NEW YORK – Nearly two years ago, Hillary Clinton commissioned an armada of white papers on economic policy to prepare for what her team assumed would be a presidential battle with a Republican such as Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, who were making wonky appeals to the middle class the central planks of their campaigns.
It was a strategic necessity, Clinton later confided to associates. She thought that voters would demand detailed plans from the candidates and reject what she called “easy answers” on the big challenges facing the country.
The campaign has not played out the way she imagined, with Republican nominee Donald Trump offering little detail about his promises to make America rich again. Still, when Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination this week, she stuck with her plan to lay out her economic proposals, declaring “I sweat the details of policy.”
As Clinton sets off on a three-day bus tour, she is struggling to connect with an economically anxious electorate: General-election polls show that voters, and by vast margins working-class whites, trust Trump more than Clinton to handle the economy.
Campaign officials say they have constantly heard from donors and outside advisers that their candidate needs to strip down her economic message. It's a challenge, they say, that weighs on them. “You don’t want to be, as the expression goes, bringing a calculator to a knife fight," said one senior Clinton adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity to frankly discuss the campaign strategy.
Clinton’s plan represents “a very sensible approach to economic policy and the challenges we face,” said Alan Krueger, a Princeton economist and former chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers who is advising Clinton in the race. “The risk in the campaign is, it doesn’t fit easily on a bumper sticker.”
Events have made it difficult for Clinton to lean on what used to be her simplest pitch — a call to return to “Clinton economics,” the balanced-budget, pro-free trade policies of her husband’s administration in the 1990s that helped fuel an economic boom but was followed by stagnating working-class wages and sharply rising inequality.
Instead, she offers a layered explanation for why middle-class incomes remain lower today than they were when her husband left office, including globalization, technology and poor choices by business leaders and policymakers. And in contrast to Trump's simplicity, she makes the case that her complicated solutions are the right way to address the challenges.
“It’s fair to say that my economic plans are detailed and varied because I think we are facing complex problems that require serious solutions,” Clinton said in an interview with The Washington Post. “But they’re all focused on a single, over-arching goal, and that is to create good-paying jobs with rising incomes. That is the defining economic challenge of our time.”
Still, as she tries to consolidate support from anxious progressives and court white workers, she is facing calls to go bigger, and simpler, on the economy.
“She needs to give people some hope that she ‘gets it,’” said Robert Reich, a former labor secretary under President Bill Clinton who backed Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vermont) in the primaries. “Not only the stresses that people are feeling, but also the need for a strong response.”
A vexing issue
Arguably no issue represents the tensions facing Clinton’s economic agenda more than trade.
After Clinton lost the Michigan primary to Sanders, who had rallied voters against “disastrous trade deals,” donors pressured the campaign to adopt the Vermont senator’s more standoffish message on trade, according to senior campaign officials. They wanted her to say, flatly, that trade was killing American jobs.
Clinton rejected those calls for broad brush statements. Instead, according senior campaign officials, Clinton embarked on a more targeted strategy: Use details to show voters she recognized the downsides of trade, without embracing the full message they wanted to hear.
“I want to talk about specifics," she told her advisers, and they consulted with the steelworkers union and the office of trade critic Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). In the end, she decided to focus on a provision in President Obama’s proposed Asia trade deal called “rules of origin” that was little known by the broad public but resonated among trade opponents. The provision would make trade with China easier by allowing cars manufactured primarily from Chinese parts to be labeled “Made in the USA" if they were assembled in the United States.
She centered a speech in Youngstown, Ohio, on her opposition to it. After that, “I started saying I trust her on trade and manufacturing,” said Brown, a top Senate liberal who was considered as a potential running mate. Clinton went on to win the state, including voters who told exit pollsters they worry that trade takes away American jobs.
Clinton advisers say that strategy exemplifies her nuanced approach to gaining the trust of anxious voters on economic issues. Trump is already working hard to combat it, on trade in particular. He has labeled the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (which Clinton supported publicly as first lady), expanded trade with China and other trade agreements “Clinton’s trade deals.”
In those attacks, Clinton’s supporters see a big risk.
On trade, “Donald Trump is formidable,” said Jared Bernstein, a former top economist for Vice President Biden. “He is talking about something real, and he is making many points that people on the left have been making.”
Today, Clinton’s trade stance remains far more nuanced than Trump’s. Asked in The Post interview whether the United States would have been better off not passing three controversial trade measures with North and Central America and China, she responded, “I think that’s a hard question to answer.”
