Should the 1950s and 1960s in America be mainly remembered as a halcyon economic era of growth that was strong and whose benefits were widely shared? Or an age when increased prosperity was confined mainly to white males?
Whatever your own view, and whatever the merits, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s so-called victory speech last week revealed – no doubt unwittingly – that her party could be deeply divided on the question. In turn, this split could create major confusion about a campaign theme she’s apparently become taken with, and about what economic policies she genuinely supports.
In the June 7 speech declaring her historic victory in this year’s Democratic presidential campaign, Clinton clearly painted the early post-World War II decades in dark tones. In her view, her likely GOP rival Donald Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” is “code for, ‘Let’s take America backwards.’ Back to a time when opportunity and dignity were reserved for some, not all, promising his supporters an economy he cannot recreate.”
Nor has this been a one-off remark. At a Planned Parenthood event yesterday, Clinton repeated “When Donald Trump says, ‘Let’s make America great again,’ that is code for ‘let’s take America backward.’ Back to a time when opportunity and dignity were reserved for some, not all.”
What Clinton doesn’t appear to recognize is that many of her fellow Democrats have portrayed these years much more positively. Here’s one example: “In the decades after World War II there was a general consensus that the market couldn’t solve all of our problems on its own. …This consensus, this shared vision led to the strongest economic growth and the largest middle class that the world has ever known. It led to a shared prosperity. “ The speaker? President Obama.
Robert B. Reich stands further to the left than Mr. Obama on the political spectrum – and was also Labor Secretary during the presidency of Clinton’s husband. He’s even more all-in for the early post-war decades, terming the period, “The Great Prosperity” that was fueled by “what might be called a basic bargain with American workers. Employers paid them enough to buy what they produced. Mass production and mass consumption proved perfect complements. Almost everyone who wanted a job could find one with good wages, or at least wages that were trending upward.”
The New York Times Editorial Board is also pretty keen on these decades:
“Economic growth and rising productivity are needed for broadly shared prosperity, but rising living standards require policies that ensure regular increases in the minimum wage, which peaked in 1968; greater investment in the social safety net; full employment as a government priority; progressive taxation; and effective financial regulation to avoid overgrowth followed by collapse.
“These kinds of policies dominated from the late-1940s to the 1970s, a time of broadly shared prosperity and a strong middle class.”
In fairness, Clinton is absolutely right in contending that women and minorities didn’t generally prosper along with the rest of the population. And no knowledgeable liberals would disagree. Yet what’s the evidence that Trump wants to reserve all future gains made by the American economy to white males? Indeed, he’s repeatedly condemned numerous recent economic policies for leaving minorities behind, most recently in yesterday’s call to take federal funds currently targeted for refugee relief programs and use them instead to foster employment in inner cities.
This last point spotlights what might be the most politically important difference between Clinton and Trump on the legacy and lessons of the 1950s and 1960s. When the former Secretary of State accuses her Republican counterpart of “promising his supporters an economy he cannot recreate,” she’s focused most tightly on his opposition to highly permissive immigration policies and amnesty for the nation’s current illegal population.
Clinton has recently voiced criticisms of current U.S. trade policies. Yet her past record and – as I’ve noted – some of her recent rhetoric indicates that she’s also fundamentally OK with the great and overwhelmingly one-sided opening of the American economy to import competition that almost immediately followed the early post-war years. Interestingly, it’s a critique of Trump-ian views on immigration and trade that’s identical with that of America’s donor class and its hired guns in the Republican party’s establishment wing.
If Clinton keeps repeating her charge about Trump’s supposedly unrealistic and retrograde nostalgia, it would be relatively easy for his campaign to counter with the kind of “America First” response he outlined in his own “victory speech“. The argument? Clinton’s endorsement of the trade and immigration status quo amounts to a program of aiding workers abroad and foreigners living illegally in the United States at the expense of the nation’s legal residents – of all genders, races, and heritages.
And if the Republican candidate can stay on this message (an awfully big “if”), he’ll be able to show that prominent Democrats, including President Obama share this economic nostalgia, too – along with the confidence that restoring this kind of economic greatness (albeit with a somewhat different policy mix) is eminently realistic.