Each summer Hollywood releases its over-the-top blockbuster movies, to finance all the deep and moody and serious movies that win Oscars but few actually watch, and in 2002, starting early, in May, Columbia Pictures out here in Culver City gave us the first of those Spiderman movies – and it did make a ton of money. So they made two sequels – one even better and one rather awful of course. Then they changed directors and cast and made two more of these Spiderman movies, with a third in the works – but the magic was gone. They really couldn’t top the set-piece at the end of the first movie.
It’s the Roosevelt Island Tramway – the maniacal Green Goblin throws Mary Jane Watson – the poor but kind and beautiful misunderstood working-class girl – off the Queensboro Bridge. Spiderman must choose between saving Mary Jane, the secret love of his life, or the innocent passengers in the tram car, now dangling precariously high above the East River, thanks to the Green Goblin. Colorful New York working-class guys on the bridge throw trash at the Green Goblin, a fabulously wealthy pure bully, and a defense contractor no less. They taunt him, telling him to pick on someone his own size. And then Spiderman saves the day. How can you top that? That’s epic populist fantasy.
It’s no wonder Hillary Clinton kicked off her 2016 presidential campaign with a rousing populist speech on Roosevelt Island:
Striking a populist tone, Clinton’s rally rounded out issues central to the progressive message as she vowed to ban discrimination against LGBT Americans, fight for equal pay for women, enact universal preschool and childcare, tackle income inequality and reign-in political spending. …
Republicans, she said, are all singing “the same old song” – “Yesterday.” She mocked the 2016 field for ignoring climate change science, “turning their backs” on the LGBT community, refusing to build an inclusive economy and threatening to take health care away from millions of citizens. She emphasized green energy, veterans’ rights, tax breaks for small businesses and other traditional Democratic staples all centered on building an economy for “tomorrow.”
She reiterated that she would seek a Constitutional Amendment to undo the Supreme Court’s Citizens United campaign finance decision and would advocate mandatory voting registration, although she admitted, “we have to give them something worth voting for.”
Clinton argued that the measure of America’s success should be “how many children climb out of poverty,” and whether higher education is accessible and affordable, not how wealthy its richest citizens are.
“I’m not running for some Americans, but for all Americans,” Clinton added.
And then she threw trash at the Green Goblin from the Queensboro Bridge. No, not really. She was on Roosevelt Island speaking at the new Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park there – just across the river from the United Nations. FDR was the absurdly rich guy from an American political dynasty who was, oddly enough, the ultimate populist. Roosevelt made his Four Freedoms speech to Congress in 1941, actually his State of the Union that year. The four freedoms everyone everywhere should have are freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. She has a bone to pick with the Republicans on that third one, and maybe the fourth – unless gay folks and Hispanics and blacks are supposed to be afraid – so this wasn’t about Spiderman at all. This was an FDR thing. The Clintons are a bit of a dynasty, and they’re doing quite well, but they’re really populists too, you see. That’s why the location was what it was.
Others might point out that Roosevelt Island started out as Hog Island – in 1637 Dutch Governor Wouter van Twiller bought Hog Island from the Canarsie Indians. After the English defeated the Dutch in 1666, Captain John Manning seized the island and named it after himself, and then his son-in-law, Robert Blackwell, named it after himself. The City of New York purchased the island in 1828 and built a penitentiary there, and in 1839, the New York City Lunatic Asylum opened on the island. In 1852, a workhouse was built on the island to hold petty criminals, and then came the Smallpox Hospital. This wasn’t a nice place. The Queensboro Bridge opened in 1909 and simply passed over the island. In 1921, Blackwell’s Island was renamed Welfare Island after the new city hospital for indigents there. In 1955, the Welfare Island Bridge from Queens opened, finally allowing automobile and truck access. This really was a nowhere place – but all that bad stuff is gone now. The massive urban redevelopment began in the late sixties, when cities still did that sort of thing. The place has become thoroughly gentrified. The abandoned insane asylum was turned into a luxury high-rise. Now it’s almost hip. In 1971, Welfare Island was renamed Roosevelt Island in honor of Franklin D. Roosevelt – but after Hillary Clinton’s speech, those on the right will be calling the place Welfare Island again, where you’ll find the lunatic asylum.
Chris Christie almost said that:
“First off, I thought that Elizabeth Warren wasn’t running for president,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday. “But when I listened to Hillary yesterday, it sounds like liberal political consultants put together that speech.”
Christie also criticized Clinton for not taking questions from the press.
