Even by the standards of liberal Democrats, Hillary Clinton is running the most frankly redistributionist presidential campaign in years. She promises massive new spending initiatives and balanced budgets, achieved by raising taxes on higher-income Americans in ways that other Democrats have rejected in the recent past.
At a fundraiser in Seattle Friday night -- with her growing lead over Donald Trump, Clinton holds few actual campaign rallies -- Clinton described her spending agenda: the "biggest investment in jobs since World War II," higher spending on prescription drugs, billions more for Obamacare, pre-school, family leave, college affordability, roads, bridges, tunnels, ports, airports, a new electric grid to "distribute all the clean, renewable energy we're going to be producing," half a billion new solar panels, advanced manufacturing, climate change, and more.
Clinton conceded that was a lot to pay for, but argued America's wealthy have more than enough cash to hand over to the government. Chief among them, Clinton said, is her billionaire opponent, Donald Trump, whom she promises to target after the election.
"When people ask me, so how are you going to pay for infrastructure jobs and paid family leave, I say well, I'm telling you I'm going to pay for everything," Clinton told the fundraiser audience. "I'm not going to add a penny to the national debt. We're going to go where the money is. We're going to make the wealthy pay their fair share. And we're going to finally close those corporate loopholes. And it would be a good idea to start with my opponent."
It's not clear whether Clinton meant there might be some specific retaliation against Trump under her administration or whether Trump would simply pay more taxes along with other wealthy Americans.
Clinton often uses the phrase "go where the money is" to describe her tax-raising proposals. (The phrase comes from a legendary 20th Century criminal, Willie Sutton, who was asked why he robbed banks and supposedly replied, "Because that's where the money is.")
Clinton used the phrase at three separate rallies last month, as well as over the summer when she was asked on CBS's "60 Minutes" what the term "middle class" means to her. "Well, we say below $250,000 because here's what we want to do," Clinton said. "We want to go where the money is. Most of the wealth increase, the increase in income, both active and passive, has gone to the very top of the income scale."
Of course, $250,000 per year, while more than the vast majority of American households make, is also not the "very top of the income scale." A household bringing in that amount would be in the top 3 percent of American earners nationwide. In some areas of the country, like Secretary Clinton's home, the New York metropolitan area, it would be in the top 5 percent. In any event, Clinton's precise figure, $250,000, is one that has given Democrats fits in their previous efforts to raise taxes.
In 2008, candidate Barack Obama pledged to raise taxes on couples making more than $250,000 a year and individuals making more than $200,000. The idea was that in 2010, when the Bush tax cuts on all U.S. earners were set to expire, taxes on the wealthiest would go up.
It didn't happen. By the time the Bush cuts expired, Obama had already raised taxes on higher earners through Obamacare, and some key Democrats joined Republicans in opposing another hike. Clinton's old New York colleague in the Senate, Charles Schumer, and the Democratic leader in the House, Nancy Pelosi, proposed to raise taxes only on households above $1 million. With the economy still in a terrible trough in late 2010, Congress declined to raise taxes on anybody.
In 2012, Obama came back, with a proposal to further extend the great majority of the Bush cuts but again to raise taxes on families with income above $250,000. Schumer and a bunch of other Democrats facing re-election balked. Obama compromised, and the final deal raised taxes on families making more than $450,000.
Now Clinton, with an eye on her left flank after a primary fight with Bernie Sanders, proposes to go back to the old $250,000 threshold for tax increases. Whether that will succeed is anybody's guess; on the other side of the Democratic divide will again be Schumer, this time leading the party in the Senate, either as minority or majority leader. Even if all Democrats agree to "go where the money is," it seems unlikely they'll be able to agree on precisely how to do it.
At about this time in the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama had a brief encounter with an Ohio man named Joseph Wurzelbacher, who later became known as Joe the Plumber. "Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn't it?" Joe asked the Democratic candidate at a stop in Holland, Ohio.
"It's not that I want to punish your success, I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you, that they've got a chance for success, too," Obama answered. "I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody."
For Republicans, Joe the Plumber became the embodiment of opposition to Obama's redistributionist plans. But Obama back then was vastly more subtle than Clinton is today; rhetorically, "We're going to go where the money is" is a hard-edged threat compared to "spread the wealth around."
Clinton doesn't need subtlety. With the political world fixated on all things Trump, she could resurrect Willie Sutton himself, and threaten to sic him on everyday Americans, and it's possible nobody would notice. Clinton is being blunt about her intentions because she can.