Seth Wenig/AP

Clinton Proposes Economic Agenda, but Wall Street Questions Still Remain

She attacked her Republican opponents by name, but still can’t dodge the specter of her past.

When New School President David Van Zandt introduced Hillary Clinton on Monday, he made an inadvertent joke.

After Van Zandt said, "the New School does not endorse any particular candidate for political office," knowing laughter and clapping broke out in the audience. The New School has a proudly liberal history, thus making it a well-scouted venue for Clinton to give a populist speech about her economic platform.

In her speech, Clinton proposed three prongs for her economic policies: strong growth, fair growth, and long-term growth. What that looks like in policy terms: raising wages (especially for women), boosting participation in the workforce, encouraging profit-sharing for firms' employees, and deploying so-called "empowerment zones" to encourage growth in downtrodden cities. If that last one sounds familiar, it's because another candidate—Sen. Rand Paul—has already proposed a similar idea.

There was some tittering ahead of Clinton's speech that she would be attacking Uber, the ride-sharing service that's become a darling of the Republican Party. But whether she was alluding to disruptive businesses like Uber or entrenched Wall Street firms, her actual remarks hardly amounted to a scorched-earth attack.

"Many Americans are making extra money renting out a spare room, designing websites, selling products they designed themselves at home, or even driving their own car," Clinton said. "This on-demand or so-called 'gig economy' is creating exciting opportunities and unleashing innovation, but it's also raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future."

Clinton also teased a plan to reform the capital-gains tax—a topic on which she has come under some scrutiny—that she says she'll get into when she visits New Hampshire later this week. And while the average voter's eyelids may start to droop as quick as you can say "capital-gains tax," it's become somewhat of a progressive litmus test for Democratic candidates. Democracy for America, one of the progressive groups that were agitating for an Elizabeth Warren presidential campaign, had a positive take on Clinton's economic speech.

"Coupled with Senator Bernie Sanders' early 2016 surge, today's speech illustrates the dominant force the Elizabeth Warren Wing is in the Democratic Party and the critical role it has already played in ensuring that income inequality, the moral issue of our time, sits at the very center of the 2016 presidential debate," Jim Dean, Democracy for America's chair, said in a statement.

There are still some gaps in Clinton's economic agenda. Both Sanders and Martin O'Malley have said they would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, while Clinton has remained mum on the exact wage she would seek. Some have argued that doubling the minimum wage would be too risky a move, and one that may reduce employment.

Still, for Democrats, Clinton's policies are light-years ahead of those of her Republican counterparts. And that's something she latched onto in her speech on Monday while avoiding criticism of her primary opponents. Clinton called out Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker by name to criticize their views on labor, taxes, and unions, respectively.

On Bush's comment that "people need to work longer hours": "You may have heard Governor Bush say last week that Americans just need to work longer hours. Well, he must not have met very many American workers. Let him tell that to the nurse who stands on her feet all day, or the teacher who is in that classroom, or the trucker who drives all night. Let him tell that to the fast-food worker marching in the streets for better pay. They don't need a lecture. They need a raise."

On Rubio's proposed tax plan: "We hear Republican candidates talk a lot about tax reform, but take a good look at their plans. Senator Rubio's would cut taxes for households making around $3 million a year by almost $240,000, which is way more than three times the earnings of a typical family. Well, that's a sure budget-busting giveaway to the super-wealthy, and that's the kind of bad economics you're likely to hear from any of the candidates on the other side."

On Walker stripping public-employee unions in his state of collective bargaining: "Alongside tax reform, it's time to stand up to efforts across our country to undermine worker bargaining power, which has been proven again and again to drive up wages. Republican governors like Scott Walker have made their names stomping on workers' rights, and practically all the Republican candidates hope to do the same as president. I will fight back against these mean-spirited, misguided attacks."

But for skeptics, especially on the Left, Clinton's own history as a senator from New York may give them some pause. At one point in the speech, Clinton derided the bank HSBC for enabling Latin American drug cartels to launder billions of dollars without proper oversight.

"There can be no justification or tolerance for this kind of criminal behavior," she said.

After her speech, the anti-Clinton super PAC America Rising quickly pointed out that in 2011, HSBC Securities Inc. paid Bill Clinton a $200,000 honorarium for a speech he gave in Key Largo, Florida. The bank has also donated between $500,000 and $1 million to the Clinton Foundation.

While HSBC's lack of oversight did not come to light until 2013, its whiff of impropriety shows just how hard it continues to be for Clinton to disentangle her time as a New York politician with the tough-on-Wall Street image she's trying to craft. At one point in the speech, a man in the audience shouted, "Senator Clinton, will you restore Glass-Steagall?" Security escorted him out, and the rest of the audience drowned out his shouts with applause for Clinton. Economist Alan Blinder, whom Clinton's campaign has hired as a policy adviser, told Reuters on Monday that Clinton will not try to reinstate the bank-breakup law.

As the primary campaign wears on, it will be harder for Clinton to avoid Democrats' lingering questions; eventually, she'll have to address her history, and even her regrets, from her time as a senator. There's still time for evolution.