Photographs by Andrew Hetherington
Back in the comparatively innocent days of 2015, before Donald Trump completed his hostile takeover of the Republican Party, before the Bernie Sanders juggernaut really got going, Hillary Clinton’s campaign thought it could get ahead through well-crafted policy proposals. On August 10, Clinton was set to unveil a grand plan to help families pay for college tuition, and for months leading up to her speech, the preparation soaked up hundreds of man-hours in conference calls, meetings and email exchanges. The level of seriousness, according to one participant, rivaled that of a White House staff gearing up for a State of the Union address.
At the outset, Clinton sat down at her kitchen table with Ann O’Leary, the senior policy adviser who was leading the effort, and made it clear she wanted something ambitious. The motivation was obvious enough, with Americans carrying something like $1.3 trillion in outstanding college debt, and even relatively affluent families struggling to cover tuition bills. “The request was that we think big, bring up ideas regardless of whether they were fully fleshed out or might be controversial,” says Robert Shireman, a former Obama and Clinton administration official who was one of several experts who worked on the plan.
Reining in tuition costs is a trickier proposition than you might expect, and not one that money alone can solve. If it became easier for families to pay for college, it would become easier for colleges to hike prices; if Washington put up more funds, states would try to put up less. Plus, Clinton had essentially ruled out increasing deficits or middle-class taxes, limiting the revenue available for any new endeavors. The wonks would have to get freaky.
Ultimately, Clinton settled on a scheme the campaign named the “New College Compact.” The goal, making public college debt-free, was simple. The mechanics were not. Families would pay “realistic” fees based on income, with poorer families paying nothing at all. Students would contribute directly through work-study programs. Washington would provide most of the money, but states would have to kick in some funds and hold the line on tuition increases. The feds would also crack down on for-profit colleges where too many students were getting substandard degrees and defaulting on their loans. All in all, the proposal would require some $350 billion in new spending over 10 years, which Clinton planned to pay for by raising taxes on the rich. James Kvaal, a former Obama administration adviser who consulted on the initiative, described it in an email as “a once-in-a-century change in the relationship between the federal government and colleges, on par with the Morrill Act (which created land grant colleges in the 19th Century) and the G.I. Bill.”
A few days before Clinton’s speech, O’Leary convened a final conference call to discuss media strategy. Anticipating a lot of attention, she instructed the team to be ready by the phones. Clinton delivered her address at a high school in Exeter, New Hampshire, and afterward, held a press conference in the gym. She got just one query about the plan. Earlier that week, Trump had described Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly as having “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever” during a debate, and so Clinton was grilled on whether Trump should apologize to Kelly, whether he had a problem with women, and what Clinton thought of the fact that Trump had retweeted someone who called Kelly a bimbo.
Over the next 24 hours, the tuition plan received only perfunctory coverage. “The calls just never came,” recalls Gene Sperling, another one of Clinton’s advisers. “It was all Kelly-Trump, 24/7.” Even many professional policy types didn’t grasp the full scope of her proposal; I didn’t realize it myself until I began researching this article. As primary season wore on, her scheme was overshadowed by a bolder, shinier promise from Senator Bernie Sanders: free public college for everyone.
The episode was typical of how this election has unfolded. Clinton’s policy operation has churned out more than 60 papers outlining plans for everything from housing for people with serious mental illness to adjusting the cap on loans from the Small Business Administration. The agenda includes extremely big items, like a promise to ensure no family pays more than 10 percent of income on child care, and extremely small ones, like investing in smartphone applications that would make it easier for military families living in remote locations to receive services available only on bases.
Some of these ideas are more fleshed-out than others. The childcare plan, for example, is missing crucial details, like a price tag. And because the multitude of initiatives doesn’t cohere under a galvanizing theme, the whole of the agenda can seem like less than the sum of its many, many parts. Even so, Clinton’s plans are as unambiguously progressive as any from a Democratic nominee in modern history—and almost nobody seems to have noticed.
The peculiar political dynamics of this election are largely to blame. In Sanders, Clinton drew an opponent whose ideas were even more grandiose than hers. Pretty much anything that Clinton wanted to do, Sanders also wanted to do, but on a bigger scale. Then, after Clinton clinched the nomination, policy dropped out of the conversation almost completely. A rare exception was the childcare policy Trump released in September, which was almost comically geared to benefit the rich. He has also issued three completely different versions of his tax plan. “She's got people that sit in cubicles writing policy all day,” Trump told a reporter. “It's just a waste of paper.” In early September, the Washington Post reported that Trump’s policy advisers had quit en masse because not only had the campaign failed to pay them, but he had also made it clear he wouldn’t be requiring their services to prepare for the presidential debates.
