“It is wonderful to be here with all of you.” (Photo: Julio Cortez/AP)
Hillary Clinton’s husband ran for office in 1991-92 as a Southern charmer and governor from Arkansas who’d helmed the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. That now-shuttered group, founded in 1985, sought to push back against the urban liberal core of the party and reconnect it to white working and middle-class voters alienated by Democrats’ social liberalism, the perceived excesses of the welfare state, and fears of urban disorder.
Nearly a quarter of a century after Bill Clinton won the White House, values have shifted, the population has changed, and the cities have, too. A New York City that was plagued in the early 1990s by crack, AIDS, physical blight, crime, and the national recession is so entirely transformed that on Saturday it could provide a spectacular setting for the first major speech of Hillary Clinton’s second bid for the White House.
It was the first big presidential kickoff rally in the city in decades, though everyone from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama has held rallies in the city during their campaigns. The Manhattan skyline glittered in the background behind a row of trees at the close to three-year-old Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island. New housing ventures on the island advertised rentals, and earth-moving machines were visible behind fences around construction sites where more buildings were underway. Even the spooky, abandoned old smallpox hospital at the Southern tip of the island, whose creepy halls were once explored by generations of New York kids, had been shored up and fenced off.
America is a different country now. Different than it was when the nation first got to know Hillary Clinton as a somewhat brittle, headband-wearing attorney at war with the gender expectations of her era, and different than it was before the Obama years, which have seen social liberalism triumph to an extent few imagined possible so swiftly, especially on the gay rights and gay marriage front.
Against this backdrop, the new Clinton running for the presidency is running as champion of economic equality with what her campaign calls a “bold, progressive agenda” — and also as an avowed champion of women, gays and DREAMers, as well as their undocumented parents. In her speech Saturday, Clinton sought to highlight her lifelong advocacy around women and children’s issues, grounding her concern for children, in particular, in the tale of her late mother Dorothy’s difficult upbringing. And Clinton has adopted an ambitious agenda developed by Washington think tanks over the past half decade that seeks to address the way we work now and how families are actually structured. As such, this agenda seeks to confront some of the top challenges faced by single-parent households and dual-income families who find themselves out of sync with a workplace designed around the family structures of the 1960s. “It’s not 1941, or 1993, or even 2009. We face new challenges in our economy and our democracy,” Clinton said in her speech, referring to the year FDR gave his “ Four Freedoms” speech, as well as the ones in which her husband and Obama took office.
Clinton’s aides said Saturday’s speech was intended to lay out her vision after the initial period in which her campaign was ramping up and she did smaller events. Ahead will be a series of policy speeches in July and August that will drill down into particular issues and lay out specifics.
Clinton pledged to “make preschool and quality childcare available to every child in America” and secure “the right to earn paid sick days,” consistent scheduling of hours, and “paid family leave, so no one has to choose between keeping a paycheck and caring for a new baby or a sick relative.” The paid sick days and consistent scheduling fights in recent years have been pushed hard by labor and progressive groups, especially in New York City. It’s also an agenda likely to mobilize women — as much or more than the decades-old battles over reproductive rights that play out anew each election cycle, or even politically popular calls for equal pay.
Asked about her remarks Saturday, Democratic primary opponent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — who is also backing paid maternity leave, paid sick days, and paid vacation time — told CNN, “The devil, of course, is in the details.”
The campaign on display in Roosevelt Park was a much more confident campaign than Clinton’s 2008 venture, during which she struggled to balance the need to seem tough enough to be the first female commander in chief against the danger of appearing too distant and invulnerable to voters, who have always liked her best when they see her softer side. At a Friday night event at New York University sponsored by Politico’s Playbook, Clinton’s communications director Jennifer Palmieri and campaign manager Robby Mook used words like “warm” and “maternal” to describe her.
Over the course of her life, Clinton has alternated challenging the political system with being a power broker operating within it — its own form of challenge for women of her generation who sought to enter the legal or political worlds when they were both dramatically more male than they are today.
“If Hillary Clinton represents the center of the Democratic Party right now, this speech shows that the center of gravity in the Democratic Party is changing —moving away from corporate Democrat priorities and toward populist ideas,” said Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, after her speech. Before her speech, he said he and his colleagues were attending it to “monitor for boldness.” He declined to call Clinton’s speech bold in his remarks after the fact.
“Prosperity can’t be just for CEOs and hedge fund managers,” said Clinton in her speech. “Democracy can’t be just for billionaires and corporations. Prosperity and democracy are part of your basic bargain, too.” She criticized Republicans for their tax policies, opposition to financial regulations, and desire to do away with Obamacare, depriving millions of people of the ability to afford insurance, but did not get into much detail about what her own agenda would be other than to reach out to allies in the business world who share her values.
Clinton, echoing Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech, cast herself as a fighter who would take on “four fights for you”:
“to make the economy work for everyday Americans, not just those at the top.”
“to strengthen America’s families.”
“to harness all of America’s power, smarts, and values to maintain our leadership for peace, security, and prosperity.”
“reforming our government and revitalizing our democracy so that it works for everyday Americans.”
Clinton’s fourth fight, to address democratic process questions, is among the more fleshed out areas of her campaign policy platform. Already she has proposed universal voter registration and expanded early voting and a constitutional amendment to undo the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.
Ever since it became clear Clinton was running for president, voters have been waiting to hear what she hopes to achieve in the office. That process now has begun — and the devil, as Sanders says, will be in the details she has promised to provide.