One of the few areas of potential intrigue in the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination race is whether Hillary Clinton's Wall Street ties will trigger a fierce backlash against her assumed candidacy from the populist elements of the Left.
On Tuesday, liberal writer Greg Sargent of the Washington Post, who is very familiar with the internal dynamics of the Democratic Party, took issue with the idea of a major rift.
"I believe this supposed division among Dems is mostly trumped up," Sargent wrote. "After all, they broadly agree on the menu of policy responses to the economic problems faced by poor, working and middle class Americans -- a higher minimum wage; universal pre-K; higher taxes on the wealthy to fund a stronger safety net, job creation and job training -- whatever broader rhetorical umbrella is being used here. Sure, there may be some differences over how aggressively to go after the big banks or over whether to expand Social Security. There is unquestionably a debate underway over whether to push the Democratic Party in a more populist direction in certain areas. But the larger story is one of agreement, not division."
Sargent is probably right, which is why I don't think Clinton would be in serious danger in a primary. But she could face a problem in the general election.
It's important to remember that Clinton's position heading into the 2016 election is significantly stronger now than it was at this time in 2006, the comparable time before her failed race against President Obama. Back then, even though she was the frontrunner, she was by no means a prohibitive favorite. A June 2006 Gallup poll had her leading the Democratic field by 20 points. Though impressive, it's nothing compared to the 53-point lead she currently enjoys over her Democratic rivals, according to an average of polls compiled by Real Clear Politics.
Add this to what Sargent spells out, and I think Clinton will survive any populist attacks during the primary.
Turning to the general election, however, Democrats assume that by talking about income inequality, for instance, Clinton will be able to fend off any populist attacks from any Republican opponent. But Democrats don't want to survive on this issue, they want to be able to attack Republicans for being out of touch and for being the party of the rich. Obama was able to do this successfully against Sen. John McCain and Mitt Romney, and Bill Clinton was able to accomplish it against George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole. However, merely talking about inequality and attacking Republican policies isn't all that mattered. The "in touch vs. out of touch" question is often settled on more intangible factors.
Al Gore campaigned against George W. Bush on the idea that he was fighting for "the people" and not "the powerful," and John Kerry attacked Bush's tax cuts as a gift to the rich. But both Democrats lost. Their populist themes were undermined by their backgrounds and their personalities -- Gore, the wealthy son of a senator, and Kerry, who married into a wealthy family, was videotaped windsurfing and bungled basic sports trivia. Even though Bush had grown up in a privileged background, he managed to exploit his Texas cowboy Image and establish a more "regular American" appeal with many voters, much to the frustration of Democrats who saw him as a big phony.
Unlike on the Democratic side, the 2016 Republican field has no clear frontrunner, so it's hard to predict who Clinton might face. But if the current populist tide within the GOP propels somebody to the Republican nomination who isn't identified with the Wall Street wing, it's quite possible that Clinton's detachment from the lives of regular Americans at least since 1992, enormous wealth and ties to big banks could become a problem in the general election.