“I’ve done 146 town hall meetings in the last five years in New Jersey and around the country,” Christie said. “Mrs. Clinton doesn’t hear from anybody. She doesn’t talk to anybody. She doesn’t take questions from anybody. How would she know what real Americans are really concerned about?”
“Is it, you know, when she’s out giving paid speeches?” the Republican governor continued. “I don’t understand when she would know what she was saying yesterday about real Americans.”
Yes, someone should do something about those voices she hears in her head. She needs help, but the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman doesn’t think so:
This speech, like much of what Clinton does now, is about creating a synthesis out of two related goals or ideas. She wants to energize liberals in a way that also wins independents. She wants to advocate an economic agenda that will be substantively compelling and also creates a personal affinity with voters. It’s Clinton’s good fortune that she has at least the opportunity to do both at the same time.
That’s because of this:
Presidential candidates come in two basic types: those who can tell a story of personal struggle and those who can tell their relatives’ story of personal struggle. For one of the first times, today Clinton told how her mother was abandoned by her own parents and started supporting herself as a teenager. The point of these stories is to tell people, “I’m just like you.” I understand your struggles and your challenges, and I’ll advocate on your behalf. The truth is that there’s absolutely no relationship between whether a candidate was rich as a child or is rich now and what kinds of policies she’ll pursue as president. …
So FDR was a wealthy scion who championed the cause of the downtrodden, while Scott Walker came from modest circumstances but advocates the interests of the wealthy and corporations. Mitt Romney was a rich guy whom Americans came to believe cared only about rich people, a deadly combination. Clinton is someone who grew up middle-class and is now rich but who would prefer you think of her as a person just like you. Her policy case makes her personal case more persuasive, whereas someone like Walker has to deal with the tension between his personal story and the beneficiaries of his policies.
That’s a little complicated, but she has the policy positions down right, and the little back story didn’t hurt, but there’s more:
Of course, personal affinity isn’t all about economic class, and Clinton is obviously counting on women in particular to feel a bond with her and come out to vote. As she said in her speech, “I may not be the youngest candidate in this race, but I’ll be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States.” But while that may have been her biggest applause line, the speech was laden with policy talk, much of it about the economy.
And while some of the positions she mentioned have been more fully fleshed-out than others, what it added up to was an extremely progressive agenda: paid family leave, affordable college education, more infrastructure investments, renewable energy, universal preschool, expanding broadband access and a lot more – all of it wrapped in populist rhetoric (the part about 25 hedge fund managers making more than all of America’s kindergarten teachers seemed to hit a chord).
Republicans should worry:
I’d challenge Republicans to look at the policy proposals in the speech and say about any of them, “Oh boy, the general electorate isn’t going to go for that” – which highlights one important way in which Clinton’s path to the White House is easier than that of her potential GOP opponents. They have multiple areas where the goals of winning over Republican primary voters and setting themselves up to assemble a general election coalition are at odds. They need to sound tough on immigration now, but that will hurt them with Hispanic voters next fall. They need to proclaim that the Affordable Care Act must be totally repealed, when most Americans would prefer to make it work better. They need to oppose things like paid leave, minimum wage increases and imposing restrictions on Wall Street bankers, all of which are extremely popular. And they need to do it all while arguing that they understand regular folks and will be their advocates.
Good luck with that:
Americans might or might not buy that Hillary Clinton is just like them. But the truth is that she could get elected even if most of them don’t, which is something the Republicans probably can’t say.
Still, this was Hillary 2, the Sequel – except like Spiderman 2, the sequel was better that the first movie, her 2008 run, where she tried to out-tough all the guys. She knew lots of stuff and many of the key players – in the Senate and in foreign capitals – and knew how to deal with them. No one would mess with her. When the red phone rings at three in the morning in the White House, we all want someone competent and steady to pick up, and someone who was tough. There was no populism in that. This is new, and this certainly isn’t Bill Clinton 3, the Sequel. At Politico, Alan Greenblatt has some fun with that:
The biggest irony of the 2016 campaign is Hillary Clinton running as the sort of liberal Bill Clinton once ran against. The Democratic Party has moved too far left to accept the former president, or at least the version of Bill Clinton that dominated Democratic politics back in the 1990s.
Take a stroll down Memory Lane:
The overarching project of his political career was to pull the party back toward the center. Barney Frank recalls, while Clinton was in office, getting no response to a letter he’d sent to “The Democratic President of the United States” because the post office classified it as “addressee unknown.” Within a few years of Clinton’s reign, politicians such as Paul Wellstone and Howard Dean began to refer to themselves as representatives of the “Democratic wing” of the Democratic Party.
