If Donald Trump continues to implode, Hillary Clinton will win simply by being the presidential candidate who isn’t Trump.
But the prospect of a President Trump is so terrifying that Clinton shouldn’t take any chances. The latest matchup polls show her ahead by a comfortable but not surefire margin.
What else can Clinton offer other than that she’s also experienced and would be the first woman to hold the job? So far, she’s put forth a bunch of respectable policy ideas. But they’re small relative to the economic problems most Americans face and to Americans’ overwhelming sense the nation is off track.
She needs a big idea that gives her candidacy a purpose and rationale — and, if she’s elected president, a mandate to get something hugely important done.
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What could that big idea be? I can think of several big economic proposals. The problem is they couldn’t get through Congress — even if, as now seems possible, Democrats retake the Senate.
Nor, for that matter, could Clinton’s smaller ideas get through.
Which suggests a really big idea, an idea that’s the prerequisite for every other one, an idea that directly addresses what’s disturbing so many Americans today — an idea that, if she truly commits herself to it, would even reassure voters about Hillary Clinton herself.
The big idea I’m talking about is democracy.
Everyone knows our democracy is drowning under big money. Confidence in politics has plummeted, and big money is the major culprit.
In 1964, just 29 percent of voters believed government was “run by a few big interests looking out for themselves,” according to the American National Election Studies survey. In the most recent survey, almost 80 percent of Americans said they believe that.
And because the free market depends on laws and rules, big money’s political influence has rigged the economic system in favor of those at the top.
Which has fueled this year’s anti-establishment rebellions — propelling Bernie Sanders’ “political revolution” that won him primaries in 22 states, and contributing to Donald (“I don’t need anybody’s money”) Trump’s authoritarian appeal.
A study published in 2014 by Princeton professor Martin Gilens and Northwestern professor Benjamin Page shows that big money has almost entirely disenfranchised Americans. Gilens and Page took a close look at 1,799 policy issues, determining the relative influence that economic elites, business groups and average citizens had on them.
Their conclusion: “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” Instead, lawmakers respond to the policy demands of wealthy individuals and big business.
The super-wealthy account for a growing share of both parties’ funds. In the presidential election year 1980, the richest 0.01 percent accounted for only about 15 percent of total campaign contributions. In 2012, the richest 0.01 percent accounted for an astounding 40 percent.
Adding to the cynicism is the revolving door. In the 1970s, only about 3 percent of retiring members of Congress went on to become lobbyists. In recent years, half of all retiring senators and 42 percent of retiring representatives have done so.
This isn’t because recent retirees have fewer qualms about making money off their government contacts. It’s because so much money has inundated Washington that the financial rewards of lobbying have become huge.
Meanwhile, the revolving door between Wall Street, on the one side, and the White House and Treasury, on the other, is swiveling faster than ever.
Clinton should focus her campaign on reversing all of this. For a start, she should commit to nominating Supreme Court justices who will strike down Citizens United v. FEC, the 2010 Supreme Court case that opened the big-money floodgates far wider.
She should also fight for public financing of general elections for president and for Congress — with government matching small-donor contributions made to any candidate who agrees to abide by overall spending limits on large-donor contributions.
She should demand full disclosure of all sources of campaign funding, regardless of whether those funds are passed through nonprofit organizations, through corporate entities, or both.
And she should slow the revolving door, committing to a strict two-year interval between high-level government service and lobbying or corporate jobs, and mandating a similar interval between serving as a top executive or director of a major Wall Street bank and serving at a top-level position in the executive branch.
Will Clinton make restoring democracy her big idea? When she announced her candidacy, she said, “The deck is stacked in favor of those at the top,” and that she wants to be the “champion” of “everyday Americans.”
The best way to ensure that everyday Americans get a fair deal is to make our democracy work again.