This summer, I stopped by Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters, where the policy team occupies prime real estate. The three senior advisors—Jake Sullivan, Maya Harris and Jacob Leibenluft—share an office steps away from those of campaign manager Robby Mook and chairman John Podesta. (O’Leary is now leading the official transition operation in Washington.) About a dozen more policy aides occupy nearby cubicles, below a sign that says “Nerds” and “Wonks for the Win.” This team manages more than 30 outside working groups that include academic heavyweights, Many of her academic advisers were first reported in a series by Jim Tankersley of the Washington Post. They include economists Joseph Stiglitz, Christina Romer, Simon Johnson, Laura Tyson, Betsey Stevenson, Roland Fryer, Alan Krueger, and Aaron Chatterji; and political scientists Jacob Hacker and Robert Putnam. think tank experts and trusted advisers like Sperling and Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress. It’s an impressive crew, but perhaps over-qualified when it comes to some of the matters that have convulsed this particular election, like the size of Trump’s hands or the semiotics of Pepe the Frog. “It’s not exactly clear what to do with all of that horsepower,” says a person familiar with the process. “There is just this mismatch between capabilities they have and what’s actually required in this campaign.”
People on the campaign assured me that the policy staffers work “the same insane hours as everyone else.” It's just that they’re focusing on November 9, and what Clinton would do if she manages to make it to the White House—where she would face an even less habitable political environment than Obama did. Unlike him, she’ll be entering office without a huge reserve of personal popularity to draw on. She’ll be hemmed in by Republicans on one side and a newly emboldened progressive wing of the Democratic Party on the other. With almost no room to maneuver, Clinton has to find a way to do something good for America. It almost makes the election look like the easy part.
What She Wants
One of Jake Sullivan’s favorite stories about Clinton comes from August 2011, when she was still at the State Department. The recession was over but employment was sluggish, and Obama had asked his Cabinet secretaries to pass along ideas they might have for boosting job creation. Most sent short notes. Clinton submitted a 12-page single-spaced memo, Among the ideas Clinton suggested were an infrastructure bank, speeding up the retrofit of buildings to make them energy efficient, and taking more aggressive steps to curb currency manipulation by China. complete with references. (“Classic Hillary,” was one reaction from within the White House.)
To map out her 2016 agenda, Clinton created a process akin to a college seminar, complete with required reading. She hauled around issue binders and cross-examined the experts who rotated through Brooklyn to brief her. These included Raj Chetty, a Stanford professor and MacArthur “Genius” fellow who is one of the world’s most influential economists. At a lunch session that lasted several hours, Chetty presented his research about the effects of inequality on children. He spoke about an old federal program that had proved more successful than researchers initially realized, and Clinton “got really excited,” Chetty recalls. She told him she had followed the debate over the program since her time as first lady. Chetty’s work is based partly on “Moving to Opportunity,” a 1990s initiative in which the government gave families the chance to win lottery vouchers that allowed them to move to more affluent areas. At the time, it was deemed a failure. Using new data, Chetty and his colleagues showed that the young children in families who moved were more likely to attend college and had higher earnings as adults, and were less likely to end up as single parents.
When it came to formulating her own ideas, Clinton wasn’t starting from scratch, obviously. But since her last run for the White House, the Democratic Party had undergone a minor metamorphosis—and in ways that didn’t seem like a natural fit for Clinton, at least as she was perceived by most voters. The progressive wing was clearly ascendant, with groups like Occupy Wall Street and Fight For 15 harnessing populist anger at the financial system, and Black Lives Matter turning an unrelenting spotlight on racial injustice. Minority voters had come to represent a larger proportion of both the party and the population, giving Democrats an electoral-college advantage whose influence was still unclear when Obama ran for office. And there was another trend at work—one that was less obvious, but no less important: In just a few years, the Democratic elite had quietly gone through a once-in-a-generation shift on economic thinking.
