The now-you-hear-it, now-you-don’t populist

June 17, 2015

If you think Hillary Clinton has turned over a new leaf and become a pro-labor populist, then there's a bridge in Brooklyn that Elizabeth Schulte wants to sell you.

ACTIVISTS IN the Fight for 15 struggle got a big surprise when none other than Democratic Party presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton called in to a national union-sponsored conference last week.

"I want to be your champion," Clinton told the room filled with 1,200 mostly young, Black workers who have been protesting and striking over the last few years at low-wage workplaces to demand a $15 an hour minimum wage and the right to join a union.

You buying this?

Set aside the fact that Hillary Clinton is a pretty unbelievable "champion" of low-wage workers--considering her long relationship with Walmart. It's well known that Clinton sat on Walmart's board of directors between 1986 and 1992, and didn't say a word as the retail giant blocked workers' attempts to organize.

And her days as Walmart's "champion" aren't behind her, either. Clinton used her position as secretary of state under Barack Obama to visit India three times to try to convince the government to reverse its ban on big-box stores like Walmart.

Hillary Clinton at a campaign speech on New York City's Roosevelt Island
Hillary Clinton at a campaign speech on New York City's Roosevelt Island

A lot of newspapers took the tele-speech to the Detroit conference to mean that Clinton was actually supporting a $15 minimum wage. Except for one thing: she didn't actually say that.

NO MATTER how strange the story might sound, it's not an unfamiliar one. In 1992, Bill Clinton won the White House with a promise to increase the minimum wage, which had dropped to its lowest value in 40 years, adjusting for inflation. Once in office, though, the Clinton administration stalled and stalled and stalled.

"There is no question that the President is committed to raising the minimum wage," then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich told the New York Times halfway through Clinton's first year in office. "But the legislative calendar is so crowded at the moment that it is not time to put forward an increase in the minimum wage."

Guess when the "legislative calendar" cleared up? Not until after the Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress in 1994.

The Clinton administration did manage to get a modest increase in the minimum wage--90 cents worth, in two installments over the course of a year, bringing it to $5.15 an hour. The first hike, a 50-cents-an-hour increase in October 1996, came one month before Election Day, giving Clinton and the Democrats an accomplishment to brag about. Clinton sweetened the deal with Republicans by adding tax breaks for small business.

A decade later, the minimum wage increased by more than twice as much, in dollar terms, under George W. Bush as Clinton.

And that's just the promises to labor that Bill Clinton could claim to have half-delivered. There were others that never saw the light of day--like legislation to ban companies from permanently replacing striking workers, which the administration never found a moment for on the "legislative calendar."

In fact, the Clinton administration excuse that it faced an unstoppable Republican opposition, so it couldn't fight for the promises Bill Clinton made at election time, was just that: an excuse.

When a proposal came before the Clinton economic team in the late 1990s to raise the minimum wage and tie it to an inflation index so that it could keep up with the cost of living, the administration's answer was no. And the reason had little to do with stubborn Republicans.

According to 1998 memo reported on last year at the Huffington Post, Clinton's National Economic Council wasn't going to back the proposal, "since the minimum wage would automatically rise each year, it would take away a good political issue for those who believe the minimum wage is an important tool to help low-income families."

Then-Council Director Gene Sperling--who would also serve as Barack Obama's National Economic Council director, too--counseled against the indexing proposal and proposed a modest minimum wage hike instead.

It's the same old switcheroo: liberal talk at election time, and no talk at all when the rubber might have to hit the road.

WHEN SHE went to Roosevelt Island in New York City to lay out her campaign message this week, Hillary Clinton herself invoked the image of the "party for working people." Clinton referred to herself as a "fighter" 14 times, according to the New York Times.

Some liberal commentators are taking it as a sign of things to come. "The Democratic Party is becoming more assertive about its traditional values," Paul Krugman wrote in his New York Times column titled "Democrats being Democrats."

According to Krugman, Clinton's populist rhetoric signals a shift by her campaign toward the Obama campaign approach of 2008, which aimed to win over the Democratic Party's liberal base, as opposed to the appealing to the undecided "swing voters" in the middle, like Bill Clinton did.

And, writes Krugman:

the party's change isn't just about politics, it's also about policy...the Davos Democrats who used to be a powerful force arguing against progressive policies have lost much of their credibility...Such people have influence in part because of their campaign contributions, but also because of the belief that they really know how the world works. As it turns out, however, they don't.

Krugman's right in one respect: The triangulating, Wall-Street-pandering Clintonites of the Democratic Party have been discredited as neoliberals in sheep's clothing, every bit as devoted to serving the 1 Percent as the Republicans.

But is the (Hillary) Clinton campaign really turning away from the record of the (Bill) Clinton presidency?

The Democratic Party establishment doesn't suffer from an identity crisis every time that "liberal" politics shines a little brighter than the "center" at election time. It's confortable using both wings of the party to get the job done. We may hear about the party of the people at election time, but the party of Corporate America is always waiting in the wings to take over once the voting is done with.

And it's especially easy when there is so, so, so, so little content to the Democrats' "liberal" message.

Earlier this year, the Center for American Progress--the Washington think tank founded by John Podesta, who is Hillary Clinton's campaign manager--released a position paper on "inclusive prosperity." According to the New Yorker, the authors of the report are former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and British Labour Party economic spokesperson Ed Balls--politicians notorious for being boosters of deregulation, the power of free markets and the need for cuts and austerity, just slightly less harsh than the conservative opposition.

And when Clinton's rhetoric doesn't work, there's the liberal wing of the Democratic Party to round up the party's base and deliver them at election time. This time around, it's Bernie Sanders, the not-so-independent senator from Vermont, playing that part.

Barack Obama's former chief adviser David Axelrod cut to the chase in an interview with MSNBC's Chris Matthews: "I think people have will have a fling with Bernie. Bernie is like a great fun date because you know he's not going to be around town too long, and I think you're going to see people flirt with that. But at the end of the day, I think [Clinton is] going be the nominee."

When Hillary Clinton tells low-wage workers that she wants to be their champion, no one should believe it for a second. She wants to use the Fight for 15 struggle as background scenery when she tells the fictional story that she's a "fighter."

During her 2008 campaign for the Democratic nominee against Obama, Clinton made it clear how she thought change happened. "Dr. [Martin Luther] King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964," she said in an interview. "It took a president to get it done." In other words, the civil rights movement was nothing more than a backdrop for a Southern Dixiecrat granting Blacks their civil rights.

No, that's not how it "got done" then--and it's sure not how it will get done now.

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