Hillary Clinton, economic populist?

In her acceptance speech, Clinton often sounded like a certain democratic socialist senator...

Hillary Clinton gives her convention speech.
(Image credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA – On Thursday, the final day of the Democratic National Convention, the speeches seesawed madly between ideological perspectives: from a left-wing preacher to a Muslim father of a slain soldier to a bunch of police officers to a bunch of soldiers, and eventually, to Clinton herself.

It raised a real question about what sort of speech Clinton would give. But when it came to economic policy, Clinton planted her flag firmly in the left half of the political spectrum, delivering a set of ideas that would not have sounded out of place coming from her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders.

This was a very good and encouraging preview of how the Democrats are going to contest the general election.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Throughout the primary, Clinton-supporting liberals have met Sanders' dark economic picture of a rigged economy with arguments that actually, the economy is doing quite well. But as economist Joseph Stiglitz explained at a Roosevelt Institute event earlier in the day, Sanders' perspective is broadly correct. "An awful lot of people aren't doing very well," he said. Median wages have barely budged in two decades — and "the median income of a full-time male worker is lower than it was 42 years ago."

The key, explained pollster Stan Greenberg, is to frame a reasonably aggressive economic agenda in a Sanders-style fashion. A "rewrite the rules" approach containing a forthright acknowledgment that the economy is not working well for huge numbers of Americans sways far more people than a "build on the progress" approach touting the last eight years of economic achievements — even when the actual policies advocated are exactly identical.

Clinton's speech followed this overall formula almost exactly. She argued that while there had been much improvement since President Obama took office, "we're still facing deep-seated problems that developed long before the recession and have stayed with us through the recovery. ... I've heard from so many of you who feel like the economy just isn't working. Some of you are frustrated — even furious. And you know what? You're right."

Following that Sanders-friendly rhetoric, she laid out her economic agenda. She said her "primary mission" will be to create more opportunity with "good jobs and rising wages," endorsed a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, slammed Wall Street for wrecking the economy, pushed for corporate profit-sharing with workers, denounced "unfair trade deals," and called for expanding Social Security and equal pay across genders. She called for huge infrastructure investment, debt-free public college, and also non-college worker training because "a four-year degree should not be the only path to a good job." Finally, she called for expanded credit to small businesses, paid family leave, and affordable child care.

How to pay for it? Tax raises on the rich.

Given the overall tenor of the Democratic primary, and Clinton's previous attempts to cater to conservatives, these economic promises were far, far more left-wing than I was expecting from Clinton. Such policies would not have sounded out of place in Sanders' mouth. If Clinton could get all that through, she would without question go down in history as a massive progressive success on domestic policy — far more so than her husband, as it happens.

By her own admission, Clinton is no oratorical wizard. But this was a strong speech, one of the best of the whole convention — and the section on the economy was the best-received. It does not guarantee she will actually pursue such policy as president, nor that she would be able to pass it if she were to try. But given the evidence suggesting it makes for good politics, and the need to confront Donald Trump's nationalist anti-trade diatribes, it might just happen.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.