Hillary Clinton has a plan for America that you won’t hear about at tonight’s debate

I’m sensing a theme.
I’m sensing a theme.
Image: AP/Andrew Harnik
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Good news! You won’t need to read a lot of policy white papers to prepare for tonight’s debate.

In the last debate, just five of the 23 questions asked were connected to policy. Like most of the campaign, the discourse dwelled on Donald Trump’s attacks on women and minorities and Hillary Clinton’s email server. The election has settled into a stable dynamic, with Trump’s relentless alienation of basic American virtues allowing Clinton to earn support from the Obama coalition of women and minority voters—and some college-educated voters who typically back Republicans.

But Hillary Clinton, a life-long, left-leaning policy nerd whose advisers say they are “lucky” to work for a politician who actually cares about governing, has nonetheless spent a lot of time thinking about how she will govern, and not just whom.

You probably won’t hear about it tonight, but her victory would represent something the US hasn’t seen in decades: A like-minded president replacing the incumbent, in a time of relative economic prosperity, and potentially with a friendly slate of lawmakers as her polling lead grows. In other words, it’s a big deal, especially for progressives.

Indeed, two key members of her economic brain trust, Jacob Leibenluft and Mike Shapiro, were among Obama’s White House economics advisers. In an exclusive interview last week, they outlined how Clinton’s focus on families fits into modern debates over inequality, trade and financial regulation.

“The nature of those challenges are pretty clear, and in an environment where we aren’t digging out of a deep recession or facing a financial crisis, I think it’s pretty natural that the attention of a broad set of the American people is going toward those issues,” Leibenluft says. “Where you see the opportunity is in both having a strong agenda and it being directly responsive to the problems that families face.”

You’re probably familiar with voters who say they don’t know what Hillary Clinton’s economic vision is; maybe you’re one of them. So, what exactly is it? Here’s the tagline, given most substance during a June speech in Raleigh, North Carolina: “We need to make sure our economy works for everyone, not just those at the top.”

This slogan isn’t just built on Clinton’s career, but on the ideas of a wide range of left-leaning economists, including some who challenged her husband’s legacy as a centrist president.

“There’s a recognition that first of all, the gains in the recovery have not all been shared, and secondly, there were a set of challenges at play even before the recession, that in many cases the recession amplified and, certainly, the recession prevented us from being able to address,” Leibenluft says. “On the one hand, you have 5% income growth in the last year, and on the other hand, median incomes that are still lower than they were in 1999.”

When Obama entered office, his plans for major reforms had to take an immediate backseat to passing a stimulus bill intended to ameliorate the recession. In addition to pushing toward universal health care coverage, long a Democratic goal, he needed to add financial reform to his list. With these battles on-going, and facing a Republican Congress, efforts to modernize the tax system, fix immigration policy or invest in infrastructure went by the wayside.

The story is different today. While economic growth isn’t satisfying anyone, the US doesn’t appear to be on the brink of a recession. There will be space to try something new.

For a president, the question is always what Congress will allow. Republicans in the senate will surely mount an effort to filibuster some of Clinton’s policies even if Democrats capture the chamber, and odds are still likely, if shrinking, that the GOP will retain the House of Representatives. Yet some Republican aides are quietly musing that moving the party past the Trump experience will entail doing something they largely refused to do with Obama: Find middle ground.

“It’s unfortunate in some ways that there hasn’t been the political space to get all those things passed already,” Shapiro says. “I think in an ideal world some of these ideas would not be on the shelf for us to take, because they would have already been implemented.”

Shapiro and Leibenluft were happy to deploy the wonk’s excuse of political ignorance when asked to assess the chances of enacting the Clinton campaign’s various proposals. But they did lay out a road-map of what her earliest priorities will be.

The top of the list? Some kind of plan to fund infrastructure investment, a bipartisan priority that attracts the approbation of everyone from the Chamber of Commerce of the labor movement.

“That’s a one hundred day priority she intends to work with Congress,” he says. “You have that immediate investment front-end.”

