Hillary Clinton's economic message is muddled -- because she is the status-quo candidate

On Tuesday, Hillary Clinton gave a speech laying out what she sees as the economic dangers of a Donald Trump presidency.

She had a lot of material to work with, and she got in a lot of good shots, especially that Trump’s business books “all seem to end at Chapter 11.”

But the speech lacked the cohesiveness and flair of her speech two weeks ago about Trump’s foreign affairs risks. I think that’s because when she talks about the economy, Clinton is in the awkward position of arguing for continuity with change, like Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull or television’s Selina Meyer.

In the speech, Clinton made seven separate arguments about the economy which sat uneasily together.

By my count, they were:

  1. The economy is not performing well enough for average Americans, and needs adjustments to ensure economic gains are broadly shared instead of being concentrated at the top.
  2. President Barack Obama’s economic record is a success that should be built upon, not reversed.
  3. Obama’s signature economic initiative of his final year in office — the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement — is a bad idea that should be rejected, as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders say.
  4. Donald Trump poses threats to the economy in the usual ways that Republican candidates do, such as wanting to cut taxes on the rich, deregulate banks, and repeal Obamacare.
  5. Trump poses novel and wild threats to the economy that are unacceptable from almost any ideological point of view. For example, he has mused about defaulting on US public debt and about financing the government by printing money.
  6. Trump’s business record demonstrates his ineptitude.
  7. Trump’s business record demonstrates his selfishness and his dishonesty, and Americans should not trust him to act in their best interest.

These claims are not necessarily contradictory (though I suspect Clinton’s heart is not in No. 3). But there is a tension inherent in talking so extensively about how off-track things are right now while running a campaign that is, at least implicitly, about asking voters to choose an extension of the existing administration.

There is a plausible, more-of-the-same case to be made right now: Our recovery, slow though it has been, has outperformed Europe’s. We made better policy choices than our peers, especially on monetary policy. Recovery from a recession caused by such a large real-estate bubble was necessarily going to be slow as people worked to pay off excessive debts. The output gap finally appears to be closing, and unemployment is low.

Donald Trump Delivers Campaign SpeechDrew Angerer/Getty ImagesRepublican Presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during an event at Trump SoHo Hotel.

But it is hard to go out and tell people this slow recovery has met expectations, especially since it has underperformed the economic forecasts that were issued at the outset. So instead of praising the present, Clinton is left saying that we need to do so much better and yet should stay the course. It’s a hard message to get excited about.

The much more compelling part of the speech was later on, when it got more negative. This reflects the luxurious position Clinton is campaigning from: She doesn’t need to defend the status quo that robustly, because whatever you think of it, Trump threatens to do so much worse.

Even here, though, there is an issue with tension among Clinton’s arguments.

Clinton said in her speech that Trump has economic ideas that alarm people from the left to the right, from Elizabeth Warren to Mitt Romney. This is true: Romney has said Trump’s economic agenda would cause the US to “sink into a prolonged recession.” While some of Trump’s policy ideas, like big tax cuts, are stuff of the normal partisan divide, others (like trade wars and a cavalier attitude toward debt repayment) are viewed negatively by experts across the political spectrum.

But at the same time Clinton was citing Romney as an authority in her remarks, her campaign put up a website calling Trump “a below-average successful businessman who got rich by hurting a lot of people … Mitt Romney but bad at his job.”

Hillary Clinton Gives Economic Address In Columbus, OhioJ.D. Pooley/Getty ImagesPresumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks to supporters on June 21, 2016 at the Construction Arts & Auto Technology building, Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center, in Columbus, Ohio.

So, which is it? Is Trump a mere exaggeration of Republican Party trends, or is he a singularly dangerous and awful figure? Is Romney a decent and thoughtful guy whose apprehensions about Trump should be taken as a sign that Trump is uniquely terrible in ways that transcend ideology, or is he a cold-hearted businessman who was better than Donald Trump at screwing people?

Democrats always say Republicans are going to give reckless tax cuts to the top 1% that will starve funding from entitlement programs on which ordinary people rely. They say Republicans will let Wall Street run amok and prioritise the interests of the rich over everybody else’s. These are indeed elements of Trump’s stated policy agenda, and this is a perfectly acceptable political message — one that helped Obama win a 4-point victory over Romney.

But this message makes Trump sound like just another Republican nominee for president, the latest exponent of a message that reliably draws 47% or so of the vote. If Trump is a special disaster, a candidate who should be unacceptable even to people who ordinarily vote Republican, using the normal anti-Republican messages against him could serve to bolster him by normalizing him. If the attacks on Trump sound a lot like the attacks on Romney, it will be harder to convince voters that Trump and Romney are very different.

I thought the most effective message in Clinton’s speech was one we hadn’t heard much yet, despite a year of Trump saturation in the media.

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about Trump’s various businesses, and whether they should be considered failures. Clinton adjusted that conversation slightly, focusing on Trump’s success in structuring his companies so he would make money through fees, even if his co-investors lost their money. That is, “success” for Trump doesn’t necessarily entail success for everybody else who is party to Trump’s deals, and a lot of contractors and lenders and investors got stiffed along the way to making him rich.

It’s going to be hard to convince a lot of voters that the guy with the gold-dipped 757 isn’t really that successful, but it might be easier to convince them that his success came at the expense of others.

This is an editorial. The opinions and conclusions expressed above are those of the author.

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