To succeed today, Hillary Clinton – like any national Democrat – must win over that wing. But doing so will encourage Republicans to paint her as too beholden to the party’s liberal, urban, heavily minority base. If those attacks succeed and she loses, it will be back to the future for the GOP. That line of attack is why Bill Clinton self-consciously sought to ditch the losing liberal policies of the party’s previous presidential nominees, such as Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale. Democrats lost five out of the six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988, going 0-for-3 by the time Clinton ran in 1992. There was a lot of talk at the time about the GOP holding a “lock” on the Electoral College. Clinton and other so-called New Democrats thought they could regain voter trust by taking a tougher line on social and spending issues. Hillary Clinton is doing the opposite.
Times change, after all:
She is being dragged left by younger voters and minority groups, who make up essential elements of today’s Democratic coalition and tend to favor federal solutions more readily, according to polls, than older, whiter voters. The party’s votes now overwhelmingly come from big cities, territory in which Democratic mayors such as Bill De Blasio in New York and Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles have made addressing income inequality central to their mission through measures such as lifting the minimum wage and building more affordable housing. President Obama, having grown convinced that Republicans intend to give him nothing, responded to the GOP’s big victory last fall by making deals with Cuba and Iran and moving left on issues such as immigration, free community college and paid family leave…
It all shows how far the party and the Clintons have come. The most resonant phrases from Bill Clinton’s day – aside from the sex stuff – were the exact opposite of any progressive call to arms, such as “end welfare as we know it” and “the era of big government is over.” But the era of big government being over – if that chime ever indeed did sound – is long since done. Put aside the expansions of federal programs that took place under Obama and George W. Bush. Although Obama and some other Democrats were willing to entertain thoughts a few years ago of trimming Social Security as part of a bigger budget deal, pledging to preserve or even expand the program has once again become a litmus test for party officials.
As president, Bill Clinton not only signed the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act (an act for which he has since repented). He also signed a welfare law that cut off immigrants from receiving many benefits – legal immigrants. Imagine any national Democrat agreeing to either of those things today. “They’ve moved left partly because they’ve won,” says Lara Brown, a political scientist at George Washington University. “Parties typically go as far toward their core ideology as they can, as long as they keep winning.”
Bill’s way just won’t do now:
President Clinton did champion many progressive causes, including universal health care (a botched effort run by Hillary Clinton), gun control and expansion of the earned-income tax credit… but Clinton also argued that by melding liberal principles and conservative ideas, voters who had written off the Democratic Party would again listen to its message… Clinton believed Democrats had to shed any lingering hippie image and talk tough on crime. When he was still the governor of Arkansas, Clinton left the campaign trail in 1992 to preside over the execution of a cop killer who was mentally impaired. He also went out of his way to distance himself from civil rights leader Jesse Jackson – his “Sister Souljah moment.”
Triangulation (remember that?) wasn’t just about Clinton positioning himself to the left of old-line liberals. He picked the Republicans’ pockets on their most popular issues, forcing them out alone on a limb to defend their most extreme positions.
Well, he had to do what he had to do:
“Back when he ran in 1992, my party, the Democratic Party, had lost three consecutive elections, one of them in which we carried only one state,” says Evan Bayh, a former governor and senator from Indiana who, like Clinton, enjoyed success in the 1990s by seeking the center. “Any time a party has lost three consecutive elections, it becomes a bit more willing to explore the notion of principled compromise so it’s able to pursue some of its objectives.”
Barney Frank, the liberal former congressman from Massachusetts, makes this point explicitly in his recent memoir. “At the time, many on the left believed he was ‘too moderate,'” Frank writes. “In the political climate of the times, I continued to believe that Bill Clinton was the most liberal electable president.”
That may be true, but that was then, and this is now. Bill Clinton is a dinosaur, from another age, long ago. Any advice he has for his wife should be ignored. The only question is whether Hillary 2 is the populist blockbuster movie it seems.
The New Yorker’s John Cassidy cites this from the Roosevelt Island speech:
Advances in technology and the rise of global trade have created whole new areas of economic activity and opened new markets for our exports, but they have also displaced jobs and undercut wages for millions of Americans. The financial industry and many multinational corporations have created huge wealth for a few by focusing too much on short-term profit and too little on long-term value – too much on complex trading schemes and stock buybacks, too little on investments in new businesses, jobs, and fair compensation. Our political system is so paralyzed by gridlock and dysfunction that most Americans have lost confidence that anything can actually get done. And they’ve lost trust in the ability of both government and big business to change course.
