With Sanders closing in, Clinton says tax the rich

With less than three weeks to go before the first votes are cast in Iowa and several polls showing Bernie Sanders closing in on her, Hillary Clinton is polishing her credentials on the issue of inequality and wealth concentration.

The former Secretary of State and still Democratic front-runner announced this week a plan for a new 4 percent surtax on anyone earning over $5 million a year. It was the first of a number of proposals expected from Clinton over the coming days that will be aimed at forcing the super-wealthy to pay more in taxes.

If paired with Obama’s proposed “Buffett rule,” her 4 percent surcharge would restore the top tax rate to levels not seen for at least three decades. The extra tax, which Clinton called a “fair share surcharge,” would affect approximately 0.02 percent of taxpayers. When implemented, the plan could raise up to $150 billion over ten years, part of which would go toward funding expanded family leave.

When unveiling the proposal, Clinton said that she disagreed with Republicans “who say that America needs yet another massive tax cut for the very rich.” She argued that a better way forward for the economy was to “make sure the rich pay their fair share.”

In perhaps her most forceful language, Clinton declared, “My plan is kind of simple: we go after the wealthy to pay for what the middle class, working class, and poor people need.”

The real audience Clinton was speaking to was not Republicans, though. Rather, the Secretary’s comments were squarely aimed at Democratic primary voters, many of whom are flocking to her opponent Bernie Sanders and his message of a “political revolution” against what he calls the “billionaire class.”

The Sanders campaign was quick to praise Clinton’s pledge to raise taxes on the top income bracket and welcome her to the struggle against inequality. Arturo Carmona, the director of Latino outreach at the Sanders campaign, told the press, “I’m glad that Secretary Clinton is proposing this type of approach, which we’ve been consistently advancing since the very beginning, frankly.”

The suggestion that Clinton is late to the game on inequality and wealth concentration was echoed later in the day by Vice President Joe Biden, who told CNN, “Bernie is speaking to a yearning that is deep and real, and he has credibility on it.” Biden said that it was “relatively new” for Clinton to discuss tackling the super-rich. “Hillary’s focus has been on other things up to now…no one questions Bernie’s authenticity on those issues.”

The obvious implication of Carmona’s and Biden’s remarks is that Clinton only now seems to be discovering inequality. While that would be an exaggeration (as only one example, see her May 2014 speech at the New America Foundation), it is certainly true that the Clinton campaign is giving a new emphasis to the issue lately.

She may have said on the Today show that she’s “not nervous at all” about her shrinking lead in the polls, but there is little doubt that Clinton’s renewed focus on inequality is driven by the popularity of Sanders’s anti-Wall Street message. As he pulls ahead in both Iowa and New Hampshire, serious consideration is now being given to the implications that a Clinton loss in either of these early states would have on the rest of the campaign.

Conventional thinking has been that losing in one of these early contests could sink a candidate’s chances. On the flip side of that coin, a win in even one of them has the potential to catapult a lagging candidate to the top. Such a scenario is just what the Sanders campaign is pinning their hopes on. It is also what has the Clinton camp doing some re-orientation in its messaging.

It must be said that winning in Iowa and New Hampshire is certainly no guarantee of winning everywhere (or anywhere) else. But neither does losing them necessarily mean all hope is lost. In 1992, for instance, Bill Clinton failed to win either state. In fact, he didn’t win any of the first four contests. It was not until Super Tuesday that Clinton emerged as the favorite to grab his party’s nomination.

Common political sense says that Super Tuesday could be the point on which this year’s Democratic race will hinge as well.  If Sanders manages to pull off a win in New Hampshire and/or Iowa, the candidates look set to split the next two races. Clinton enjoys a comfortable lead in Nevada, while Sanders has held a small but enduring edge in South Carolina.

Eleven states will then cast votes on March 1. This is where Clinton’s firewall should kick in. In every state that votes that day, with the exception of Vermont, Clinton has the advantage. It ranges from 18 percent in Minnesota to the unbelievable high of 63 percent in Arkansas, where she served as First Lady during her husband’s governorship.

Another advantage Clinton will be able to count on, particularly in Southern states, is her considerable popularity among African-American and Latino voters. These groups have yet to warm to Sanders in large numbers. She has also already locked up some of the biggest union endorsements and has the support of most of the Democratic Party establishment.

The Sanders campaign is placing its hopes on a scenario in which early wins in New Hampshire, South Carolina, or even Iowa will put their candidate at the top of newscasts, generating excitement and causing voters in the next round of states to give him a second look.

It’s possible.

There is definitely a lot of excitement this week on the left for Bernie’s glowing numbers in the early states. The situation, however, might call for a little sobriety.

Even with an early win, the Sanders campaign would still face an uphill battle because of the built-in institutional advantages that the primary system gives to establishment candidates over insurgents. The Clinton advantage is still huge. If she manages to sweep the Super Tuesday states, which looks likely, the path for Sanders gets a lot more difficult. That means keeping open the possibility that it may be necessary to coalesce around a Clinton candidacy in order to beat the ultra-right.

Some will inevitably argue that Clinton’s embrace of the ‘tax the rich’ mantra is pure opportunism. It will be said that she doesn’t really believe in reining in Wall Street, re-regulating the financial sector, or in knocking the super-rich down a peg or two. We will be reminded that she was once on the Walmart board of directors. Her close links to some of the other titans of financial and corporate capital over the years will continue to raise eyebrows. These are problems that the Clinton brand has had for years; nothing new there. It’s not like we haven’t heard them before.

As problematic as she might be when looking at things from a purely left perspective, a Clinton victory would be no time for progressives to slack up. The issues that Sanders has promoted and which have inspired so many people still have the potential to define this race through the primaries and beyond.

If a broad movement including women, labor, African-Americans, Latinos, and youth can be mobilized to force the items that matter to them onto the agenda and make it impossible for politicians to ignore them, does everything really have to come down to Hillary’s personal inclinations?

Having a leader like Sanders, with his unquestionable credentials on democratic priorities, would of course be an inspiration for progressives. If he can pull off a victory in the nomination contest, it would symbolize the growing influence of the forces advocating for both political and economic democracy. Not to mention a new openness among Americans toward the idea of socialism.

If he’s not the nominee, though, the same energy that is now forcing Hillary’s hand on the issue of inequality is going to have to be refocused. It will have to be dedicated to keeping alive, in a new context, the dream of a “political revolution” capable of reversing declining living standards, narrowing the wealth gap, creating jobs, raising wages, and protecting the environment.

The goals Sanders advances are worth fighting for, whether he is the standard bearer or not. So the real task facing activists is to build a coalition that can make the next president, no matter who it is, embrace this progressive program.

So while it is probably too early for Clinton to start getting nervous, she had better keep her eye on the rear-view mirror. Backed by a grassroots movement, Sanders is planning to overtake her. She may find herself needing to steer further leftward to keep herself in the lead. The “fair share surcharge” shows she is already turning on her left blinker for all of us to see.

Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.