The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Hillary Clinton created her plan for America — behind-the-scenes

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton appears on stage at a rally a Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center in Columbus, Ohio, Sunday, July 31, 2016. Clinton and Kaine are on a three-day bus tour through the Rust Belt. (AP/Andrew Harnik)
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One of the more interesting features of Hillary Clinton's circle of economic policy advisers is that many economists aren't sure whether they are, in fact, in it. This is both a function of how many policy experts Clinton has consulted in the course of this campaign, and of the fact that she consults some of them far more than others. It is less a circle of advisers than a set of concentric circles, with a very policy-engaged candidate squarely in the middle.

Clinton has long built an image as a policy wonk, dating back to her days leading her husband's health-care task force. As a senator from New York in the early 2000s, aides say she was a heavy consumer of research papers. She would read newspaper articles at home, cut out ones that interested her, then bring them into work in a cardboard box for her staff to pull out and discuss.

During her 2008 presidential primary campaign, the economist Alan Krueger, who had served on the health-care task force and elsewhere in her husband's administration, gave her a briefing on labor economics, his specialty. He recalls that she asked him for an explanation of why two surveys the Labor Department uses to gauge the health of the job market sometimes show contradictory trends.

“Her willingness to go deep into the weeds on policy is exceptional," Krueger, a Princeton economist and former Obama administration official who now advises Clinton, told me, "even among the group of exceptional presidents I’ve worked for.” Another senior Clinton adviser, speaking on background to discuss the campaign policy operation candidly, offered the ultimate wonk praise of the candidate: "If she hadn't been who she is," the adviser said, "she would have been one of us."

To understand how Clinton has drafted the detailed and complicated economic policy agenda she's running on in this presidential campaign, it can help to build a mental picture of the team advising her. She's at the center. In the inner circle, so to speak, are several policy experts employed by her campaign and several more who advise in an adjunct capacity.

The campaign team is led by policy director Jake Sullivan, a longtime Clinton aide, and also includes a trio of policy hands: Michael Schmidt, Michael Shapiro and Jacob Leibenluft, who recently left a job on Obama's National Economic Council.

Clinton also appears to consult regularly with an advisory group that includes former NEC director Gene Sperling; Neera Tanden, a former Hillary Clinton aide who runs the Center for American Progress think tank in Washington; Ann O'Leary, another longtime Clinton aide who specializes in child and poverty work; two Princeton economists, Krueger and Alan Blinder; Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel-winning economist who writes extensively on inequality; Jared Bernstein, a former top economist for Vice President Biden; and Heather Boushey, who runs the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a research center, and whose work on paid leave and other "family-friendly" policies underpins much of Clinton's agenda to boost women in the workforce.

Somewhere beyond that group is a cluster of left-leaning economists who have served in previous presidential administrations or campaigns -- or both -- and who are sometimes briefed on economic policy proposals before the campaign rolls them out. Some of those economists are not sure exactly how close they are to the campaign.

Beyond that group is a very broad net of experts, including but not limited to economists, whom the campaign has consulted on specific issues. Some of the inner-circle advisers cast that net starting two years ago, looking to engage anyone they could on the massive question of what has gone wrong in the economy -- particularly for the middle class -- and what can be done to fix it.

The effort amounted to a research project. Aides set up focus groups for Clinton to drill down on particular issues. In May 2015, for example, she hosted a discussion on economic mobility in a Manhattan office which included the Harvard economist Roland Fryer, Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker and Heather McGhee, the president of Demos, a liberal think tank.

Those focus groups produced reams of policy proposals, which were then refined by her closest aides and her in-house team.

It is no surprise, given that process, that the resulting policy suite -- and the manner in which Clinton describes her economic philosophy -- borrow heavily from all corners of the liberal wonk world. She can sound like Boushey talking about how family-friendly policies boost workforce participation and economic growth. She can sound like Stiglitz talking about how the rules of the economy are "rigged" in favor of the powerful. She can sound like McGhee on debt-free college. She talks about the importance of bargaining power and helping workers gain new skills -- two ideas that at times have been at war in liberal economic circles.

This is how McGhee can size up Clinton's plan and declare, “Secretary Clinton’s agenda really proves that the kind of New Democrat ... conservative economic agenda is gone from the heart of the Democratic Party." At the same time, parts of Clinton's agenda continue to draw praise from centrist Democratic groups. Clinton isn't saying that the economy is broken only because the powerful have rigged it against workers or because a modernizing economy has left some Americans in its wake. She's saying it's a combination of all those things.

You can see the needle threading nicely in this passage from my economy-themed interview with Clinton: "We’ve seen so much downward pressure on wages," she told me, offering her summary of what has gone wrong with the economy and why workers are frustrated. "We’ve seen the disappearance of a lot of jobs that used to be available. And so I do think globalization and technology have played a role. But I also think decisions made by business leaders and government leaders have also played a role."

Republican nominee Donald Trump does not have such a nuanced view, nor such detailed policies. He proposes to cut taxes, build a border wall, beat China at trade and make America rich. Clinton has surrounded herself with advisers who see that as a weakness and her detail orientation as a strength.

“The reality is, building a wall is not going to solve this country’s problems," Tanden said. "The facts are the facts, and she’s going to level with people about it.”

Stiglitz said voters recognize that "the problem’s been festering for a third of a century, and the spirit of rewriting the rules -- it’s not going to be fixed by any one thing.”

“If I look across the items that she’s emphasized," he said, "I think they correspond largely to the priorities that represent a combination of the things that I think are important and that are understandable.”

Most importantly, her aides say, Clinton's proposals show voters how she would govern. She and her team see detail and consistency as a virtue, not just at the ballot box, but as a starting point for the task of passing new laws if she wins in November. They think that voters will reward that.

On this, the advisers say, they are confident but not certain. None of them has ever seen a campaign like this year's.