Well, it looks like Hillary Clinton is running after all, and she’s making it official this Saturday at Franklin Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park. Conservative critics will pounce on the unintended symbolism and note that Roosevelt Island, in New York City’s East River, used to be called Welfare Island, and that the island was once home to the city’s lunatic asylum. But the intended symbolism is so un-missable as to constitute Symbolism for Dummies: The first two of FDR’s freedoms were “of speech” and “of worship,” but the third one he appended to these more traditional rights was economic—“from want.” (The fourth was “from fear,” which Roosevelt framed as a worldwide reduction in armaments, a freedom on which we’ve not made stellar progress.)
Clearly, she’s trying to express her inner Warren. This much we know. “How populist will she be?” has been the dominant early-innings economic question about her candidacy, which is understandable since we’re in the primary-election phase when Clinton has to reassure liberals. But here’s a different economic question, which for the purposes of a general election is more important: How is she going to talk about jobs and wages in a way that connects with general-election voters who don’t adore Elizabeth Warren?
This is where elections are usually won or lost. Journalists carry on about pants suits and email servers, but most of the time, political science is right and journalism is wrong. And political scientists, notes Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution, “believe that the performance of the economy in the nine to 12 months prior to an election is the strongest determinant of the beliefs voters take with them into the polling booth.” Disloyalist that I am to the pants-suits-email-server narrative, I agree. So let’s start with this.
Here’s a good trivia question for you. Fill in the blank: If the economy keeps growing at the rate it has been lately, it will have created ____ million jobs during Barack Obama’s presidency:
a. 5 millionb. 8.3 millionc. 11 milliond. 22 million
I designed this little quiz so that most of you would say b (although I bet a lot of you said a). But the correct answer, according to calculations posted by Bill McBride at the Calculated Risk blog last week, is c. Yep, 11 million. No, those aren’t “Chicago numbers.” They’re the numbers. (And notice I didn’t say “Obama created X jobs”; I said the economy will have created 11 million jobs during his presidency, which acknowledges that job creation involves timing and luck.)
In this context, let me now rewind your mind to that really interesting section of Bill Clinton’s barnburner 2012 convention speech, when he compared the job-creation records of Democratic and Republican administrations. “Since 1961, for 52 years now, the Republicans have held the White House 28 years, the Democrats 24,” Clinton said. “In those 52 years, our private economy has produced 66 million private-sector jobs. So what’s the jobs score? Republicans 24 million, Democrats 42 [million].” Again, these are the numbers. PolitiFact judged this statement to be true.
Now imagine how Hillary Clinton (or Bill again, in her behalf) can update this at the 2016 convention if McBride turns out to be right: “Now the scorecard is even since 1961 in terms of years—28 years for them, 28 for us. The jobs score now? Republicans 24 million, Democrats 53 million.”
If you ask me, that should be enough to win an election right there. But the economy might not just glide along between now and next November. There might be a slowdown or even recession. And even if there isn’t, I wonder: Can Clinton just run on Obama’s economic coattails the way Al Gore could—or could have, if he’d done it better—in 2000?
I think that’s going to be tricky. If we start to see solid wage growth, around 3.5 percent, then maybe it’ll all be fine. But if wage growth stays closer to the current 2.3 percent, voters’ economic perceptions are only going to be okay, not great. Says the labor economist Stephen Rose: “The strongest pro-Obama statement one could make on the economy would be based on the counterfactual of what would have happened with a different set of policies, i.e., the Republican plan (like that of Cameron in the UK) of fiscal austerity. But people don’t give credit based on counterfactuals.”
So I think unless the economy is really soaring a year from now, Clinton is going to have to thread a needle. She’ll need to find language and policies that can both reassure the Obama coalition and Warren-Sanders wing that she will fly the liberal flag while also signaling to swing voters that her vision amounts to more than checking boxes. This is the age-old mystery of presidential politics, and there ain’t no formula for it. A candidate and her people just have to sniff the zeitgeist accurately (or at least poll it accurately) and be imaginative and smart.
If she’s both smart and lucky, Clinton will have two things going for her. First, a lot of these “liberal” economic policies happen to be supported by huge majorities of the public. Did you catch this Times poll last week on economic questions? People don’t like unions (although they don’t like Wall Street even more), and they’re against a financial transaction tax. Aside from those, the broader American public would be dismissed by Beltway arbiters as hopelessly left wing. Big majorities want the government to act now to reduce the gap between rich and poor; raise taxes on the rich; increase the minimum wage; offer paid family leave (that one is 80 percent); require employers to offer paid sick leave (85 percent). So maybe these so-called liberal positions are just kitchen-table common-sense positions.
The other thing she’ll have going for her is the continuing stupidity and stinginess of the other side. When the GOP nominee opposes paid family leave, as he inevitably will, he’ll be opposing something that has the support of 71 percent of Republicans. The Republican Party elite is ridiculously out of touch with where average Americans are. That’s a message Clinton and all the Democrats should be pounding home.
We may not know what shape the economy will be in next fall, but we do know that public opinion is on the side of all these changes, and the Republicans are against them. It won’t just be liberal voters who’ll grasp this.