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Hillary Clinton: From pearls to populism

May 6, 2008 |  9:31 am

MERRILLVILLE, Ind. -- Hillary Clinton began her presidential campaign in pearls, assembling a team of fundraisers that included luminaries from New York's financial services industry.

She's ending it in pickup trucks, Dairy Queens and fire stations, taking a 2-by-4 to "Wall Street money brokers" and vowing to break up oil-rich OPEC.

No development in the 2008 campaign is quite so striking as Clinton's transformation from a front-runner policy wonk with deep pockets to a cash-starved populist staking her hopes in today's North Carolina and Indiana primaries on a promise to lower gas prices.

"If I were president, I would be jumping up and down in the White House" to cut gas prices, she shouted to a crowd of several hundred supporters at a firehouse here.

Necessity is the mother of Clinton's populism, longtime observers say.

"It's a highly effective argument in a primary during an economic downturn," says Doug Schoen, a former pollster for former President Bill Clinton.

"She's not a true populist -- not at all," Schoen says. "She wasn't getting white males ...

in Wisconsin, Virginia and Maryland, and she needed those votes and this is the message. ... Politics is not only about finding a message, it's finding circumstances that fit the message -- and the weak economy provided her with that opportunity."

So don't expect Clinton to be "giving the 'Cross of Gold' speech at the Democratic National Convention," quipped Schoen, referring to populist William Jennings Bryan's 1896 convention speech railing against Eastern money interests.

Nonetheless, Clinton has been delivering a kind of CliffsNotes version of that speech to mostly white crowds throughout Indiana. On Sunday night, she asked members of the state's Democratic party, "Why don't we hold these Wall Street money-brokers responsible for their role in this recession?"

Despite her rhetoric, Clinton's connections to Wall Street are deep. Of the seven companies whose employees have contributed the most to Clinton, five are Wall Street firms -- Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase and Lehman Brothers. Donors from those firms have given a total of $1.8 million to her campaign.

Many of Clinton's top campaign bundlers, known as "Hill Raisers," have made their fortunes in the financial services industry, including financier Alan Patricof, venture capitalist Steve Rattner and New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, a former Goldman Sachs executive.

Still, Clinton's resurgence this primary season has been fueled by her focus on pocketbook issues vital to white, blue-collar voters.

-- Glenn Thrush

Glenn Thursh, a reporter for Newsday, also writes for the Swamp of the Chicago Tribune's Washington bureau.