For most of the past quarter-century, a fight over economic policy has divided the party. It’s helpful to think of it as an argument between two ideological camps that shared basic values, but differed substantially over how to uphold them. On one side, you had liberals, who were convinced that without major government action, people would fall through the cracks of even a healthy economy. They pushed for tougher regulations on business and efforts to reduce inequality, and in some cases demanded stronger protections for workers in trade agreements. On the other side you had centrists, who also supported a strong safety net. But they were more likely to worry that regulations would hamstring businesses. They wanted to liberalize trade and cut government spending to encourage growth, which they thought would ultimately benefit Americans more than big new government programs.
During Bill Clinton’s presidency, the centrists mostly got their way—not least because his more progressive initiatives quickly withered in Congress. By the time Clinton left office, he had recast the Democratic Party as one that saw a role for markets as well as government in solving social problems. The centrists continued to shape policymaking well into Obama’s first term—their influence clearly visible when, in 2010, Obama turned from job creation to what Paul Krugman described as an “obsessive concern” with deficits. Economist Jared Bernstein, whom Vice President Joe Biden enlisted to hold up the liberal end of policy discussions inside the Oval Office, remembers it as a lonely time. “On numerous occasions when I was in the White House,” he told me, “I would make an argument and there would be typically five to seven people on the other side.”
Outside Washington, though, the assumptions underpinning the centrists’ theories were crumbling. The Great Recession did a lot of work by utterly discrediting the notion that Wall Street functioned best when left to its own devices. In addition, some of the biggest names in academia were demonstrating that it wasn’t enough to assume that if the economy was ticking along nicely, everyone would be more or less OK. French economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty showed that inequality had deepened in the U.S. even as the economy grew. David Autor from MIT showed that trade with China had benefited the American economy overall—but that the long-term damage to manufacturing communities was worse than previously assumed. The arguments that liberal economists had been making for years—that active steps must be taken to prevent inequality, that it affects the economy in structurally corrosive ways—were finally gaining broad currency. This “new liberal economics,” as it has been termed by the policy writer Mike Konczal, has now emerged as the orthodoxy within the Democratic Party.
And so, in an unexpected turn of events, Hillary Clinton’s economic agenda now stands as a correction of sorts to her husband’s. In speeches, Clinton often says that it’s time to “rewrite the rules” of capitalism—language injected into the debate by the Roosevelt Institute. She talks about the need for the Fed to encourage full employment, not just hold down inflation. “I’m having conversations with people who are on the campaign, with her policy staff, and finding myself on the same page where that wasn’t always the case,” says Bernstein, who has been advising Clinton. That’s partly because there are more liberals in key positions than in Democratic campaigns past—and partly because the centrists sound more like liberals these days. “We’ll see if it sticks,” Bernstein says, “but this is a little inspirational to me.”
This new thinking underpins Clinton’s entire domestic platform, which can be roughly divided into three areas. On the economy, her initiatives would pour $275 billion dollars into public works, more than the Recovery Act did. She has endorsed various measures to help unions recover at least some of their lost bargaining power. She has also called for changes to regulations governing both corporations and banks, on the theory that there are too many incentives throughout the system that encourage short-term thinking and risky behavior.
The second area may be the most innovative. Clinton has developed a slate of policies to address the fact that as women have moved into the workforce, society has failed to keep pace with the resulting changes in family life. These include guaranteed paid leave, so that workers can take time off to care for a new child or sick relative. She’s also offered measures to improve the quality of childcare and make it a lot more affordable. Clinton hasn’t specified exactly how this would work, but has indicated it would be through the tax code, It’s widely assumed that she means something like a scheme suggested by the Center for American Progress in which families would be eligible for tax credits that vary based on income. Unlike the tax deductions proposed by Trump, this scheme would be worth more to people on lower incomes and would not exclude those who have no tax burden.
The third area focuses on the protection of marginalized groups, from African-Americans and Latinos to the LGBT community. Clinton plans to make a major push for comprehensive immigration reform, in a plan that essentially picks up where Obama left off. On criminal justice, she wants to cut mandatory minimum sentences in half, and limit the types of offenses that trigger them. Again, this reflects the party’s shift away from its ‘90s-era incarnation, bolstered by conclusive data that showed that mandatory minimums put huge numbers of African-American men in jail, undermined families and imposed crippling financial strain on government—without actually reducing crime. “There has been a sea change in the conversation, a change long in the making,” says Harris, the senior policy adviser.
