Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with people during a book signing on June 10, 2014 in New York, N.Y.
Photo by Dennis Van Tine/Geisler-Fotopres/picture-alliance/dpa/AP

Robert Reich’s advice to Hillary Clinton: Ride the populist wave

Updated

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich is not running for president, but he thinks any Democrat who is – including his “old friend” Hillary Clinton – should worry about Republicans outflanking them on populism.

Reich, now a professor at the University of California Berkeley, first met Hillary Clinton when she was a freshman at Wellesley and they marched in civil rights demonstrations together. He met Bill Clinton around the same time at Oxford, when they were both Rhodes Scholars. He went on to work on both of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns, and joined the administration.

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In the Clinton cabinet, he was seen as the ideological counterweight to Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who spent 25 years at Goldman Sachs before joining the administration and then returned to Wall Street afterward.

“The message from the White House was that the economy is better. That’s the wrong message when most people are feeling the economy is worsening.”
Robert Reich
So, if Hillary Clinton runs for president in 2016, will she be more in the Reich or Rubin schools? “It’s not clear yet. We’ll find out. I think she has that choice,” Reich told msnbc.

If she wants to ride the populist wave, Reich said, she needs to focus on growing economic inequality, wage stagnation, and the decline of the middle class. While he said her husband could get away with “alluding” to those issues, “now the situation has changed. It’s got to be central.”

His suggested platform includes some ideas Clinton already supports (paid family and medical leave, increasing the minimum wage, reforming student debt), some she might come out for (a tax hike on the top sliver of income earners), and some she’s unlikely to ever endorse (reinstating the Glass-Steagall banking regulation).

The Democratic Party’s favorability rating reached a record low after last week’s election, but progressives are doubling down on their calls for the party to embrace the kind of economic populism championed by people like Reich and Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Reich insists these issues are neither progressive nor populist, but simply “mainstream.” “I’ll help anybody. If Rand Paul calls, I’d be happy to help him,” Reich says.

In fact, he says Democrats should worry about Republicans assuming the anti-establishment mantle. “Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have been talking about these issues, if maybe not exactly in ways that Democrats would always appreciate. The frontline in American politics, maybe not in 2016, but over the next 5 to 10 years, is not Democrat versus Republican, it’s establishment versus non-establishment,” he explained.

“If Democrats don’t understand this dynamic, they are going to be on wrong side of history,” he said.

This message has earned Reich heaps of praise on the left, where the economist stands among a rarefied pantheon of progressive thought leaders.

“If Democrats don’t understand this dynamic, they are going to be on wrong side of history.”
Robert Reich
Some have even called on Reich to run for president himself. Democracy for America, an organization which grew out of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, included the former labor secretary on a list of potential candidates it might support in 2016. And in a recent email to supporters making “the progressive case” for why each should make a run at the White House, the group called Reich “a strong progressive leader who has experience in the federal government taking on income inequality.”

Reich has heard the talk, but dismisses it offhandedly. “I’m too short and too outspoken to run,” he says. “I hear it from people, but I don’t take it seriously.” What if he were drafted? “I don’t know what it means to be ‘drafted.’ I really don’t think there’s any serious possibility.”

And Reich doesn’t see Democrats’ wipe-out in last week’s election as a setback for his cause. “The message from the White House was that the economy is better. That’s the wrong message when most people are feeling the economy is worsening,” he said. “That message sounds like Democrats are out of touch.”

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Instead of papering over the weak economic recovery, Democrats should have been calling attention to chronic underlying problems for the middle class. “There was no reason for the White House or Democrats to be defensive about inequality widening and people being on a downward escalator, because it’s been the Republican Party that’s been the most adamant opposition to every proposal” to address the problems, he said.

“I think the Democrats have an opportunity over the next two years to sound the alarm and come up with a powerful message for saving the middle class, for taking on the forces the have kept most Americans down,” he said.

Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton and Robert Reich

Robert Reich's advice to Hillary Clinton: Ride the populist wave

Updated