Joe Hagan’s cover story peeks inside Hillary Clinton’s proto-campaign, and one of the most interesting things that emerges is the underlying awareness of vulnerability among her supporters. Six months ago, Clinton was a quasi incumbent dominating the field. Today it is finally possible to envision the circumstances that would lead to her defeat. The question before the Clinton campaign is whether she can head off the nearly inevitable liberal challenge.
Peter Beinart recently wrote a long Daily Beast essay predicting the rise of a new left in American politics. The first piece of it described, persuasively, the rise of the millennial generation, which is more liberal than the generations that have come before it. The second piece of the essay described, also persuasively, the likelihood of an economically populist uprising of the Democratic base against the party Establishment.
The flaw in the argument is the hinge between the first and the second. Beinart went from showing that younger Democrats are more liberal than Americans generally to assuming they are more liberal than older Democrats. But there’s no real evidence that’s true. Millenial Democrats are simply more likely than older people to agree with standard Democratic Party liberalism. That is to say there’s nothing about the millennials that is likely to make them internally change the direction of the party. And, in fact, Bill de Blasio — whose primary victory provided the news hook for Beinart’s argument — received higher support from the old than the young.
The coming liberal backlash against Clinton has two broad sources, neither of which is generational. The first is financial regulation. Too big to fail is the great sleeper issue of American politics. Its power has never been exploited because of a quirk of timing. The 2008 election came so closely on the heels of the financial crisis that neither campaign, already committed to preexisting strategies, had the wherewithal to organize a populist response. The 2012 campaign occurred after President Obama had already carried out his policy response (Dodd-Frank) and Mitt Romney was essentially the candidate of Wall Street, for whom the less voters thought about high finance, the better.
Dodd-Frank has decreased the systemic risk posed by the financial industry. But it hasn’t eradicated it, and it certainly hasn’t satisfied the widespread, justifiable desire to minimize the economic and political power wielded by finance. There are proposals floating around Congress to break up the big banks that enjoy the simultaneous benefit of appealing to the Democratic left and appealing to the populist center. If Clinton doesn’t grasp on to such a plan, one of her opponents will, and she’ll have no response.
What could give the financial regulation issue true destructive power is a narrative about money and corruption. Democratic primaries always feature a liberal insurgent. But the liberal insurgency doesn’t always rely on more liberal policy ideas. Liberal insurgent candidates instead appeal to an ideal of purity and good government. George McGovern in 1972, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Gary Hart in 1984, Jerry Brown in 1992, Bill Bradley in 2000, and Barack Obama in 2008 all presented themselves as cleaner and less compromised than the Establishment candidates. Not all of them ran on substantively more liberal platforms. Some of them, like Carter and Brown, arguably had less liberal policies. (Brown, unbelievably, ran on a flat tax, yet still established himself as the darling of the left.)
And here is where Clinton has exposed herself to a potentially glaring weakness. Two weeks ago, the Washington Post linked Clinton to Jeffrey Thompson, who financed secretive get-out-the-vote operations for D.C. mayor Vincent Gray and apparently played the same role for Clinton’s 2008 campaign. The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis has an explosive profile of Doug Band, the Bill Clinton body man and consummate political sleazoid who insinuated himself in Clinton’s inner circle and learned to monetize his own role.
There is no “Clinton scandal” arising from these revelations. But there is certainly an atmosphere conducive to one. Bill Clinton has surrounded himself with wealthy people and paid barely any attention to the money flowing all around him.
Even if nothing incriminating ever comes to light, the atmospheric revelations could form a potent combination with the policy agenda. Liberal complaints with their party’s failure to sufficiently regulate Wall Street have focused on figures like Larry Summers and Robert Rubin, but these men are proxies for the president who appointed them. Wall Street will be to 2016 what Iraq was to 2008: both a policy liability and a lever for her opponent to wedge open broader doubts about her character, to paint her as a corrupt and feckless insider. Clinton’s loyalists say she won’t repeat her 2008 errors. But she will have to show she understands just what the analogue is.