Cassidy wonders about that:
There remains, of course, the question of what Clinton intends to do about these evils. She said that she would encourage companies to invest for the long term, change the tax code so that it “rewards hard work and investments here at home, not quick trades or stashing profits overseas,” and “give new incentives to companies that give their employees a fair share of the profits their hard work earns.” All of these may be worthwhile policies, but it’s hard to see them having much impact on the great divide she had just identified, particularly the dramatic concentration of income and wealth at the very top of the earnings distribution.
Clinton didn’t talk about the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free-trade treaty on which Obama has just suffered an embarrassing defeat. There was also no mention of hiking the top income-tax rate, taxing wealth directly, breaking up the big banks, or introducing a financial-transactions tax – all policies that have strong support among progressives.
Immediately after the speech, I couldn’t find any comment on Twitter from Reich, Stiglitz, or de Blasio. In all probability, they will want to hear more detail. The rift between the Clintonites and the progressives won’t be healed overnight. In fact, it may never be healed. But at least both sides are now speaking the same language.
Jamelle Bouie, however, argues that this is now the universal language:
Imagine three presidents. The first sold a moderate message to win a three-way race with 49% of the vote. The second sold a conservative one and won with just under 51% of the vote. And the third ran a liberal campaign and won with just over 51% of the vote.
Of the three presidents, who had the “broad” campaign of wide appeal? And who had the narrow one of partisan mobilization?
If you know your politics, you know these campaigns. The first is Bill Clinton’s 1996 run, the second is George W. Bush’s in 2004, and the third is Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection bid. And of them, Obama’s was the most successful: Not only did he win an outright majority, but he won the most votes – as a share of the total – in a presidential election since George H. W. Bush, and became the first Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt to win two national majorities.
Looking to 2016, Hillary Rodham Clinton wants to achieve what Obama did, and so she’s running a version of his campaign, openly appealing to the groups that supported him.
Look at the facts. She should, but Bouie notes some don’t see it that way:
Washington pundits, and mainstream reporters, are disturbed. “Hillary Rodham Clinton appears to be dispensing with the nationwide electoral strategy that won her husband two terms in the White House and brought white working-class voters and great stretches of what is now red-state America back to Democrats,” wrote Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times.
“My problem with this approach,” wrote Ron Fournier of National Journal, of Clinton’s strategy, “is that it works only until Election Day, when a polarizing, opportunistic candidate assumes the presidency with no standing to convert campaign promises into results.”
Likewise, again in the New York Times, David Brooks bemoaned the Clinton approach as “bad” for the country. “If Clinton decides to be just another unimaginative base-mobilizing politician, she will make our broken politics even worse,” he argued.
Each critique comes to the same place: Mobilizing individual groups, instead of using a broad message, will polarize the country, make it harder to win, and make it harder to govern.
Bouie calls them on this:
Despite his inclusive, centrist message, Bill Clinton never won a majority of the vote. And when he entered office in 1993, he faced a polarized Republican minority that blocked his core programs, from a small stimulus package to healthcare reform. At no point did this change; instead, Clinton abandoned liberal legislation and co-opted Republican ideas, softening them for Democrats. Arguably, Republicans never accepted Clinton’s presidency; it’s why a sex scandal culminated in the first impeachment proceedings since the 1860s.
This same dynamic was at work in 2009, after Barack Obama won 53% of the vote with an inspirational campaign of post-partisan change. Despite his huge vote totals, Republicans refused to work with him, rejecting the stimulus package (and any negotiations over its substance), abstaining from the healthcare debate (and any negotiations over its substance), and openly pledging constant opposition. …
Obama was only able to accomplish what he did in his first two years because of the large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.
There’s a lesson here:
Liberal mobilization, part of Obama’s strategy, had worked. Indeed, it worked again in 2012 and 2013, when Democrats energized their voters, reelected Obama, elected a larger Senate majority, and made headway on appointments and executive branch actions the following year.
Not only that, all those who bemoan Hillary Clinton’s “narrow” campaign really aren’t looking at public opinion:
Since 2000, Americans have moved to the left on gay rights, immigration, on climate change, and criminal justice – issues on which Clinton is allegedly “polarizing” the public.
If Washington pundits can’t see that, it’s because they’re looking in the wrong place. The rural and suburban whites who brought Bill Clinton to victory in 1992 and 1996 aren’t the center of American politics anymore. That belongs to the Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, single women, union members, young people and college students who gave Obama his victories.
The electorate is younger and browner, and more liberal as a result. Put differently, Clinton is mobilizing the base, but she’s also speaking to the center. It just looks different than it did.
So, Hillary Clinton gave her big speech on Welfare Island, formerly Hog Island, just south of the old lunatic asylum. So what? At least she was fighting the Green Goblin. She couldn’t have chosen a better place.