How Hillary Clinton Became a Better Economic Populist Than Donald Trump

As Donald Trump has attempted to become more specific about his economic proposals, Hillary Clinton’s inconsistencies seem inconsequential by comparison. Credit PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRIS KEANE / REUTERS

When Hillary Clinton took the stage in Warren, Michigan, on Thursday to deliver a highly publicized address outlining her plans to revitalize the American economy, the benchmark for success was set low. Donald Trump had established the standard a few days earlier, on Monday, during his own, much-hyped economic speech. Appearing at the Detroit Economic Club, he offered more details on his contradictory, and clearly evolving, vision for the country by first describing Detroit as a decrepit place where dreams go to die because foreigners have stolen all the jobs, and where the lines on every chart are headed in one direction: down. He then, confusingly, described a plan that seemed to vastly favor the wealthy with generous tax cuts. He made it all too easy for Clinton to step in and take the populist, “I’m with you” message that Trump used to great success earlier in his campaign and appropriate it for herself.

After climbing behind a slender podium with a blue “Stronger Together” sign affixed to it as Marvin Gaye blasted in the background, Clinton launched into the kind of optimistic spiel she has been rehearsing since the Democratic Convention. “The auto industry just had its best year ever!” Clinton said—an apparently true statement, according to the Wall Street Journal’s fact-checking department. “Over in Ann Arbor, high-tech firms are thriving, the next generation of engineers is getting trained. . . . Here you are on the front lines of what I believe will be a true manufacturing renaissance in America.” She described the evolution of Futuramic Tool & Engineering, where she was speaking, from an auto-supply company in decline in 2000 to an aerospace-supply company where S.L.S. rockets and F-35 nose parts are now made.

When her opponent visited Detroit a few days earlier, she went on, “He talked only about failure, poverty, and crime. He is missing so much about what makes Michigan great.” She added, “And the same is true when it comes to our country. He describes America as an embarrassment. He says we are becoming a Third World country. Look around you, my friends. Look at the builders building rockets. That doesn’t happen in Third World countries!” The audience, including rows of burly men in work uniforms, responded with roars and cheers.

The ideas that Clinton sketched out over the next forty-five minutes were not new. But Clinton’s delivery of these ideas has become more effective, and Trump’s growing list of helter-skelter propositions and daily jolts of inspiration have helped enormously, like a hot-air balloon lifting her up. It’s also possible that she has been left with a newfound sense of ease after making it through several weeks when any number of micro-scandals—most recently, some awkward-looking e-mail traffic between the Clinton Global Initiative and the State Department when she was there—could have hurt her in the polls but didn’t because Trump kept the news-cycle outrage focussed on himself.

“There is too much inequality,” she said, uttering a familiar line. “Too little upward mobility.” To combat this, she described a robust role for the government, including what she characterizes as the “biggest investment in well-paying jobs since World War II,” in the form of massive infrastructure projects. She said she wants to connect every family in America to broadband by 2020, and to turn the nation into a “clean-energy superpower,” ahead of Germany and China. She sounded almost Trump-like—or Bernie Sanders-like—when she addressed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which she once called the “gold standard in trade agreements”: “I oppose it now, I’ll oppose it after the election, and I’ll oppose it after I’m President!” Any company that attempts to move its headquarters to a more tax-advantageous domain overseas should be treated harshly, Clinton said, and will be forced to pay an “exit tax,” which she first suggested in December, 2015. That was not the only tax. There would also be a new tax on multimillionaires, and she would crack down on loopholes that favor the rich. On the subject of Trump’s suggestion that he would allow working parents to deduct child-care costs from their taxes, which was met with widespread criticism, Clinton was withering: “He would give wealthy people thirty or forty cents on their dollars for their nannies, and little or nothing for millions of hardworking families trying to afford child care so they can get to work and keep the job!” She said that, instead, she would cap a family’s child-care costs at ten per cent of household income.

For anyone watching her evolution as a Presidential candidate, these big-picture themes sound familiar. In May, 2007, just five months after she formally announced that she was running the first time, Clinton delivered a major economic address in which she described herself as a “thoroughly optimistic and modern progressive,” and spoke of income inequality and the struggles of middle-class workers. She wanted to curb the “excesses of the marketplace” and make “smart” trade deals. She fretted about C.E.O. pay being out of control. She tried to locate a subtle middle ground where she would find ways to do things more intelligently rather than reject them entirely. This time around, in the face of Sanders and the palpable voter rage he brought to the fore, Clinton quickly abandoned that strategy as she struggled to distance herself from her image as the more cautious, business-friendly candidate during the primary. She went from advocating “smart” trade deals to disavowing them nearly altogether.

Strangely, though, as Trump has attempted to become more specific about his proposals—and, as my colleague John Cassidy put it, as the “tensions between the populist Trump and the trickle-down Trump” have become harder to ignore—Clinton’s inconsistencies seem inconsequential by comparison. She is a flawed candidate, one whose affiliations with Wall Street threatened to derail her momentum only a few months ago. But somehow the taint of being seen as a politician who is too connected to big banks or the establishment itself seems to be fading. And for this Trump has no one to blame but himself.

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