The price tag for all of this comes to some $1.6 to $1.7 trillion in new spending over the next decade, according to an independent assessment by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Clinton intends to pay for this by increasing taxes on the wealthy (the assessment found her accounting convincing.) Her plan is less expansive than the one offered by Sanders, Sanders wanted the government to take over health insurance by effectively creating a version of Medicare for everybody, while Clinton has proposed tweaks to the Affordable Care Act that would make its insurance offerings moderately more affordable. Another example is drug pricing. Sanders wanted the government to directly negotiate prices with drug-makers. Clinton has offered a series of mechanisms that would reduce prices but without the same blunt impact. Clinton's plan would cost hundreds of billions of dollars; Sanders' would be well into the trillions. and there are some places where Clinton didn’t go as far as she could have. Instead of a sweeping tax on financial transactions, for instance, she called for a narrow one, relinquishing a potentially huge source of revenue. Still, Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute and a longtime dissenter from the centrist consensus, told me he was struck by its direction: “Her agenda would have to be seen as more complete, more focused on generating wage growth and jobs than I’ve seen from other candidates [since the 1980s]—and therefore I think it’s more progressive.” And yet this realization hasn’t traveled very far beyond the small world of policy experts and activists. Alan Blinder, a Princeton economist who served in Bill Clinton’s White House and is now advising Hillary, told me: “I don't fully think people are wrapping their heads around the ambition of what she is proposing,”
One explanation for this is Hillary Clinton’s reputation as a serial compromiser, or worse, a sellout—the politician who echoed warnings about “super predators” in the 1990s, voted for a bank-friendly bankruptcy bill as a senator and has raked in millions of dollars giving secret speeches to Wall Street. Among her detractors, there are those who acknowledge that her agenda is a squarely progressive one, but they say she is simply bending to the power of the Elizabeth Warren-Bernie Sanders wing out of political necessity, and could reverse course when in office.
Clinton’s defenders argue—with no little frustration—that she has always been more progressive than people realize. They cite her lifelong advocacy for children and poor families and recall the ugly attacks on her openly professed feminism. “When [Clinton] was first lady back in the 1990s, progressives went to her on issue after issue to advocate for progressive causes inside the White House,” Neera Tanden says, “from saving Social Security to health care to minimum wage to children's issues.” More than one person pointed out that her policy views are often incorrectly assumed to be identical to her husband’s. “Hillary is not Bill,” Bernstein says. “I don’t think she has ever been where he is on trade.” He adds: “I remember talking to her in the 1990s. She recognized that these trade agreements are often just handshakes between investors. I don’t think her husband would have said that.” One longtime Clinton aide told me, “The idea that she's some kind of conservative and not progressive is ridiculous.”
Of course, it’s possible for both of these things to be correct. A close reading of her record over the years supports the argument that her instincts in certain areas of domestic policy are genuinely left-leaning. But it’s equally true that she is inclined by nature to work within the bounds of what is politically doable, and that she spends large amounts of her time in the company of the corporate elite. What’s different about 2016 is that, for the first time in her political career, she is facing more concentrated pressure from the left than the center. Her advisers were eager to point out to me that, even though it would have been easy for her to court Republicans by signaling that she would dilute her agenda, she still hasn’t “pivoted.”
“What she was for in the primary is what she stands for today,” one aide told me. “There is no change in tone or content.”
- $500 billion for public works, half to be funded by private investors through an “infrastructure bank.”
- Raise federal minimum wage to $12.
- Change rules for capital-gains taxes to reward long-term investing, not short-term gains.
- Appoint officials who will aggressively enforce labor and consumer regulations.
WORK AND FAMILY
- Up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a baby or relative, or to recover from illness.
- Tax credits and subsidies to ensure no family spends more than 10 percent of income on childcare.
- Matching funds for states that create preschool programs.
- Seed money for states to invest in programs that raise salaries for childcare providers.
- A federal-state program that would allow anybody to study at a four-year public college debt-free.
- Free community college.
- Debt relief for entrepreneurs and people who pursue public service.
- A three-month student-loan repayment moratorium for federal borrowers—via executive action—so debtors can explore options for relief.
- Cut mandatory sentence periods in half for nonviolent drug offenses.
- Change the definition of offenses that require mandatory sentences so they apply to fewer cases.
- Help every police department to purchase body cameras, via matching funds.
- $10 billion over 10 years for addiction treatment and recovery.
- Fix Obamacare’s “family glitch,” which makes coverage on the exchanges prohibitively expensive for some low-income families.
- More financial assistance for people with private insurance who face high premiums or out-of-pocket costs.
- Demand drug companies give Medicare the same discounts that they give Medicaid.
- Allow imports of high-cost drugs (or their generic equivalents) from countries where they are cheaper.
- Increase capital requirements for the largest banks and place new rules on the activities of “shadow banks” that engage in the riskiest behavior.
- Plug loopholes in the “Volcker Rule” to limit high-risk activity by big banks.
- Apply a “risk fee” to the largest financial institutions.
- Impose a tax on certain transactions to discourage high-speed traders.
- Comprehensive reform that would allow undocumented immigrants to work legally if they pay taxes and pass a background check. Includes beefed-up border security and a path to citizenship.
- Close all private detention facilities
- Relief from deportation for more groups—like parents of DREAMers—through executive action if necessary.
- Better legal representation for children in deportation proceedings
- Allow women and children seeking asylum to stay with relatives.
Why She Might Not Get It
Clinton and her team are not delusional—they know that passing her agenda would get very messy, very fast. Even if she manages to pull off a decisive victory, Democrats almost certainly won’t take the House. They may not even regain the Senate. Still, Clinton has identified two top priorities that she believes could plausibly become law early in a first term.
The first is a jobs bill that includes some version of her infrastructure proposal. This passes for an “easy” option, since it polls well even with Republicans and is favored by business and labor. The second priority, immigration reform, is the opposite of easy. The political logic is that after Mitt Romney lost in 2012, the Senate was able to pass a bipartisan immigration bill because the GOP wanted to improve its standing with Hispanics. A Trump loss, the theory goes, might motivate the House to do the same. One Clinton confidant described the broader calculation like this: “Do they decide their strategy is, OK, our problem was just this guy and now we’ve rid ourselves of him, so all we have to do is crush Hillary for four years and then we will win the presidency? Or do they decide we have to fundamentally reconstitute things … [that] we can’t just be the party of no, let’s figure out some things we can get done. It will be a huge difference whether they choose door number two or door number one.”
On cooperating with Clinton, a senior House GOP aide said:
I just don’t see where any optimism comes from.”
Clinton’s team believes she has several advantages when it comes to Congress. “Part of the optimistic view for me is that Hillary Clinton has a history of actually working across the aisle to get big things done,” says Harris. “She jokes that [Republicans] really like her when she is not running for office.” Harris told me she “strongly believes it is possible to move forward” on key issues like immigration and criminal justice, pointing out that that as first lady, Clinton teamed up with Senator Orrin Hatch to pass an expansion of children’s health care, and with House majority whip Tom DeLay to pass a bill improving foster care for children. John Podesta observed: “Just being willing to sit in the same room with [DeLay] ought to earn you a merit badge. But she actually got something done.“ (Both Hatch and DeLay have since said that Clinton overstates the extent of their cooperation.)
Clinton's inner circle is also placing high hopes on the man who could end up becoming her chief antagonist: Paul Ryan. Last year, the Republican House speaker worked with the White House and Democratic leaders to pass an omnibus spending bill that gave both parties something to smile about in the tax policy department. To one Clinton ally, this signaled that “Ryan and the Republicans, even in the context of an election campaign, are prepared to do business on not-insignificant matters.” This person went on: “The optimistic storyline … is that it’s a precursor to future cooperation and, after an election when you have some kind of wind at your back as a new president, it’d be very difficult for them not to work with you on some of these kinds of things.”
Obama, too, once imagined a similar scenario. His 2008 pitch leaned heavily on his willingness to bridge partisan divides. In the run-up to the 2012 election, he mused that an emphatic win might finally cure Republicans of their “fever” for shooting all Democratic initiatives down on sight. The fever never broke. Take Obama’s own attempts to pass an infrastructure bill. Throughout his second term, he pushed for legislation very similar to Clinton’s plan. All he got was some highway and surface funding which Congress was due to reauthorize anyway. The big public works package went nowhere.
