In the arching, gold-hued rotunda of a former train station built just as the Great Depression started, Democrat presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton June 27 made a charged case against the deep economic disparities roiling American politics. But will Hamilton County — a vital purple spot in the country’s most contested swing state — buy Clinton’s louder populist pitch?
The U.S. economy isn’t working for everyday folks, Clinton said at the rally, but she can help tip the scales against “the rich and well-connected.” In doing so, she looked to crib the anti-establishment energy from her fading primary opponent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign while making an explicit distinction between her and presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
As anger against both the political establishment and economic elites continues unabated in both parties, Clinton is promoting her campaign as an antidote in the most explicit terms yet.
“We will not raise taxes on the middle class,” Clinton told the crowd of more than 2,500 under the dome of Cincinnati’s Union Terminal, “but we will raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy.”
Even with the more aggressive tone, Clinton didn’t go full Sanders at the event. She hedged on calling for some of his biggest demands — single-payer healthcare, cost-free college education and other policies Sanders identifies with his self-professed democratic socialist leanings. And while she focused on income inequality, other big issues among left-leaning voters fell by the wayside. Calls for racial equity and reforms to the criminal justice system, for example, received nary a mention in a city that had a high-profile police shooting of an unarmed black man less than a year ago.
The message she brought during her third visit to Ohio was full of invective against big banks, student debt, corporate tax dodgers and income inequality, however. That contrasts directly with some of the staunchest criticism Clinton has received from those on the left — that she’s the definition of a party elite and that she and her husband, two-term president Bill Clinton, are millionaires out of touch with common people.
That President Clinton, critics suggest, helped usher in policies now reviled among progressives — welfare to work reforms that winnowed down government assistance to vulnerable Americans, a stricter justice system that left more minorities behind bars, trade agreements that moved jobs overseas and more. How different will another Clinton in the White House be?
Clinton seems eager to leave behind a primary filled with questions about her bone fides as a progressive, including hawkish foreign policy decisions made while she was secretary of state, her 1990s-era remarks equating urban youth to “super predators” and the millions in campaign donations and speaking fees she’s received from big banks like Goldman Sachs.
Instead of fighting those critiques directly, Clinton focused on policy goals in her Cincinnati speech: new environmental efforts, increased rules for the financial industry, fewer tax loopholes for corporations, policies to encourage profit-sharing from employers to employees, increased infrastructure spending and student debt relief.
As if to buttress her claims to populist credibility, Clinton appeared with firebrand U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a progressive favorite who has trained much of her attention on banking reform. There are whispers Warren is on a shortlist as a choice for Clinton’s running mate.
Warren said Clinton, like her, had humble beginnings.
“I’m the daughter of a maintenance man who made it all the way to the United States Senate,” she told the crowd, “and Hillary Clinton is the granddaughter of a factory worker who will make it all the way to the White House.”
The senator from Massachusetts seemed all in for Clinton, despite her cache with anti-elite progressives and Clinton’s estimated $30 million net worth.
“I could do this all day,” she said of her praise for Clinton’s tenacity and her policy ideas.
Critics on the right were quick to call Clinton’s embrace of many Sanders priorities and populist figures like Warren pandering. GOP officials have said a potential Warren VP pick would signal to voters that Clinton has gone far-left of center.
“A Clinton-Warren ticket reeks of complete insincerity,” Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges said in a statement. “Hillary Clinton stands for everything that Elizabeth Warren claims to be against.”
Though Clinton seemed to borrow some of her fading opponent Sanders’ vigor, she did not mention the Vermont senator’s name during her remarks. The closest she came was a call for party unity.
“We’re all on the same team,” she told the crowd. “It’s time we started acting like it.”
Clinton’s appearance also channeled the support of local politicians like Ohio State Rep. Alicia Reece, who is president of the Ohio House Black Caucus, and centrist Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley.
Reece called Clinton and Warren “bad sisters who know how to fight” before focusing in on gun-control efforts, an ever-larger concern following the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando just over two weeks ago.
“When we elect Clinton,” Reece said, “she won’t be in back, she won’t be on the sides, she’ll be in front fighting against the gun lobby.”
That message resonated with Dorthy Weathers, whose son was shot to death in March in Cincinnati’s West End, and her daughter-in-law Tonya Weathers. The two, along with a number of others in their group, wore fluorescent green T-shirts emblazoned with the name of their group, Mothers Against Gun Violence.
“We want something done about gun deaths,” Dorthy said. “We’re supporters. We just want to be seen.”
Not everyone was there to cheer Clinton’s left turn. A small group of about 10 conservative anti-Clinton protesters gathered at the entrance to the terminal’s parking lot, about a quarter mile from the building. Paul Johnson of Florence, Ky. dressed like George Washington and stood at the entrance to the terminal. Johnson didn’t have a sign, but told CityBeat he opposed Clinton because of Benghazi and Obamacare.
Inside, attendees ran the gamut — from Sanders fans rebounding from his campaign’s slow drain to longtime Clinton supporters and activists focused on specific issues.
“I’m going to vote for the most progressive tenable candidate,” said Oakley resident Matthew Bauman, who voted for Sanders in the primary but says he’ll vote for Clinton in the general election. Bauman said he was more excited to see Warren than Clinton, though he’s not keen on her being Clinton’s running mate.
“I hope not,” he said of Warren’s vice presidential prospects. “If she got a cabinet post, she could actually affect real change.”
Susan Herbert, on the other hand, is a longtime Clinton backer who wouldn’t mind seeing Warren as VP.
“I supported Clinton eight years ago, and I’m back to support her again,” the retired nurse said from the edge of the crowd on the rotunda floor. “I also like Liz Warren and couldn’t pass up the chance to see them both. I think we’re way overdue for a woman president.”
Clinton won Ohio’s March Democratic Primary easily, receiving 56 percent of the vote to Sanders’ 43 percent. But Sanders’ outsider appeal still hangs over the state: Many polls show Clinton and Trump neck and neck in Ohio, while Sanders polls well ahead of the real estate mogul.
Clinton and Warren both spouted fire at Trump, who has been intensely controversial for his statements on immigrants, Muslims and African-Americans.
Warren called him “money-grubbing” and “insecure,” while Clinton suggested he wasn’t fit to lead the country.
“We’re not going to let Donald Trump bankrupt America the way he bankrupted his casinos,” Clinton said. “America needs a new chapter, but it can’t be Chapter 11.”
Both seemed mostly to preach to the converted at the Cincinnati rally.
“The Republican party is a shambles,” Herbert said when asked about Trump. “They’re imploding because they have no way of controlling the populist element of their tea party fellows. I don’t think Trump is a viable candidate.”
Less clear: whether being the alternative to a Donald Trump presidency will be enough to draw left-leaning voters enamored with Sanders to vote for Clinton.
“I appreciate that Bernie is keeping that leftward pressure on the establishment candidates, because it’s really easy to tack to the center and give up on the more progressive planks,” Bauman said. “I’m glad that there’s a more progressive force keeping that pressure on the establishment candidate.” ©