Will a Clinton Victory Mean a Progressive Mandate?

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In the final stretch of this strange and surprising presidential election, the stakes are high for the September 26 debate. True to form, reports say Hillary Clinton is preparing with briefing book after briefing book, while Donald Trump is thinking only about optics. This is the dichotomy of 2016, a contest that has veered from the most policy-heavy Democratic primary in decades to a general election reduced to schoolyard name-calling.

My colleagues and I at the Roosevelt Institute believe this election provides an opportunity to restructure our economy so that it works far better for far more Americans. Eight years out from the financial crisis, though growth and unemployment numbers appear strong, we have learned that the very structure of our economy permits only a low-wage, low-innovation recovery. This last leg of the campaign could determine our ability to govern after November, and to make decisions that will improve our economy and our politics.

Progressives have hoped for this before. Amid the liberal euphoria of the 2008 election, some anointed Barack Obama as the second coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt. But in part because of the nature of crisis decision-making, and in part because of lingering neoliberal thinking among top economic experts, the new president did not take steps toward a modern New Deal. His soaring campaign rhetoric gave way to failed attempts at “grand bargains” and needless fiscal austerity that, we now know, weakened the recovery. The Obama administration is proud of its work on financial regulation and health care reform, but these remain incomplete, in large part because Republican obstructionism has stymied progress.

So, will 2016 be different? These days, the GOP’s united front is not looking so united. Despite Trump’s newfound ability to read prepared remarks, polls show that fewer than one in five voters in Trump’s own party believe he has the temperament to govern.

But to bring about full-scale economic change, Secretary Clinton can’t simply rely on Trump to self-destruct: She’ll need to win a mandate on her own policies and vision for the country’s future. That starts with acknowledging that the economic anxieties Trump is exploiting are not entirely unfounded.

Trump’s bigotry speaks for itself. I grew up in a Chinese immigrant family, and I trust my fellow Americans will decisively reject his hateful and at times violent rhetoric. But the middle class really has been hollowed out by decades of wage stagnation, even as top executives continue to get richer. Communities across the U.S. really have been devastated by the effects of globalization, technology, and bad trade deals. Financial firms really have swindled their clients and left taxpayers to foot the bill for their risky behavior.

Secretary Clinton captured these concerns in her campaign launch on Roosevelt Island, echoing FDR’s Four Freedoms address in a speech that outlined a comprehensive economic reform agenda. The goal, she said, was to create “an America where, if you do your part, you reap the rewards. Where we don’t leave anyone out, or anyone behind.” Since then, she has often spoken of the need to fundamentally rewrite the rules of the economy in order to level the playing field for American workers. In her recent speech in Warren, Michigan, she emphasized that these challenges have persisted since before the Great Recession: “There is too much inequality, too little upward mobility. It is just too hard to get ahead today.”

This approach echoes the message of Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy, a report published by the Roosevelt Institute last May. Authored by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, it makes the case that inequality is a choice, and that we can rewrite the rules of our economy and society to reduce inequality and expand the middle class without sacrificing growth. We propose rules that would tame the financial sector, reduce the growing influence of monopolies and concentrated corporate power, rebalance our skewed tax code, empower workers, and encourage businesses to re-invest in long-term growth instead of lavishing money on their shareholders.

Our research shows that the “rewrite the rules” message does well with a broad range of voters, expanding Clinton’s lead on economic issues as well as the intensity of her support. It appeals to the growing number of Americans who reject trickle-down economics and believe the system is rigged against them. And it is a compelling narrative with millennials, people of color, and unmarried women, the three pillars of the “Rising American Electorate” that will make up a majority of eligible voters for the first time in 2016.

Supporters cheer at Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign rally in West Palm Beach, Florida, March 15, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Carlos Barria

Voters, it seems, are not ready to give up on the hope that Obama promised in 2008, nor are they ready to give in to Trump’s paranoid xenophobia. They recognize that the system is broken, but they want solutions, not scapegoats. This is what we must watch for in the upcoming debate. Secretary Clinton can and should offer a contrast between herself and Donald Trump, and in doing so she must articulate a bold “rewrite the rules” economic message. Winning the election on these terms would give her an economic mandate for four years and beyond — and that would be the biggest victory of all.