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Hillary Has a Plan to Attack Inequality—Without Attacking Her Corporate Donors

How she's dealing with the most emotional issue of our time

Matthew Staver/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Even if Hillary Clinton never draws a credible challenger for the 2016 nomination, she’s clearly going to face a lot of questions about the issue that’s at the front of Democrats’ minds: inequality.

One possible response is for Clinton to rail against greedy corporate executives, particularly financial executives (banks being especially unpopular), as she prepares to run for president. But, of course, this poses something of a problem for a candidate who, together with her husband, has helped raise over $1 billion from the corporate sector since the early 1990s, as The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday. (According to the Journal, 12 percent of that money came from financial firms, compared with 13 percent of the money Mitt Romney raised and six percent for Barack Obama.) 

So what’s a presidential candidate to do? As it happens, we’re beginning to see the contours of a strategy, which was on display Monday during Clinton’s appearance at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Asked about inequality during a Q&A, Clinton spent the bulk of her four-minute response addressing the plight of workers who’ve been squeezed over the last several years. “Americans … feel like they’re falling behind, that at best maybe they’re running in place,” she said. “They don’t feel like the economy has recovered in a way that has helped them or their families.”

What’s going on here, I think, is that Clinton is savvy enough to recognize that “inequality” encompasses two separate but related issues. The first is the economic stagnation afflicting people in the middle and bottom part of the income scale. The second is the rapidly improving fortunes of the ultra-rich, who are leaving all the rest of us, even the kinda rich and merely affluent, very far behind. 

When Democrats use the term inequality these days, they typically mean the latter phenomenon. A Pew poll at the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement found that 91 percent of Democrats thought there was “too much power in the hands of a few rich people and large corporations.” It’s really about plutocracy, in other words, and it makes sense that this would be central to our current understanding of inequality. The financial crisis and recession crystallized the economic and political power of financial elites, after all. And, over the last few years, more and more data has come to light illustrating how a tiny fraction of Americans is amassing an escalating share of income and wealth.

But the working-folks stagnation issue is certainly real and emotional enough that Democratic voters are quite concerned about it, too. (Even if it's not new enough to merit an entirely new political term of art--we've been talking about it for decades.) And so Clinton is able to deliver a mostly compelling response to questions about inequality by focusing on this question, and mostly leaving the uncomfortable-sounding plutocracy stuff unmentioned.

Now, in fairness, I suspect Clinton, like most left-of-center politicians, has simply spent a lot more time thinking about how you boost the fortunes of struggling workers than reining in the power of the very rich, since we just weren’t aware of the extent of the plutocracy problem until pretty recently. She may well have more to say about the latter as she grapples with it further. A handful of Clinton aides suggested as much while I was working on my recent story about her invincibility within the party.

Still, I have a hard time believing there isn’t some serious calibration going on here—a bit of needle-threading designed to address the topic that most exercises Democratic voters without alienating the people she’ll need to fund her presidential campaign. Back in May, when Clinton made her first foray into the inequality conversation by way of a speech at the New American Foundation, she employed a similar strategy of mostly talking about the bottom part of the inequality problem rather than the top part. But back then she did at least mention the plutocracy issue, citing data about the increasing “share of income and wealth going to those at the very top—not just the top 1 percent, but the top .1 percent or the .01 percent of the population.” Although she proposed no solutions, she did say this raised concerns about a new Gilded Age. 

But that was in front of an audience of wonks and policy nerds. Before the much better-heeled crowd in Aspen, Clinton was even less expansive and far less explicit. The closest she came to plutocracy was the suggestion that inequality “affects our democracy,” a comment that different people could interpret in a variety of ways. It’s a shrewd rhetorical strategy—one that’s likely to work out for her politically, for the reasons I laid out in my piece. It would just be nice if the most prominent figure in the post-Obama Democratic Party actually addressed the issue Democrats care most about. 

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic