Clinton economic speech: anti-Trump, with a dash of Sanders

Her economic speech Thursday aimed to energize the Democratic left that didn't support her in the primaries, while appealing to middle-class voters, even Republican ones, who reject Trump.

Chris Keane/Reuters
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton unveiled her economic plan at Futuramic Tool & Engineering in Warren, Mich., Aug. 11.

No one would mistake Hillary Clinton for Bernie Sanders. But the Democratic presidential nominee, speaking on her economic agenda Thursday in Michigan, clearly channeled her vanquished rival as she pushed for policies to help working Americans, promote “fairness” in taxation, and address inequality.

Mrs. Clinton’s pitch to the middle class aimed to contrast with the agenda unveiled in Detroit on Monday by Donald Trump, a plan, she said – using Sanders-esque language – that "would give trillions in tax cuts to big corporations, millionaires, and Wall Street money managers."

Clinton also coined a new term: the “Trump loophole,” referring to his proposed changes to the tax code that she said would allow the businessman-turned-politician to pay less than half the current tax rate on income from many of his companies.

And Clinton repeated her vow to kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade arrangement among Pacific Rim nations, including the United States, that she supported as secretary of State and is still backed by President Obama. Many Americans blame international trade for stagnant wages and the long-term decline in American manufacturing.

“I oppose it now, I’ll oppose it after the election, and I’ll oppose it as president,” Clinton said.

In reinforcing her recent leftward shift, Clinton seemed to be trying to energize the significant segment of the Democratic electorate that backed Senator Sanders in the primaries. Polls show Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters largely unified behind her – certainly more so than Republicans around Trump – but it’s unclear how motivated they are.

Then there’s the challenge of attracting Republicans who reject Trump and who may be available to Clinton if she doesn’t go too far to the left. It is a needle she has three months to thread.

But energizing, or even holding on to, young Sanders supporters could also be challenging. Among young Sanders supporters, “much of that backing [for Clinton] is grudging, with turnout an open question and support for third-party candidates posing a potential risk to Clinton,” writes Sofi Sinozich of ABC News, which released a poll on young voters Thursday. 

The 'Sanders effect'

Analysts saw a “Sanders effect” in Clinton’s speech Thursday.

On TPP, “I think she’s feeling the pressure on that” because of the Sanders campaign, says Dean Baker, co-founder of the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. “This is a much stronger statement. It’s unqualified. Nothing’s ever 100 percent,but it would certainly make it more difficult as president to turn around and say otherwise.”

On the federal minimum wage, Clinton has tried not to commit to the Sanders campaign demand for $15 an hour, though it’s in the Democratic Party platform, and Thursday’s speech took that approach, not saying how much she’d push for.

“It’s perfectly reasonable for her to say we want a higher minimum wage … but she hasn’t committed herself to $15 an hour,” says Mr. Baker.

Her challenge is to connect with working-class voters who don’t see Clinton as fighting in their corner.

“People want to hear that she’s actually talking to them,” Baker says. “Whether she can convince them that she has programs that will make a difference remains to be seen…. She should be doing better among these people.”

Oren Cass, senior fellow at the free-market Manhattan Institute, is critical of her spending promises on clean energy, infrastructure, and tax breaks to create high paying jobs, and compares her plan to the Obama economic stimulus plan of 2009.

“We’ll see what the ultimate price tag is,” says Mr. Cass, who was domestic policy director of 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign. “But it sounds an awful lot like the [Obama] stimulus.”

Little attention on the poor

Cass also observes that Clinton’s speech said little about the poor, with no mention of inner-city poverty. “There’s something of a disconnect between rhetoric that’s focused on the bottom quintile and people who can’t really make it in America today and who’s she talking to, the middle class.”

Cass compares Clinton’s trade agenda to Trump’s, and agrees that the US should be tough on enforcement of trade abuses by China and others. “The first part sounded like an Obama stimulus … and then like you’re signing off on the Trump trade agenda.”

Cass offered grudging praise for her assertion that skilled trade jobs need to be filled and that not everyone needs to attend four-year college, which he calls an idea of the left.

“The idea that we need a lot of different pathways to good careers is a good thing,” he says. But he questions how will it work, beyond tax credits for paid apprenticeships.

David Wessel, director of the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at the Brookings Institution, was also struck by how emphatic Clinton was in her opposition to the TPP – and how she didn’t stick up for the positive side of trade.

Free-trade advocates argue that trade is, in fact, an engine of growth, and for most Americans, a net positive in financial terms. 

Clinton’s new position on trade is awkward, says Mr. Wessel, because she isn’t really anti-trade. “It’s hard to believe that she would run an economically isolated presidency,” he says.

Wessel sees her speech as “aimed at the middle class and working people who are not already in the Trump camp and are not already in the Hillary Clinton camp, and are trying to figure out what to do.”

Clinton offered some policy details, but placed more emphasis on the “fairness.”

“She wants to make clear that she wants the tax code to reduce the gap between winners and loser in our economy and he [Trump] doesn’t,” says Wessel, citing Trump’s proposal to eliminate the estate tax – a position Clinton rejects.

“She’s clearly trying to poke him where he’s vulnerable in style and substance, and give enough of an affirmative case that she’ll do something.”

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