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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton addressed labor groups in Commerce on May 24, 2016.
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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton addressed labor groups in Commerce on May 24, 2016.

Streaming through California as the presidential primary comes to a close, Hillary Clinton looked past Bernie Sanders last week and moved to claim ground on economic issues for the general election ahead.

First, with Donald Trump rising in national polls, Clinton amplified her criticism of his business record, accusing the New York businessman of rooting for the 2008 housing market collapse so that he could profit from it.

Second, she sought to remind voters that it was a Clinton who was president during the 1990s, an extended period of economic prosperity. While dispatching her husband, Bill, to campaign for her in Southern California and the Central Valley, Hillary Clinton told an audience in Los Angeles County, “Go back 25 years … people were working. People were investing. People were buying homes.”

Twenty-five years later, jobs and the economy stand out as the most pressing concern of California voters heading into the June 7 primary, according to a Field Poll last week on behalf of the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy. Nearly three in four likely voters rank it among their most important concerns.

“That kind of says a lot,” said Bonnie Reiss, the institute director. “Even though we can see all the statistics about unemployment numbers going down, and we talk about minimum wage going up, it really shows a concern among a lot of people that the whole American dream of home ownership and sending your kids to college and all of that – I think it reflects that a lot more Americans see that slipping away.”

For Clinton, that is a potential point of weakness – not in California, which last went for a Republican presidential candidate nearly 30 years ago, but in a general election match-up against Trump.

Even in heavily Democratic California, where Trump is unlikely to compete in November, the presumptive Republican nominee has found one significant pocket of support. Of the 25 percent of California voters who say they are financially worse off now than a year ago, Trump is slightly favored over Clinton, according to an April Field Poll.

The messages Clinton and Trump were testing in California last week are airing in more competitive states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, too.

“The middle and low ends of the economy, people are not sharing the wealth,” said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. “So what this feeds into is a sense of frustration among the middle class. They feel they’re not getting ahead. It makes them uneasy, it makes them restless, and it feeds directly into Donald Trump.”

He added, “This is a problem for her (Clinton) going forward. It’s the question of how can she sell an economy that is on paper growing, but voters don’t necessarily feel that it’s improving.”

By most market measures, California’s economy is on the upswing. The stock market has rebounded, unemployment is down and state budget deficits are a distant memory.

Yet more voters continue to describe California as being in bad rather than good economic times, according to the Field Poll. The last time a majority of California voters said they were better off financially than they were the year before was in 2000.

In terms of public opinion, said poll director Mark DiCamillo, “We’re nowhere near where we were in those robust times in the late 1990s.”

Trump, rallying supporters in Anaheim last week, has seized on the electorate’s frustrations. He cited manufacturing losses in the state to support his argument that he will make a “big, big play for California” in the fall.

“What I’m going to do very easily – I do it naturally – we’re bringing jobs into our country,” Trump said. “We’re not going to let other countries take our companies away from us.”

Trump’s fans cheered, and they dismissed as irrelevant Clinton’s release of a 2006 audio clip of Trump saying he “sort of” hoped for a housing bubble burst because “people like me would go in and buy.”

“The man’s a billionaire,” said Kevin Hurley, a bus driver from Garden Grove. “He’s known how to work the system for years. If he can help me keep some of my money, I’m all in.”

South of Merced, where the unemployment rate continues to hover around 10 percent, Kole Upton, a 73-year-old farmer, helped hang a banner on a cotton trailer last week that read, “Another farmer for Trump.”

Upton lamented water shortages and government regulations he called “hostile” to business. He said he has watched longtime farmers in the area leave the state.

“It was sad,” Upton said, “because that’s basically the fabric of the society we’re losing here.”

Sanders, who continues to campaign furiously in California despite nearly insurmountable odds, said in a brief interview last week that Trump is a “total phony.”

But he said that on the economy, “what he (Trump) has projected to the American people is that he’s anti-establishment, and it’s very hard for Hillary Clinton to project that, because she is the establishment.”

Sanders, who has ridden a wave of support from young voters and independents to pull nearly even with Clinton in California, said, “One of the reasons we are doing as well as we are is that people are angry. And they’re angry that they’re working longer hours for low wages, they’re angry that their kids may well have a lower standard of living than they do, they’re angry that almost all new income and wealth being created today is going to the top 1 percent. And there’s a lot of anger out there.”

In an effort to turn the tide, Clinton appeared at a union hall in Los Angeles County, while her husband campaigned with Dolores Huerta, the famed labor leader, in the Central Valley.

California’s unemployment rate fell last month to 5.3 percent, the lowest level since June 2007, according to the Employment Development Department. Meanwhile, job growth has been ticking up.

In a small, overheated hall in Stockton last week, Bill Clinton said of President Barack Obama, “We think he’s done a better job than his critics give him credit for.”

But he added, “It takes a long time to get over the kind of financial crisis we had.” A Hillary Clinton presidency, her husband said, could grow the economy “like we did when I was president.”

Former state Treasurer Phil Angelides, a real estate developer who hosted Bill Clinton at a fundraiser in Sacramento last week, said the shock of the recession was so severe that “it was a decade before Sacramento even got back to even, and clearly there’s a whole swath of Americans who have seen their incomes stay stagnant.”

But even if the economic recovery has been gradual, Angelides said, “It is a far sight better than the calamity the country suffered under the last Republican president.”

He suggested Trump would be even worse. For a businessperson, Angelides said, Trump is “erratic, unpredictable in the worst kind of ways. It’s not the kind of stability you want at the center of economic policy.”

Angelides, a former gubernatorial candidate and former chairman of the California Democratic Party, said the primary contest between Clinton and Sanders has forced issues of economic inequality and wage stagnation to the front of voters’ minds and will ultimately benefit Clinton in November.

“I believe it has sharpened the party’s economic message,” he said.

Other Clinton supporters are less sure.

Leaving a Clinton rally with his lunch box in Commerce last week, Ren Moreno, an apprentice wireman, said Clinton is “good for the union, so she’s good for me.”

Moreno expects Clinton will win the primary. But he sensed that nationally, if not in California, “it’s going to be a close race.” Democrats seemed more enthusiastic coming off a Republican administration eight years ago, he said, when Obama ran for president the first time.

Now, Moreno said, “It’s not what it was eight years ago.”

He added, “I’m a little bit worried about it.”

The nominating contest has confused some voters registered without a party preference. Here's how to make sure your voice is heard.

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders

Where they stand: The economy

Hillary Clinton: Would invest in infrastructure, clean energy, and scientific and medical research to strengthen economy. Would close corporate tax loopholes in an effort to make the wealthier pay more. Supports raising the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour, while supporting state and local efforts to raise minimum wages higher.

Bernie Sanders: Would create a “progressive estate tax” on the top 0.3 percent of Americans who inherit more than $3.5 million. Would seek to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour by 2020. Would invest $1 trillion over five years towards rebuilding roads, bridges and other infrastructure. Would seek to reverse trade policies like NAFTA, CAFTA, and PNTR with China.

Donald Trump: Would remove nearly 75 million households – more than 50 percent –from the tax rolls. Individuals earning less than $25,000, or married couples jointly earning less than $50,000 would not owe any tax. Would create four tax brackets for others – 0 percent, 10 percent, 20 percent and 25 percent – instead of the current seven. Would reduce or eliminate “most deductions and loopholes available to the very rich.”

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