Election 2016

Hillary's Inability to Grapple With Inequality Is Making Her Vulnerable to Bernie in New York

Clinton is tone deaf on education debt and young voters are wary.

Photo Credit: Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

Establishment politicians running for high office live and breathe elaborate focus group-tested lines. In time, they become those lines. But every now and then, extreme political pressures can force a few unscripted words to slip through. And when that happens, we gain a rare glimpse of the candidate's deeper understanding of their world and our world, and the gap between the two.  

Hillary Clinton suffered such a moment on Tuesday afternoon while speaking at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. Before taking the podium she already knew from internal polling that Sanders was going to win handily in Wisconsin. That meant she would be a loser in six of the last seven states, and by landslides, no less. Her staff is telling her not to worry; all the math on her side. Her delegate lead is so large Sanders can't possibly overtake her.

But Hillary is not stupid. She saw Sanders draw 18,000 people in the Bronx, virtually all people of color, and that was before his latest Wisconsin victory. She knows that nothing is set in stone if your opponent is clobbering you in primary after primary. Political momentum is something to fear and could infect the big states like New York and California.

On top of that, young people are giving Bernie more than 80% of their votes. Even large majorities of young black and Latino voters are flocking to Sanders. How can that be?

Cracks Under Pressure?

That kind of tension focuses the mind, but also can penetrate the mental armor. One can imagine her wanting, ever so badly, to appeal to college students, to show them how much she empathizes with all the loans they are shouldering. Maybe she'd love to tell them that all student debts should be forgiven, and that college should become tuition-free, just like K-12.  

But no, she can't go there. She has to distinguish herself from Sanders by saying his plan won't work, because among other things, it will depend on Republican governors to put up one-third of the money, which they won't do. So instead she must focus on proposing new complex policies to limit student loan repayments to a certain percentage of income, and for a limited number of years. That's her bumpy road to empathy and maybe toward eating into Bernie's youth vote.

More importantly, that's how Hillary can show how practical and realistic she is compared to pie-in-sky Sanders. It's a smooth and satisfying pivot for a skilled politician until...until she says something so revealing, and so out of touch, it could cost her the New York primary and beyond. In an unguarded moment, she showed us how out of touch she is with income inequality: "I went to work for the Children's Defense Fund, making about $14,000 a year, so I couldn't afford some big [student loan] payment every month."

Hillary thinks $14,000 a year, back then, makes her a young struggling post-grad? Maybe we need to jar her memory a bit: $14,000 a year was a very good income in 1973. Hillary then earned more 65 percent more than the median male worker ($8,453) and nearly 500 percent more than the median female worker ($2,823) according to census reports.  Rather than struggling to get by, she had a very comfortable upper-middle class income.

Today, that $14,000 translates into $74,464 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistic's inflation calculator. That would place her in the top 8% of today's income distribution

Perhaps she was doing the usual political exaggeration in order to feel our pain; the flip side of coming under sniper fire in Bosnia when you weren't. Or maybe she misremembered her actual income. It might have been much lower than she recalled on Tuesday. But the more likely explanation forms a line from 1973 to today. Back then Hillary really did feel she was living on a limited income compared to her peers; those she went to school with at Wellesley and Yale.  

In those schools you're surrounded by real money. You're hanging out with the richest of the rich, people who can go anywhere and do anything they want, whenever they want. Hillary, a child of the upper-middle-class, was a striver, a do-gooder, an up-and-coming star. But relative to her peers, she was of modest income. Her $14,000 a year in 1973, while a very comfortable income compared to the average American, must have seemed like a great sacrifice for an elite Yale Law school graduate.

As runaway inequality took off in the 1980s, Hillary's political ambitions took off as well, first for Bill in Arkansas, then for Bill as president, and then, at long last, for herself. Her peer group always included these Ivy League elites. Many of her former classmates moved up into elite law firms and into the highest financial circles. Her peers were making millions, tens of millions and some even billions of dollars.

These wealthy elites became the financial glue of Bill's campaigns. That's why we'll never see the transcripts of her $225,000 Wall Street speeches. Those talks would show the side Hillary has trained herself to hide from the public. These elites are her friends, her supporters, her funders. Turning on them would be like turning on herself and all she's become and wants to become.

Those speeches would show the real Hillary who became the senator from Wall Street, who made $9.1 million from speaking fees in 2013, and who along with her husband raked in over $130 million over the last decade.

Little wonder she rejects all proposals that would redistribute financial wealth to the rest of society. No financial speculation tax to fund free higher education. No break-up of the big banks. No new Glass-Steagall.  

Instead, she makes a passionate plea for a world built on the kind of meritocracy that shot her to top. "Break all barriers" so that each of us can live up to "our god-given talents." She wants rich and poor alike to join the race to riches. But she has trouble admitting the obvious; we never can start equally in a world run wild with runaway inequality.

She is incapable of understanding that wealth must be redistributed from her Wall Street friends, from her daughter, from her son-in-law, from Bill and from herself to the rest of America, if we are to reverse runaway inequality. That's the barrier we must break.

Hillary Clinton was never a financially struggling college graduate, and she'll never understand what struggling students are going through now. 

 

Les Leopold, the director of the Labor Institute, is currently working with unions and community organizations to build the educational infrastructure for a new anti-Wall Street movement. His new book Runaway Inequality: An Activist’s Guide to Economic Justice serves as a text for this campaign. All proceeds go to support these educational efforts.

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