People familiar with both leaders insist that Clinton could still succeed where Obama hasn’t. They describe Clinton as both more realistic about the prospects for cooperation with Republicans than Obama was, but also better-equipped to work with her opponents. She’s more willing to sit through arguments she thinks are nonsense, and less likely to assume her adversaries are arguing out of bad faith. She is particularly good at finding common cause even with people who have demonized her. “Her natural style is much more inclined to persistent, relentless engagement with the Hill, trying to lift up the thing they care about, and fold them into a large initiative,” one Clinton ally says.
It’s a great theory, until you talk to actual Republicans. If they are more amenable to working with Clinton, they aren’t sharing it, not even in whispers. “I just don’t see where any optimism comes from,” says one senior House Republican aide. “She essentially wants to continue working on the unfinished items on Obama's list, and I don’t see why anybody thinks she’ll have more success in the next four years than he did in the last six.” On infrastructure, the senior aide noted that last year’s transportation bill funds roads until 2022. “We just did a six-year, big-ass highway bill,” the aide says. “I don’t see a whole lot of urgency to do another infrastructure bill.” The aide was even blunter when it came to immigration reform: “I can’t fathom how that would come together.”
Pretty much all of the major items on Clinton’s list require new spending, which she plans to fund by boosting taxes on the wealthy. For the GOP, that’s essentially a non-starter. As for the possibility that Democrats could attack Republicans for obstructionism, the senior aide basically shrugged. “That’s baked into our brand already,” the aide said. “What are they going to say about us that they haven’t already said?”
It’s not only Republicans who will be giving Clinton headaches—she’ll get plenty of those from Democrats, too. To pass anything at all, she needs to be able to compromise with the GOP without alienating progressives. Inside the Capitol, the consensus is that the only way to get an infrastructure bill is to package the new spending with corporate tax cuts that Republicans covet—for instance, lowering taxes on U.S. companies with operations abroad. Such a move will meet intense skepticism from Sanders or Warren, who basically see it as an invitation for U.S. companies to shift jobs off-shore. (“That is nuts,” Warren wrote in a New York Times op-ed in September.) “I think the politics are now going to be harder from the left,” says one person who has been privy to recent tax reform negotiations in Congress. “I am worried that anything that is attractive enough to Paul Ryan on the corporate side is going to be really hard for the Warren-Sanders side.”
Warren in particular is keenly aware that she has a great deal of leverage in this situation, and so far has proven shrewd at using it. She and her allies find a lot to like in Clinton’s agenda. “They have taken seriously the need to keep the reform-oriented wing of the party happy enough,” one Warren ally says, “and for now they seem to have succeeded.” But it would be a stretch to say that they trust Clinton. In order to ensure that she follows through on her promises, they intend to keep up the pressure. Top priorities include making sure Clinton opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership and pushes for a higher minimum wage.
Progressives are also laser-focused on executive branch appointments and staffing. As Warren put it to a gathering at the Center for American Progress in mid-September, “personnel is policy.” If Clinton's legislative agenda stalls, the administration’s best hope of realizing its goals will be through the rules that federal agencies issue and how they choose to enforce them. According to Politico, progressive activists are already circulating a list of appointees they would fight, such as Morgan Stanley vice chairman and former State Department official Tom Nides. “He’s the whisperer to Wall Street, and goes around saying she’s not a crazy person, you don't have to worry about her,” says one operative. (Associates of Nides bristle at this description, arguing that some of Washington’s toughest regulators once worked on Wall Street.) Progressives were heartened to see Heather Boushey, a liberal economist who has championed generous work-family policies, join the transition team. And they want more appointees like Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who made use of a decades-old statute that could be used to change overtime rules and make several million more workers eligible for extra pay.
People around Clinton are optimistic that they can bring Warren and Sanders into the fold early. “I think she’s going to have to have a lot of conversations with Warren about what’s doable,” one ally says. The idea is to make them feel invested not just in Clinton’s policy agenda, but in the success of her presidency. “Look, Bernie Sanders won 10 million votes. From my personal perspective, that entitles you … to a voice in what the party is trying to accomplish,” one adviser says. “I think that’s an exercise we began in the platform process, through the convention and will continue as we go through the transition if we win.”
Is That All There Is?
The Democratic convention in Philadelphia in July was unlike any of the five others that I’ve attended. Over and over, I was struck by the fact that Democrats were proudly showcasing aspects of their agenda or members of their coalition that in previous years they would have sought to downplay. Even in 2008, I couldn’t envision the DNC featuring an undocumented immigrant in primetime, or members of Black Lives Matter, if it had existed then.