“I look at this from both sides,” she said. “We’ve got to make our trade agreements more enforceable and then enforce them. We’ve got to renegotiate them so that we are not being taken advantage of. We have to make sure they’ve met the bar I’ve set. But at the same time, we have to support people who are affected, dislocated by trade. And we just don’t do a very good job of that.”
A day after Clinton spoke to The Post, Trump called NAFTA “the worst trade deal in history” in a Pennsylvania speech. He said expanded trade with China had created “the greatest job theft in history.”
“This wave of globalization,” he told the crowd, “has wiped out our middle class.”
Spending to speed growth
Clinton's presidential policy apparatus began with a small group of formal and informal advisers conducting what amounted to a research project on what is wrong with the American economy — and how to fix it. They interviewed about 200 experts.
What she has released so far is the distilled product of that effort.
Her plan includes spending more than $1 trillion to rebuild U.S. infrastructure, allow students to attend college without incurring debt and help working families afford day care for their children and take paid leave to raise them. She thinks such spending would create jobs and accelerate economic growth, help low- and middle-income students gain skills that are increasingly necessary for high-wage work, and reverse a recent trend of women leaving the U.S. workforce.
She would raise taxes on the highest earners and impose a new minimum effective tax rate for them, to pay for those programs and to curb inequality. She would add to the Obama administration’s wave of new regulations on Wall Street. And she would change the tax code to discourage companies from moving operations overseas, while encouraging them to share profits with workers and invest more in long-term opportunities.
“We skewed the tax code toward the wealthy,” Clinton said. “We continued to undermine workers’ rights. We have blocked investments in our shared future. And I don’t think it’s just greed, as serious as that is. It seems we’ve lost a sense of shared responsibility and forgotten we’re all in this together.”
Trade isn't the only issue where she's rejected the most liberal wing of her party. She did not endorse a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage -- even though the policy polls well, it was included in the party’s platform and it would lift the wages of many working class Americans. Instead, she backs a $12-an-hour federal minimum and the ability for states to set higher ones if they choose. Aides say that is because she thinks that $15 an hour may be too high for states with lower average incomes and costs of living, such as her former home of Arkansas.
And sometimes she has waved off her political team. For example, they did not want her talking about corporate “short-termism” in her early campaign speeches last year -- the idea that companies value short-term profits over the long-term investments that make for good jobs and sustainable businesses. Her advisers warned it was too confusing for voters. She used it anyway.
A struggle to connect
Clinton’s economic plan has drawn praise from a wide range of liberal and center-left policy experts, even when those experts have disagreements about what to do to address middle-class challenges.
She has blended slogans and policy proposals from several top liberal policy thinkers. For example, she talks about the rules of the economy being “rigged” against workers and toward the wealthy and powerful, in the manner of Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, and about family-friendly policies creating growth and prosperity, in the vein of Heather Boushey, an economist and writer who heads the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.
Still, some liberals argue that Clinton must do more.
James Galbraith, a prominent liberal economist who supported Sanders in the primary, said it is possible that Clinton could beat Trump with her current economic message, “but my gut would be not to be over-confident.” To energize progressives, he added, “there’s got to be a transition toward the positions Bernie Sanders has taken this time around, because that’s where the young people are.”
Clinton backers say her plan is plenty bold as is. “Many of the things that were the demands of progressives, she sang the words,” said Heather McGhee, the president of the public policy organization Demos and a liberal supporter of Clinton's. She praises Clinton’s debt-free college proposal in particular: “Bernie Sanders and the movement behind him should declare victory on that.”
Looking toward November, polls show that Clinton has struggled to connect with voters’ economic concerns the way Trump has.
A Pew Research Center poll this month reported that voters say Trump would do a better job than Clinton improving the economy, 48 to 43 percent. An earlier CNN poll showed Clinton trailing Trump by 8 percentage points on the question of who voters trust to handle the economy. That trust deficit swells to 32 points among white voters without a college degree, the economically anxious group that is key to Trump’s presidential hopes, and with which Clinton has lost the most ground compared with President Obama in 2012. Both polls showed Clinton winning overall.
Clinton’s team thinks wonkiness will win the day, by showing her to be a more serious candidate and by forcing Trump to flesh out his plans. “That’s going to be more persuasive than making these wild promises,” one senior adviser said, adding: “We’ll see.”
The trend for the past several election cycles has been for all candidates, Republican and Democratic, to add more detail to their policy proposals, especially as primaries give way to the general election. This year could be a massive exception.
Trump has begun to release economic fact sheets to accompany major speeches, and he is promising updated details for his tax plan. His web site now has seven items under its “positions” heading.
Clinton’s “issues” section has 37.