In a (probably futile) effort to save Martha Coakley’s bid for governor of Massachusetts, Hillary Clinton uncorked her characteristically crude and tone-deaf version of Barack Obama’s “You didn’t build that!” speech last Friday:
“Don’t let anybody, don’t let anybody tell you that, um, you know… it’s corporations and businesses that create jobs,” Clinton inveighed, producing a moment of confused silence in a generally well-received speech. She obviously assumes Democrat voters are stupid, but the trick is to avoid talking to them like they’re complete idiots.
She went for the save by throwing out a little rhetorical red meat: “You know, that old theory, trickle-down economics… that has been tried. That has failed. It has failed rather spectacularly.”
Your first response, if you’re old enough to actually remember the 1980s, might be to wonder if Clinton’s audience self-lobotomized on its way into the auditorium, or if she had assistants moving through the crowd with baseball bats to club anyone who showed signs of remembering what actually happened during the Reagan years. That’s over-analyzing things. “Trickle-down economics” is a phrase that works on Democrats the same way Pavlov’s bell worked on his dogs. Their Eighties revisionist mythology is a thing of incredible complexity, a fairy tale they’ve been telling themselves for decades in a desperate attempt to survive what could have been a mortal blow to their ideology. Also, they lean very heavily on young voters who learned about the Eighties in public school.
What has actually been proven a spectacular failure is Barack Obama’s idea of “trickle-up economics,” in which tucking government cash into the pockets of the “deserving” prompts them to run out and buy stuff, creating an economic boom and a thriving job market. No economic idea in recent history has been discredited so thoroughly, at such titanic expense. Young voters do remember that, which is one reason Democrats are panicking about millennials abandoning them over the next few election cycles. The Left is probably hoping that their silly caricature of “trickle-down economics” (rendered most commonly as “giving money to rich people so they’ll hire you”) sounds so bad that young people will have a knee-jerk reaction against it, hopefully forgetting to ask such follow-up questions as where the State got the money it supposedly “gave” to rich people, and whether a good deal of hiring and upward mobility actually took place.
As with Obama’s “You didn’t build that” speech, liberals spent the weekend trying to contain the damage from Clinton’s remarks, staring their readers right in the eye and telling them Hillary didn’t say what she so clearly said. One of the reasons she said it, of course, is the conventional wisdom that You Didn’t Build That” was a net winner for Obama, or at least nowhere near the campaign-wrecking gaffe Republicans thought it was. The Republican National Convention made a very big deal about responding directly to YDBT, and obviously it didn’t win the election for them. This is taken as a sign that workers have become so alienated from capital that they enjoy watching their employers get trounced by activist government. Thus are people taught to applaud financial and ideological assaults on the people who sign their paychecks. If even private-sector jobs are seen as something more akin to a government-guaranteed entitlement than a transaction between buyers and sellers of labor, then Hillary’s not sticking her foot very far in her mouth by bizarrely claiming that jobs are not created by those who hire people.
I wonder if that conventional wisdom underestimates the particular weakness of Mitt Romney at responding to Obama’s You Didn’t Build That speech, following months of savage assault against venture capitalism in general, and Romney’s old outfit Bain Capital in particular. This was, really, the argument Obama’s no-holds-barred campaign team was keen to kneecap Romney for. The focus of what Team Obama referred to as their “Kill Romney” strategy was to deprive him of credibility as a spokesman for entrepreneurship, investment, and free-market job creation, portraying him as a job-killing corporate pirate, rather than a specialist at rescuing troubled companies. If this effort had been less successful, and if the Republicans had spotlighted more workers happy to have the jobs rescued corporations and capitalist entrepreneurs gave them, the 2012 battle over You Didn’t Build That might have gone differently. It’s remarkable how little effort Romney’s campaign put into bringing out front-line workers to express happiness with their private-sector jobs; they seemed to assume voters would automatically make a connection between the health of small-business enterprise and the prosperity of workers hired by those enterprises. Hopefully every 2016 GOP candidate understands the necessity of making that connection explicit. Don’t just bring the small businessman or businesswoman on stage to express their anger at Obama, or Hillary Clinton, insinuating that they don’t deserve credit for the success of their companies – put their top employees on stage right beside them, to explain how much they value the opportunity for employment.
It has been speculated that now-Senator Elizabeth Warren might run against, or maybe with, Hillary Clinton in 2016. Warren is the intellectual godmother of You Didn’t Build That, but her argument is a bit more nuanced that Obama’s rant against all the “smart people” who think they deserve credit for the success of their enterprises, to say nothing of Hillary Clinton’s laughably crude reduction of the Obama reduction to “don’t let anyone tell you businesses create jobs.” Warren’s Big Idea is that all private-sector prosperity is directly attributable to public resources, from roads to education, so the collectivist State – acting as the avatar of The People – is a partner in every endeavor, entitled to claim as much of the profit through taxation as it sees fit. Warren would not be clumsy enough to make Clinton’s mistake and deny the role of employers in job creation; she’d assert the superior wisdom of the State as the ultimate investment planner, with a moral right to “take back” as much of the wealth it helped to “create” as its wise masters require.
As good leftists, Obama, Clinton, and Warren all agree on the intellectual and moral superiority of politicians over businessmen. In this era of one Big Government failure after another, that argument is as likely to provoke titters of amusement as applause… but there are still people who will applaud it, because they think the government is more interested in “fairness” than rapacious private industry, and they’re always up for watching the “fat cats” get knocked around a bit. I suspect Clinton will find that if she wants to posture as the heir to her allegedly technocratic husband, she’ll have to do a lot better than tossing around talking points about “trickle-down economics” that are older than many of the people in her audience, and find a more nuanced way to assert the primacy of the collectivist State than bluntly denying the private sector plays any significant role in private-sector job creation. She’s asking her audience to give politicians all the credit for creating the opportunities exploited by private industry. If anything, that’s going to be a tougher pitch to make after another few years of Obama… and she wants to run as a more capable, less blindly ideological Democrat who can fix his mistakes, not someone who will advocate the same failed policies with even blunter rhetorical implements. The willingness of liberal pundits to save her from gaffes like this will deteriorate if she keeps making them.
Oh, as for Martha Coakley… the Boston Globe just endorsed her Republican opponent, Charlie Baker. Their most recent poll had him pulling to a nine-point lead over Coakley. Liberal pundits exhausted from a weekend spent spinning Hillary Clinton’s comments into something less aggressively foolish can take some comfort in knowing this speech, and Coakley’s entire campaign, will probably be forgotten by Christmas at the latest. Hillary will get a do-over.