In the trumped-up train-wreck politics of the 2016 presidential campaign, two paths diverge amid the neon wilderness: the populist showbiz lane and a surprisingly substantive moderate track. Toxic populism gets all the ink, of course. We need not mention the main perpetrator’s name–he feeds on that–but even relatively mainstream candidates have offered irresponsible simplicities. Deport 11 million undocumented workers. Bomb Iran. Populism is what passes for citizenship among those who don’t pay much attention. It is, to actual democracy, what vinyl is to leather–too smooth to be real.
And yet even in the midst of July’s muggy rants, two substantive speeches were delivered by Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, which I’m sure will occasion yelps of derision from the entrenched loudmouth sector. But they were boat-rocking speeches nonetheless, and–ironically–they took on the three “Bigs” that populists of the left (Big Business) and the right (Big Government, Big Labor) rail against. Unlike the usual rage and clatter surrounding these subjects, the speeches were thick with detail. They provided a path to reform and unclutter our aging democracy.
Clinton did not begin her big economic speech on July 13 with a joke, or pleasantries, or an anecdote, as politicians usually do. She just launched into her thesis: Middle-class wage stagnation is a symptom of a greater, long-term economic crisis. The American economy has been profoundly distorted to benefit the financial sector–specifically, the short-term dealers and churners who have hollowed out long-term investment and aggrandized instantaneous casino gambling. This represents a clear break with Democratic Party orthodoxy of the past 30 years.
There will be those who say Clinton is merely “moving to the left” to counter Senator Bernie Sanders, who makes these arguments passionately and well. But Clinton is also moving with the tide of bipartisan economic research and with a growing realization–even among moderate Democrats who supported the party’s ill-fated alliance with Wall Street’s social liberals–that economic reform is needed, and fast. She has done her homework, as she always does. People who’ve sat in meetings with her say a surprisingly bold set of options have been discussed; even a stock-transfer tax, potentially a bombshell reform, is on the table. There won’t be splashy “Break up the big banks” rhetoric. Indeed, her most significant proposals are likely to be down in the weeds, among the invisible blandishments in the tax code visited upon Wall Street by eager Democrats starting in the 1980s. “Repeal SEC Rule 10-B-18!” isn’t a battle cry likely to stir the masses, but it could go a long way toward stanching the record flood of corporate stock buybacks, a form of insider trading that inflates short-term share prices at the expense of long-term value.
The weakest part of Clinton’s speech was the laundry list of traditional Democratic programs–universal preschool, better day care–that she has always favored. Some of these programs are worthy. But Clinton knows that existing government efforts in this area–Head Start, for example–are not very successful because they lack accountability; selling any more of this to a skeptical public is unlikely.
“More and more people don’t believe government works for them,” Bush said in his big speech on government reform. “I believe it can.” That is quite a brassy statement given the raging nihilism in his party, for which “Abolish Obamacare and the IRS” passes for reform proposals. Bush indulges in that sort of rhetoric from time to time. He wants to repeal the Dodd-Frank financial law (which certainly could use reform). Another Bush weakness is a tendency to go for gimmicks like his federal government attrition plan–one new hire for every three retirees, which is too broad-brush for serious consideration. But Bush did address the real problem, which is the absence of government accountability. He even broached the abstruse but wildly controversial, and supremely dozy, issue of civil-service reform. “There are a lot of exemplary employees in the federal government, but they’re treated no better than the bad ones,” he said. “And the bad ones are almost impossible to effectively discipline or remove.” This ironclad rule has crippled the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Veterans Affairs alike. He also offered serious lobbying reforms, which won’t please his donors.
We can argue about which speech was more worthy–both Clinton and Bush were playing to their party’s core constituencies–but both were addressing gut issues that are the true heart of the noisy malaise of left and right. This sort of substance is unusual in presidential politics. Full credit to both.
This appears in the August 03, 2015 issue of TIME.
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