Could Hillary Clinton Become the Champion of the 99 Percent?

By Gideon Lewis-Kraus – July 23, 2016

The New York Times Magazine

In June of 2015, Felicia Joy Wong was in her car, awaiting with some apprehension the economic address that would officially open Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The speech was being staged at the F.D.R. memorial on New York City’s Roosevelt Island, and though Wong is a political operative of atypical modesty — she describes herself as a former schoolteacher whose accession to minor power has been entirely accidental — she had taken the choice of venue as auspicious. Wong runs the Roosevelt Institute, a small think tank (for lack of a better term) that originated in trusts established to promote the legacies of Franklin and Eleanor. Its chief economist, the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, indirectly coined the Occupy movement’s enduring slogan (“We are the 99 percent”), and Stiglitz and Wong each saw the election as an opportunity to channel Occupy energy into national politics. The country was perhaps ready once again, they believed, for what F.D.R. called “bold, persistent experimentation” in our economic affairs. Two of Wong’s senior staff members had gone to the island for the event, but she herself bowed out, claiming the duties of a part-time suburban soccer coach and mom.

In the car, Wong heard the candidate say: “The middle class needs more growth and more fairness. Growth and fairness go together. For lasting prosperity, you can’t have one without the other.”

Oh, my God, Wong thought, I can’t believe she just said that. Each time she repeated this story to me, she narrowed her eyes toward an imaginary car radio and pointed in disbelief.

“Prosperity can’t be just for C.E.O.s and hedge-fund managers,” the candidate continued. “Democracy can’t just be for the billionaires and corporations.”

Oh, my God, Wong thought again, I can’t believe she just said that. It may have been political boilerplate, but Wong thrilled to it. Her incredulity had yielded to pleasure and admiration. Republicans, the candidate went on, “pledge to wipe out tough rules on Wall Street, rather than rein in the banks that are still too risky, courting future failures.”

Wong stopped the car to check her phone. Exultant emails were streaming in. “This is our plan!” one Roosevelt board member wrote. “This is your plan!”

“Our plan” was “Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy,” an inventive combination of narrative history and policy platform that Roosevelt published the month before. The report billed itself as a comprehensive agenda to ameliorate inequality. First, it said, inequality is a choice, not an inevitable byproduct of technology, globalization and the uneven distribution of personal virtue. Second, it held that the longstanding notion of an economic trade-off between growth and equality is a fiction.

Unlike the myriad other white papers that each week were drafted, edited, somnolently received at other think tanks and shelved without fanfare, this report — original not so much in its ideas as in its clarity and vigor — had captured wide and consequential attention. In the months leading up to its publication, the Roosevelt team was in close touch with Clinton speechwriters and advisers, and in subsequent rallies the candidate continued to draw upon the report, even at the level of explicit language; calls to “rewrite the rules” found their way into more of her addresses. The many news reports that linked the speech to Wong’s organization consistently and erroneously relocated her team to Washington. (Their headquarters are in Midtown Manhattan, in an Art Deco tower in the shadow of the Citigroup Center.)

Much of the left, including the significant bloc that rejected Clinton in the primaries in favor of Bernie Sanders and his call for “revolution,” finds Wong and her allies delusional in their hope that “Rewriting the Rules” might be realized in Democratic Party practice. But the Sanders and Trump insurrections revealed an appetite for economic populism that no one in either party establishment had quite anticipated. Now Roosevelt and other progressive groups are wagering that a mandate for economic overhaul might already exist, and that it might even be carried out by the woman who always was the party’s near-certain nominee. Wong herself believes that the financial crisis radically destabilized the politics of the American economy, possibly for decades to come, and that 2016 might well mark the early commotion of a genuine political realignment.

As the party heads into its convention in Philadelphia, this coalition sees encouraging signals — perhaps most notably the role that Elizabeth Warren, a key Roosevelt ally, has come to play in the campaign — that Hillary Clinton’s economic sympathies might ultimately lie further to the left than skeptics supposed. Roosevelt is a 501(c)(3), and though it does maintain a political-action arm, it does not work to elect specific candidates. Still, various representatives from Clinton’s speechwriting and policy teams regularly solicit the organization’s input. Roosevelt in turn has redoubled its efforts not only on advancing the ideas in “Rewriting the Rules” but also in recruiting the personnel necessary to carry them out, in the form of a methodical effort to find suitable candidates for economic positions in a future presidential administration.

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