This week in North Philly Notes, Jacob Kramer, author of The New Freedom and the Radicals, writes about Hillary Clinton and the issue of income inequality.
As Occupy Wall Street and the ground-breaking book by Thomas Picketty have shifted the national conversation in the direction of income inequality, Hillary Clinton is now claiming the issue as her own. Clinton has a long record of advocacy for the poor, though she has not always chosen to make it her principal focus. The change in her emphasis over the years is not simply a matter of inconsistency. Rather, it reflects a progressive tendency to take a strategic position in order to achieve long-term objectives. At times, Clinton’s ideals have seemed to suffer at the expense of political expediency. But the context is now more suited to her fundamental hopes.
Much like Clinton more recently, in the early twentieth century progressives tended to modify how they viewed politics to their left depending on the circumstances. Sympathetic to socialism before the First World War, progressives publicly kept their distance during the repression that followed the American intervention, yet they defended the rights of radicals during the 1920s. 100 years later, the political trajectory of Clinton is a good illustration of a similar tendency.
Looking back at her 1969 commencement speech at Wellesley, what is striking is not Clinton’s youthful idealism, but her attempt to harness student radicalism to practical ends. Speaking in the context of student protest on the one hand and the idealism of the space race and civil rights movement on the other, she said, “We feel that for too long our leaders have used politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible.” Articulating her classmates’ frustration at the “gap between expectation and realities,” she called, in the words of Nancy Scheibner, “not to save the world in a glorious crusade,” but for the essentially progressive notion of “The art of making possible.”
As first lady, by contrast, Clinton seemed to overestimate the readiness of the public for sweeping health care reform. Defending her 1993 universal health insurance proposal before two congressional committees, for instance, she at times blurred the distinction between the public and private sectors. Questioned by Illinois Republican Dennis Hastert whether the proposal would introduce rationing, she said, “right now we have rationed care throughout this country.” When asked about price limits, she suggested that there was already control over prices on the part of insurers and government. Nearly a century earlier, progressives like Walter Lippmann also sought to break down the distinction between corporations and government, but Clinton scared people. The failure of health care reform and the excess of idealism she exhibited seemed to convey a lesson that she carried with her in her two terms as United States Senator from 2001 to 2009.
Like progressives during the intervention in World War I, Clinton faced a fundamentally changed context after 9/11. It was very difficult to oppose the president or defend civil liberties, much as it had been to oppose Woodrow Wilson or defend radicals during World War I. With 29 other Democratic senators she voted in favor of the authorization of the use of force in Iraq and was one of the nearly unanimous Democrats in the chamber—all except Russ Feingold of Wisconsin—who voted for the Patriot Act.
These votes, especially the former, came back to haunt her in the 2008 presidential primary campaign, by which time the political sands had again shifted. In the wake of the botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina, the financial crisis, and growing frustration with the war in Iraq, Barack Obama put together a remarkable coalition calling for an end to the war and economic reform and outmaneuvered Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Obama seemed to herald the passing of the pro-business centrism previously associated with the Clintons.
Clinton now seems determined to keep in step with the times. Like progressives in the 1920s, she is re-asserting her connections with her more egalitarian roots. No doubt she will be criticized for being both inconsistent and too far to the left. And as with progressives, one must ask at what point a step away from the left made for strategic purposes becomes a difference in substance. But a majority of the public may now be ready to hear about her long-standing goal of helping the least well off.