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Key Dems say Wage Stagnation is the Issue for 2016 Campaign

Image: Hillary Clinton

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at a forum sponsored by the Center for American Progress in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014. Clinton said Thursday that voters need to turn pay inequity and women's economic security into a political movement in the November elections and beyond, pointing to an issue that could animate a future presidential campaign. (AP Photo/Molly Riley) Molly Riley / AP

Message to Hillary Clinton: focus on wage stagnation and income inequality in 2016, or lose.

At the annual conference of the Center for American Progress, the liberal think tank with close ties to both the Clintons and the Obama administration, some of the Democrats’ leading policy strategists and politicians almost universally agreed that offering specific policies to boost the income of middle-class Americans is the issue the party must confront in 2016.

There was little direct talk of Clinton’s candidacy at the event on Wednesday. But the conference was full of criticism of the party’s message in 2014, which these Democrats felt was both overly cautious and too focused on issues like gender pay equity and the minimum wage instead of broader economic challenges. They urged a different approach in 2016, when Clinton is widely expected to be the Democrats’ presidential nominee.

"The issue that is going to animate the election is the wage squeeze, stagnant wages mixed with higher costs"

“We need a message .... that as a Democratic Party, this is what we’re committed to. We’re committed to higher wages, we’re committed to opportunity for everybody to share in the economy,” said Ted Strickland, the former Ohio governor, who is now a top advisor at CAP.

“There are clear conclusions you can draw from this election [2014] and apply to 2016, at all levels: It is to have a clear, blunt, progressive economic message, relentlessly put it out, and be willing to talk about the changes we need to do in our economy and our society to actually address what is a declining middle class,” said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who participated in a question and answer session at the conference.

Neera Tanden, who has served as an policy aide to both Obama and Clinton and is now CAP’s president, argued the wage stagnation had become such a big problem that candidates from both parties will need to address it in 2016.

“The issue that is going to animate the election is the wage squeeze, stagnant wages mixed with higher costs,” said Tanden. “My own view is that whoever is running is going to have to figure out a way to address that, on the Republican and the Democratic side, because it is the issue that is causing the most anxiety.”

Wage stagnation, these Democrats say, is the equivalent of the Iraq War and health care reform in 2007. Back then, Democratic activists demanded Clinton, Obama and the party’s other candidates offer specific plans to get the U.S out of Iraq and create some kind of near-universal health system. There will be a similar pressure to offer proposals on the middle-class squeeze for Clinton or any other candidate.

At least one Democratic presidential candidate is already campaigning on this issue. Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb did not attend the conference, but announced later on Wednesday that he is setting up a presidential exploratory committee. And he spoke in great detail about growing income inequality.

"The inequalities between top and bottom in our country are greater than at any time in the last hundred years."

"When I graduated from college the average corporate CEO made twenty times what his workers made. Today that number is greater than 300 times. The inequalities between top and bottom in our country are greater than at any time in the last hundred years. And the disparities between those at the very top and the rest of our society have only grown larger since the economic crash of late 2008 and early 2009," Webb said.

Wage stagnation is not a new concern for the Democratic Party. De Blasio and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who also spoke Wednesday at CAP, have defined their political identities around attacking the gap between the top income earners and the rest of the country. President Obama, former President Clinton and Hillary Clinton all regularly speak declining social mobility and rising income inequality as well.

Many of the ideas to address income inequality offered at the conference were familiar, since Obama has proposed them: expanding pre-kindergarten education, raising the minimum wage, starting major infrastructure projects that would require the hiring of new workers, changing American tax policy in ways that reduce the burden on middle class families.

But Obama was not on the ballot in 2014, and de Blasio criticized the Democratic candidates who did run, saying “there was an unwillingness of the candidates to bluntly define the problem” of why many Americans were not happy with their economic conditions.

Democrats, he said, need to both promote policies for the middle class and to pay for those programs, “demand more of the wealthy.”