Hillary, Elizabeth Warren, and the Democratic divide

     Former Secretary of State of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (left) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. (Chuck Burton and Charles Dharapak/AP Photos)

    Former Secretary of State of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (left) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. (Chuck Burton and Charles Dharapak/AP Photos)

    You get the feeling that Hillary Clinton is peering warily over her left shoulder at Elizabeth Warren, if only because the presumed ’16 frontrunner is now stealing Warren’s populist applause lines.

    How fascinating it was, last Friday, to hear Hillary on the stump in Massachusetts, as she seemingly sought to shed her Wall Street ties (speeches at $200,000 a pop for Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase) and morph into a pitchfork-wielding corporation-bashing working-class hero. To the barricades!

    “I love watching Elizabeth give it to those who deserve to get it. Standing up not only for you but people with the same needs and the same wants across our country….(We should be) holding financial institutions accountable for the damage they have done to our economy and to individual lives….Don’t let anybody tell you that, you know, it’s corporations and businesses that create jobs. You know that old theory, trickle-down economics. That has been tried, that has failed. It has failed rather spectacularly.”

    Has Hillary been reborn as a sincere populist lefty? Or is this merely a tactical move – the Clintons have long been master tacticians – to guard her left flank in advance of the ’16 primaries?

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    Mindful that Warren is wildly popular among Democratic progressives, Hillary knows that her first task is to woo them by co-opting Warren. No way does she want to be outflanked on the left – not again. What happened with Barack Obama in ’08 will not be tolerated in ’16. So she’ll borrow Warren’s rhetoric “(give it to those who deserve it”), to at least signal that she’s tuned in. And if that tactic freaks out Wall Street – and it already has – well, that’s fine for a while.

    This leftward tilt is necessary not just to co-opt Warren, but to hose down the sizeable Democratic faction that has long been critical of her husband’s presidential tenure. Lest we forget, liberals didn’t gravitate to Obama in ’08 solely because Hillary had voted to authorize war in Iraq. They also had longstanding beefs about Bill’s domestic record. While Hillary was on the ’08 stump boasting about ’90s economic prosperity, they had a different, darker ’90s narrative.

    And Warren’s fervent supporters still hew to that narrative (which happens to be factual):

    The gap between rich and poor actually increased during Bill’s presidency. According to Census data, the top five percent of households captured 21.5 percent of of the total national income in 1999; seven years earlier, at the dawn of Bill, they had 18.6 percent. The lowest category of households (those with incomes below $17,196) had 3.6 percent of the income pie in 1999; seven years earlier, they had 3.8 percent.

    In fact, every household category up to $80,000 lost ground during the ’90s, thanks to wage stagnation. The 1998 median wage, adjusted for inflation, was lower than it was in 1989, the first year of the senior George Bush administration.

    Some Clinton advisers urged the president to stump for re-election in ’96 with promise to end wage stagnation, but they were overrruled by pollster Dick Morris who essentially told them, “Let’s just talk about the good stuff, let’s not muddy our positive message.” And that same year, when Labor Secretary Robert Reich declared in a speech that “the paychecks of large segments of our population have gone nowhere,” he was subsquently muzzled.

    Today, liberals in the Warren camp believe that Bill made things worse by championing the North American Free Trade Agreement; encouraging the global trade that quickened the exodus of good jobs to foreign lands; and signing a string of financial deregulation laws that paved the way for the fusing of commercial and investment banks, freed the derivatives market to run rampant, and, all told, created the conditions for Too Big To Fail.

    So the last thing Hillary wants is for Democrats to refight the ’90s and tie her to Bill’s unpopulist record. That’s why Warren is such a threat. And it’s unlikely that Hillary can co-opt her by stealing her lines, because, for Democrats, this fight for the party’s future is worth waging.


    And a reminder that the WHYY/NewsWorks election forum is tonight.



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