The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hillary Clinton thinks she can sell bigger government to fix the economy

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gestures after she delivered her "official launch speech" at a campaign kick off rally  in New York City, June 13, 2015. (REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)

Hillary Clinton is not running on the same-old liberal plan to boost the economy. She made that clear on Saturday in New York, in a speech officially kicking off her presidential campaign, which was loaded with proposals that go well beyond what she or President Obama promised in 2008.

What’s she is running on is a very old liberal economic philosophy, updated and expanded for a post-Great-Recession America where widening inequality and a stagnating middle-class have commanded high attention from Republican and Democratic candidates alike.

It is an expansion of the state into frontiers that Franklin Roosevelt, the patron saint of Clinton’s speech on Roosevelt Island in New York, never explored – a next generation of activist government, meant to correct the imbalances of an economic system distorted by the wealthy and the powerful for their benefit.

The updated Clinton plan includes reworking the tax code to shift the behavior of private companies away from short-term profit-taking and high executive pay and toward long-term investment and profit-sharing with workers. It includes new government guarantees of pre-school and quality child care for every kid in the country; for paid sick leave and family leave; for more equal pay for women and higher minimum wages for all.

It includes new regulations on Wall Street, on top of the regulations imposed under President Obama, and new fees on fossil fuel production.

“It’s not 1941 or 1993 or even 2009,” Clinton said. “We face new challenges in our economy and our democracy.” Then she added: “Prosperity can’t be just for CEOs and hedge fund managers. Democracy can’t be just for billionaires and corporations. Prosperity and democracy are part of your basic bargain too. You brought our country back. Now it’s time -- your time to secure the gains and move ahead.”

The speech left many policy questions unanswered. How high would Clinton raise the tax rate for top income earners? Would she continue Obama’s push for new trade deals in Asia and Europe, an effort currently inflaming her party’s liberal base? How exactly would she “rewrite” the tax code, as she put it, and how would those changes affect economic growth?

And yet, the path of Clinton’s economic agenda could not have been clearer. She wants to wield government power as a means to giving workers higher pay, better opportunity and more flexibility in their lives and careers. It is a stark contrast to the many Republicans in the race, who express similar concerns for workers but cast government as a source of their ills, not a solution to them.

Clinton seemed to relish that contrast on Saturday, playing “trickle-down” economics for boos from the crowd and warning the country not to “go back to the top-down economic policies that failed us before.”

“There may be some new voices in the presidential Republican choir,” she said. “But they’re all singing the same old song – a song called ‘Yesterday’. You know the one? All our troubles look as though they’re here to stay, and we need a place to hide away. They believe in yesterday!”

That old song, as conservatives gleefully noted on social media, was released a half-century ago. Republicans are already at work painting Clinton as a candidate from the past.

On Saturday, she tried to make an advantage out of that. You don’t quote FDR and the Beatles without a big wink to nostalgia. You don’t embrace an expansion of government without faith you can sell it to a new generation of voters, as a solution to a new set of problems.