A new report from a leading Democratic think tank offers clues about how Hillary Clinton might tackle economic inequality, which has become a key motivating issue of the progressive base, if she decides to run for president in 2016.
The report, assembled by an international panel of prominent economists and policy experts, tries to tackle one of the biggest and most difficult questions of contemporary economics -- how to boost wages for the middle class and share prosperity more broadly. As Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren and many others have noted, while much of economy has recovered from the 2008 financial crisis, middle class wages remain stagnant.
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But while Warren pins the blame on Wall Street, the Center for American Progress report, released Thursday, takes a broader and less confrontational approach, highlights a wide basket of policy solutions employed successfully by other countries. Its authors have embraced a more positive, hopeful message of economic empowerment, putting aside the messier and more contentious questions of whether and how such sweeping initiatives would be paid for.
Clinton will have to "walk a tightrope" between speaking to the middle class and Wall Street, as longtime Clinton donor Alan Patricof put it on Bloomberg TV Friday. "I think that she's very sensitive to this kind of Elizabeth Warren trying to paint her as being identified with Wall Street," he added.
It’s hard not see the report as the potential seed of an economic agenda that helps Clinton walk that tightrope. It tackles the issues Americans consistently list as their top priority in polls -- jobs and the economy -- but in a way that’s less likely to alienate the business community and financial sector, or appear inauthentic to her own identity. The report’s international focus also plays to the former secretary of state’s strengths, and it would allow her to promote lessons she’s learned from her many travels abroad.
“In our time, advocates and apologists for anti-democratic regimes argue that the democracies are no longer capable of managing their problems or creating a sense of social dynamism. Democracies are cast as sclerotic, inefficient, and ungovernable,” the report says. “But countering this persistent attack on democracy requires that free economic and political systems restore their vitality and reclaim their ability to deliver on the promise of prosperity for all.”
Democrats made inequality a centerpiece of their 2014 campaign, but the party's steep losses in November suggest that their message and policy prescriptions weren’t strong enough to break through. Now that the pace of the recovery has picked up, they’re also struggling to take credit for the recovery while acknowledging the work that still needs to be done to make sure those gains reach ordinary Americans.
The CAP report suggests one potential way forward, providing a broad framework and positive message of empowerment that encompasses many of the economic policies that Clinton has highlighted in recent years, from paid family leave to a higher minimum wage to more affordable college education.
If the report seems tailor made for a Clinton campaign, that might not be an accident. CAP, after all, was founded by key Clinton allies to be an ideas factory for establishment Democrats.
Its current president, Neera Tanden, was Clinton’s policy director and one of her closest aides during the 2008 presidential campaign. Tanden keeps in touch with Clinton and her aides today, and will likely advise Clinton’s 2016 campaign from the outside, though Tanden has said she’s not interested in a day-to-day job on the campaign.
In addition to Tanden, the task force behind the report included former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a board member of the pro-Clinton Priorities USA super PAC, and economist Larry Summers, who served as treasury secretary under Bill Clinton. And the man who founded CAP, John Podesta, served as Bill Clinton’s last chief of staff and is expected to become the chairman of Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign should she decide to run.
Though Clinton has yet to lay out a detailed policy agenda, she has stressed the urgent need to deal with inequality since at least the spring. “The dream of upward mobility that made this country a model for the world feels further and further out of reach and many Americans understandably feel frustrated, even angry,” Clinton said during a high-profile speech in May at the New America Foundation.
And on Friday, Clinton tweeted that Congress should focus on helping the middle class, instead of rolling back financial reform, as Republicans are trying to do.
Podesta, who advocated for President Obama to make more aggressive use of executive action before he joined the White House and saw his work brought to fruition, has been laying the groundwork for how another Democrat presidential hopeful might deal with economic inequality. Just before leaving for the White House in late 2013, he founded the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, an offshoot of CAP that gives academic grants to research inequality.
The very first line of the think tank’s mission statement reads: “Over the past 40 years, economic inequality in the United States has returned to levels last seen in the 1920s.” There is no shortage of Democratic think tanks and policy wonks who focus on economic inequality, but some are considered more liberal, like the Economic Policy Institute.
Clinton would rather stay on the "tightrope."
Disclosure: Alex Seitz-Wald previously worked for ThinkProgress, a blog affiliated with the sister organization of the Center for American Progress.