as Uber drivers.
4. True Universal Pre-K and Child Care
Ever since Richard Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971, pandering to the cultural right with dark mutterings about a "communal approach to child-rearing," with "family-weakening implications," progress towards pre-kindergarten and childcare for older children has been sporadic and patchwork.
A few states and cities have broadly available pre-K and there is Head Start for some children living in poverty, but hardly any offer universal tax-supported early childhood and childcare programs on the model of public kindergarten. It's time.
How to fund this stuff? Tax the rich. They can afford it, and nothing would so well establish Clinton as friend of working people.
5. A $15 Minimum Wage
In 2014, popular referenda mandating a higher minimum wage passed in four red states. They were so popular with voters that Republican governors didn't even bother opposing the idea.
All of these approaches benefit regular people in more than token ways, break with Wall Street, and embarrass Republicans. It would be good if Clinton also supported a big expansion of Social Security, as Elizabeth Warren has proposed, and if she broke with Wall Street Democrats on pending trade deals that do nothing for working people.
Is Clinton likely to embrace any such ideas? She's dipped her toe into the water on paid leave and pre-K. The others may be too radical.
It would be smart for Clinton to define herself as a true progressive early on, before her enemies define her. Let the opposition take shots at her for bold, expansive policies that help regular citizens and demand progressive taxation to pay for them—and not for her emails.