Hillary vs. Hedge Funds: Can it work?

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton struck a decidedly populist chord at a major campaign rally on New York's Roosevelt Island Saturday. She decried Republican economic policies saying they're the reason why so many Americans aren't able to get ahead. Then she reserved her greatest ire for the top hedge fund managers who have seen their income soar in recent years.

A lot of Republicans and conservative pundits have been shredding Secretary Clinton's speech, pointing out that not only is she enormously wealthy but also reminding everyone that the Clinton campaign and the embattled Clinton Foundation have gladly accepted donations from some of those hedge fund managers and even more questionable billionaires and rogue nations in the recent past.

But I'm not really interested in a personal attack. What's really interesting now is what we explored on Power Lunch today, and that is trying to figure out whether a populist/class warfare campaign message can be a winner.

First off, it's important to take note what a stark contrast this is to Bill Clinton's successful presidential campaign in 1992. His message then emphasized the fact that the new Democratic Party was friendly and open to partnerships with big business. The Clinton team in '92 was extremely motivated to erase the image of the Democrats as quasi-communists who would kill jobs with more taxes and regulations. If you get a chance, take a few minutes to watch Clinton's acceptance speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. You'll see how his economic message was exceedingly pro-capitalist. It helped Clinton shake off the economic negatives former President Jimmy Carter had straddled the Democrats with for years.

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And that electioneering actually turned into policy as the Clinton administration repealed the Glass-Steagall Act and reduced capital gains taxes; two things that contributed heavily to the greater income gains for the rich that Hillary Clinton is now bashing.

No Democrat running for significant office would dare say anything like that now. The party has very much embraced the populist, anti-corporate, and anti-Wall Street message we're now hearing from Senator Elizabeth Warren and Clinton presidential rival Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders and his challenge to Secretary Clinton may not last, but the Clinton team can't ignore that he has been polling surprisingly well. So that means Hillary Clinton has to shift to the left and try to appear like she'll bring the biggest money interests to heel. But at the same time, she needs to raise big money from many of those same big money interests.

Can she do it? Yes. There are probably enough very rich and not-so-self-aware billionaires out there who will be happy to donate to the Clinton campaign as they convince themselves that Secretary Clinton is talking about those other billionaires and hedge fund managers and not them. And even if they know they're the ones being attacked, enough big money donors will be willing to forget that in favor of putting their support behind the person still heavily favored to be the next leader of the free world. No one should be worried about the Clinton machine's ability to raise money no matter what.

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But the real concern is whether Clinton can effectively take this class warfare message to the voters. No matter how favorable the mainstream media is to her campaign, it's going to be hard for her to cast herself as a champion for the poor and disenfranchised when she's been so rich and powerful herself for decades now. A relative newcomer and a minority like Barack Obama had a much easier time pulling off the role of progressive in 2008 and 2012. Will Mrs. Clinton be able to motivate the record number of Democrats who voted in the last two presidential elections to come out again for her? That's something she does have to worry about.

And as today's Power Lunch guest James Pethokoukis pointed out, wouldn't it be better for a candidate to show the voters how he or she can be for the middle class without attacking the rich at the same time? After all, real economic growth lifts all boats. But as long as the only pressure the Clinton campaign gets is coming from the left, don't count on it.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.