Hillary Needs a Vision

In recent days, the commentariat has made much out of the fact that news about Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server has drowned out the policy proposals she has unveiled. These proposals indeed deserve public attention. However, they also reveal one of her campaign's great weaknesses: its tendency to treat the public as if it were a conglomerate of special interest groups. The campaign promises each group something related to its interests--free tuition for college students, immigration reform for Latinos, free childcare for young parents, and so on and on. Other Democrats, at least since Walter Mondale, have tended to follow the same path. As a result, a typical keynote address at the Democratic National Convention sounds like a long shopping list composed of various promises.

To be fair, Americans have interests and tend to favor elected officials who promise to address their particular concerns. However, we do not live by bread alone. We are also citizens of a country that most of us sense is increasingly headed in the wrong direction. We seek a leader who will share with us a vision of an America of which we can be proud, a narrative of what went wrong, and how we can make America whole again. Democrats need their own version of Reagan: someone with simple, straightforward, and compelling vision.

Let's call this vision a fair society, one in which everyone discharges their responsibilities and their rights are well protected. This line captures a great deal. Such a vision encompasses guaranteeing a living-wage job for every American who wants one, which entails publicly funding infrastructure projects and staffing them with Americans who cannot get jobs in the private sector. It also means that no one--not just children--should be left behind; this in turn requires offering English classes to new Americans and tutors for students who fall behind in college. It entails that steps be taken to ensure that those who pay into Social Security be able to collect once they retire, and that affordable healthcare be made available to all Americans (an element that is missing in the current version of Obamacare).

A vision is incomplete without a sister narrative. Americans like to know what pushed the country off the rails, and how we can get it moving forward again. As I see it, our domestic malaise is a reflection of narrowly-based interest groups that eat up the common good. Deregulation allowed Wall Street to run amok, undermining economic growth and breaking the social contract by driving inequality through the roof. Re-regulation would move America toward a fair society.

The legalization of virtually unlimited and secret financial contributions from those with deep pockets (including corporations) to elected officials has proved to be the most important instrument of "government by interest groups." Reversing this trend will necessitate regulating what elected officials can give in return for the cash they receive. (This circumvents the difficulty of reversing Citizens United, which holds that contributing money to politicians is a form of speech. Donations will slow to a trickle if elected officials can't legally grant special treatment to donors.) The same special interest groups that promoted deregulation and inequality also push for sizeable defense spending that seeks to prepare the United States for war with China. Foreign policy reforms should take into account that the United States shares many interests with China, including nonproliferation of nuclear arms, curbing international terrorism, climate control and environmental protection.

Hillary Clinton may well embrace a different vision and narrative. However, without an overarching understanding of what ails America and how to cure it, Clinton will fail to mobilize both the "base" and the center, which she needs to stand up, line up, and fight hard for a win in 2016.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and the author of Security First and most recently Privacy in the Cyber Age. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. To subscribe to his monthly newsletter, send an e-mail to icps@gwu.edu.