“I believe in an America always moving toward the future.”
— Hillary Clinton, June 21
This was not the most important line in Clinton’s Ohio economic policy speech, only the most amazing. Surely there cannot be a more vacuous, meaningless piece of political rhetoric. Every terrestrial entity from nematode to the United States of America moves forward into the future quite on its own, thank you. Where else is there to go?
To be fair, however, spouting emptiness is tempting when you have the impossible task of running as the de facto incumbent in a ragingly “change” year. Clinton is trapped by circumstance. She’s the status quo candidate, Barack Obama’s heir, running essentially on more of the same when, after two terms and glaring failures both at home and abroad, Americans are hardly clamoring for four more years.
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Historically speaking, they almost invariably do not. Which is why for the last 60 years, with only one exception, whenever one party has held the White House for two terms, it’s been unceremoniously turfed out. (The one exception: 1988, when Ronald Reagan was rewarded with a third term to be served by George H.W. Bush.)
How little does Clinton have to offer? In her recent speeches, amid paragraph upon paragraph of attacks on Donald Trump, she lists the usual “investments” in clean energy and small business, in school construction and the power grid, and of course more infrastructure.
That’s about as tired a cliche as taking the country into the future. Ever heard a candidate come out against infrastructure? Even Trump waxes poetic about the roads and bridges he will rebuild, plus erecting that beautiful wall.
Haven’t we been here before? All those shovel-ready infrastructure projects to be funded by Obama’s $830 billion stimulus? Where did the money go? Yet the one area of agreement among all candidates of all parties is that our infrastructure is crumbling still.
Defending the status quo today is a thankless undertaking. It nearly cost Clinton the Democratic nomination. Bernie Sanders campaigned loudly and convincingly against the baleful consequences of the Obama years — stagnant wages, income inequality and a squeezing of the middle class. Clinton was forced to echo those charges while simultaneously defending the president and policies that brought on the miseries.
Not easy to do. She is left, therefore, with a pared and pinched rationale for her candidacy. She promises no fundamental change, no relief from the new normal of slow growth, low productivity and economic stagnation. Instead, she offers government as remediator, as gap-filler. Hillaryism steps in to alleviate the consequences of what it cannot change with a patchwork of subsidies, handouts and small-ball initiatives.
Hence the $30 billion she proposes to soften the blow for the coal miners she will put out of business. Hence her cure for stagnant wages. Employers are reluctant to give you a wage hike in an economy growing at 1 percent. So she will give it to you instead by decreeing from Washington a huge increase in the minimum wage.
Hillaryism embodies the essence of modern liberalism. Having reached the limits of a welfare state grown increasingly sclerotic, bureaucratic and dysfunctional, the mission of modern liberalism is to patch the fraying safety net with yet more programs and entitlements.
It reflexively rejects structural reform (That’s the project of Paul Ryan and his Reformicons.) The triangulating Bill Clinton was open to structural change, most notably in his 1996 welfare reform. Hillaryism is not.
She is offering herself as safety-net patcher. A worthy endeavor, perhaps, but, compared to the magic promised first by Sanders, now by Trump, hardly scintillating. Hence her campaign strategy: platitudes (the future), programs (a dozen for every constituency) and a heavy dose of negativity. Her speeches go through the motions on “vision,” while relentlessly attacking Trump as radical, extreme and dangerous.
Her line of argument is quite straightforward: I’m the devil you know — experienced, if flawed; safe, if devious; reliable, if totally uninspired. I give you steady incrementalism. Meanwhile, the other guy is absurdly risky. His policies on trade, immigration and national security threaten trade wars, social unrest and alienation from friends and allies abroad.
The only thing missing from the Clinton campaign thus far is the nuclear option. Lyndon Johnson charged that Barry Goldwater was going to blow up the world. Literally. Johnson’s “Daisy” commercial counts down to a mushroom cloud.
Somewhere in the bowels of Clinton headquarters, a smart young thing is working on a modern version. Look for it on a TV near you.
Charles Krauthammer: letters@charles krauthammer.com