On the last night, when Clinton took the stage to give her acceptance speech, I perched in the stairwell of a section reserved for some of her special guests. Gabby Giffords was there; and so was Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO; and Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, where Clinton began her career in public policy four decades ago. At one point I felt some scratchy fabric brushing against my hand: It was the sequined dress of Katy Perry, who was slipping past me to reach her seat.
The person I was there to watch was policy adviser Ann O’Leary, who has worked with Clinton for many years. The speech, she told me, had been undergoing revisions until 4 a.m. and then final tweaks during the day. O’Leary teared up a bit during the introductory biographical movie, and cheered when Clinton mentioned mental health, an issue O'Leary had worked hard on. When Clinton got to the line, “I sweat the details of policy,” O’Leary reached over to tug at my sleeve. “That’s my favorite part,” she said.
As somebody who obsesses over policy, I appreciated it, too. But during this election, and especially as Clinton’s position in the polls has started to slide, I’ve found myself experiencing the wonk’s version of a midlife crisis. Exactly how important is it for a presidential candidate to show off a deep knowledge of policy, to grapple with the complications and trade-offs and come up with something that could work in the real world? Do all those binders matter?
The political benefit of an extensive agenda is that it convinces voters the candidate is serious about governing. And Clinton has surely done that. But her platform is so hyper-detailed, so painstakingly constructed to be financially and politically practical that it can obscure something more important: what she stands for. Her agenda lacks the kind of bigger vision or narrative that voters need to be convinced that a candidate is on their side. It’s one reason she finds herself struggling against a candidate who is so unashamedly ignorant and whose agenda would be disastrous for the people he champions. This September, a poll showed nearly half of millennial voters thought Trump would be no different or better than Clinton on student loan policy—despite the fact that Clinton mentions her tuition plan constantly and Trump has barely said a word on the subject.
What all this comes down to, in the end, is the best way to govern in an intractable political moment. In my conversations with Democrats who have worked with both Clinton and Obama, that subject came up a lot. People often remarked that for both politicians, their greatest strength was also their main vulnerability. Obama, people told me, was more likely to set an overarching goal and stick to it no matter what. This turned out to be invaluable in the fight for health care reform and many of his second-term successes, but it limited his overall effectiveness at doing deals with Congress. Clinton, they said, is better at the grind of coalition-building. But at times she can become so immersed in this messy process that she loses sight of her larger aims. If she’d been in Obama’s place when healthcare reform hit the rocks, it’s an open question whether she would have shown the same perseverance.
If the worst-case scenario comes to pass, and Clinton can’t enact any big pieces of legislation, that’s when her more incremental style could prove the most useful. Like Obama, Clinton would look to advance her agenda through rules and regulations—in fact, she has a list of executive actions at the ready. These include the moratorium on student loan repayment and closing all private immigration detention facilities. She would also look for opportunities for small legislative wins—tacking an amendment onto a must-pass bill, for instance. Given her greater tolerance for this kind of horse trading, it’s conceivable that she could get further with this approach than Obama did.
The danger here for Clinton is also the danger for liberalism itself—that a lack of major progress on the nation’s core economic challenges will leave voters even more convinced that government cannot, or will not, solve their problems. In 2012, Obama could at least run on the legislation he passed while he still held a congressional majority: health care reform, Dodd-Frank, the auto bailout and the Recovery Act. Come the fall of 2020, Clinton is unlikely to have such a resume.
The people in Clinton’s close orbit understand all this. They know that their boss has been preparing herself for this job for much of her adult life. They are confident that she will achieve progress in the White House by drawing on the qualities they admire about her the most: her belief in the potential of public policy to change lives, her tenacity. And they believe that advancing her agenda piece by hard-fought piece, laying the foundation for bigger legislation at some future point when the politics permit it, is a deeply meaningful accomplishment. And yet even her most dedicated allies don't talk about the next four years in terms of a transformative presidency. “Realistically what the secretary has to try to do if she is elected is to generate some momentum—to do enough so people don’t believe Washington is just completely broken and nothing is ever going to happen,” one confidant told me. “Give enough relief to families and communities so they think, ‘OK, it’s not all great but it’s headed in the right direction.’ I think that is achievable.”