While the campaign, eager to preserve future negotiating flexibility, doesn’t assign specific pay-fors to its proposals (though its list of revenue raisers and expenditures effectively nets out) the most obvious source of this kind of funding would be corporate tax reform to repatriate some of the hundreds of billions of dollars in untaxed profits held by US multinationals overseas.

The fear on the left is that this will be done with some kind of tax “holiday” that gives companies an extremely preferential rate to bring back their funds, rather than a permanent fix for profit offshoring. New York Senator Chuck Schumer, expected to be the party’s leader in the chamber next year, has gotten behind a version of this proposal. Clinton’s team wouldn’t say specifically where the money for infrastructure would come from, but they did say they were uninterested in repeating the experience of the 2004 tax holiday, which researchers found did little to boost the economy.

“We want to raise money from big corporations, especially loopholes that let them shift profits and earnings overseas, and use that revenue to invest at home. [Clinton] saw that 2004 experience clearly and has gone on record, and she’ll say this to us, she doesn’t want a repeat of 2004,” Shapiro says. “All the evidence shows it didn’t go to investment.”

This investment in infrastructure is important for several reasons beyond simply the need for better roads, bridges, ports and energy hubs. One is goosing jobs for low-skilled male workers, who fell out of the workforce at unusually high rates during the recession. But perhaps an even more important one will be shifts in monetary policy. The Federal Reserve is expected to gradually raise interest rates over the next year, attempting to escape the near-zero rates that have protected the economy since the financial crisis.

To keep that from slowing the economy into a recession, economists like former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke believe more expansive fiscal policy will be needed to fill the gap. A large, temporary infrastructure investment might just do the trick. And while some left-leaning economists have criticized the Clinton plan for borrowing too little, the campaign’s advisers point out that spending occurs in the near-term while taxes increase over the medium-term, allowing time for stimulus.

If Clinton can get Congress to pass this jobs program, it could be a platform to get to the rest of her priority list, which consists of the major challenge of debt-free college for Americans, tax reform that raises corporate taxes and pushes them to share profits with their workers, and helping families by improving support for working women.

A good example of a policy that helps bring these themes together is Clinton’s child tax credit, announced last week. Compared to Trump’s sketched-out equivalent, a tax deduction that would deliver most of its benefits to the wealthy, Clinton’s plan would fight poverty and boost the middle class. That’s because she makes the credit totally refundable, so even those too poor to pay taxes would receive benefits, and double the size, which will deliver more benefits to the middle-earners compared to Trump’s deduction, which would excessively favor the wealthy.

“Secretary Clinton has tried to drive the conversation particularly to where families are struggling,” Leibenluft says. ”One place we see that is families who are struggling with the range of costs that you have when you are parent with young kids.”

This, however, is the easy stuff, in terms of politics: Tax cuts and popular spending can win votes across the board. The bigger challenges for Clinton will undoubtedly be efforts to expand the government’s social services. Her goals there include finding a way to end the explosive growth of student debt and college tuition, which would be a multi-year lift; continuing to build and fix Obamacare despite Republican opposition, and expanding Social Security benefits.

Already, Republicans are suggesting that should Clinton win, it will occur because she isn’t the abhorrent Donald Trump, not because voters prefer her policies. That would give them an excuse to deny her that most ephemeral of Washington tools: the mandate. Clinton’s political staffers declined to address this point directly, but they indicated that winning the election is all the mandate Clinton needs.

But her policy wonks made an interesting point about their opponent—not his differences with Clinton, but his similarities. Trump’s wild path through the Republican primary, paved with ideas about using the government to help ordinary Americans, could help Republicans acknowledge a need for more government action.

“At the brief moments where Donald Trump has tried to offer policy on the domestic side, some even seem to be acknowledgments of the challenges: Investing in infrastructure, or taking on work-family issues, their claim to have a child care, maternity leave plans,” Leibenluft says. ”We can get to all the ways they get it wrong, but there is a general acknowledgment of a set of a challenges.”

Finally, someone has found something the two candidates share: A realization that government can do more to help Americans. Clinton just has a firmer idea of what it can do, and how to get it done.