Last night’s Democratic debate may have been the best we’ve seen from either party this election season — spirited, substantive, even edifying. But while both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders performed well, each had their weaker moments. Sanders struggled at times when talking about foreign policy, which is an area he is obviously much less interested in than issues like economic inequality. And Clinton once again failed to give a compelling answer to questions about the lucrative speeches she gave as a private citizen, particularly some to Wall Street investment houses.
It isn’t hard to see why Sanders wants to talk about the speeches, for which Clinton was paid sums sometimes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. They mark a clear contrast between him and her: He’s unsullied by Wall Street’s affection, while she hobnobs with the billionaires who destroyed the American economy. It also portrays her as divorced from the concerns of ordinary people, since she could make so much money for doing so little.
When this came up in the town hall meeting the two participated in on Wednesday, Anderson Cooper asked her whether she should have been paid $675,000 for three speeches to Goldman Sachs, and she answered, “Well, I don’t know. That’s what they offered, so …” It got a bit of a laugh, but unfortunately it was about as close to being completely candid as Clinton could get. There’s something she could say in answer to these questions — the whole, unvarnished truth — but she won’t.
Here’s how Clinton answered the question last night:
When I left the secretary of State’s office, like so many former officials, military leaders, journalists, others, I did go on the speaking circuit. I spoke to heart doctors, I spoke to the American Camping Association, I spoke to auto dealers, and yes, I spoke to firms on Wall Street. They wanted me to talk about the world, what my experience had been as secretary of State.
But what I want people to know is I went to Wall Street before the crash. I was the one saying you’re going to wreck the economy because of these shenanigans with mortgages. I called to end the carried interest loophole that hedge fund managers enjoy. I proposed changes in CEO compensation.
I called for a consumer protection financial bureau before it was created. And I think the best evidence that the Wall Street people at least know where I stand and where I have always stood is because they are trying to beat me in this primary. They have collected and spent as much as $6 million on these ads.
Clinton’s argument comes down to: Sure, I took their money, but Wall Street is also opposed to me because I’ll be so tough on them. Is that contradictory? Well, yes and no. “Wall Street” isn’t one person who makes consistent decisions; it’s an entire industry. There are some liberals on Wall Street, too. George Soros donated $6 million to a super PAC supporting Clinton, but even though he’s in the finance industry, that doesn’t mean “Wall Street” is supporting her over Republicans.
But it’s also true that Wall Street doesn’t view Clinton as quite the enemy she suggests. From the point of view of investment banks like Goldman Sachs, it’s complicated. They dislike and will fight against some things she supports, and there’s no question they’d rather have a Republican in the White House. But they’d also probably be less terrified by the thought of her as president than Sanders, who is more likely to press for not just Wall Street reform but also actual upheaval.
If Clinton was really being forthright about the speeches, here’s what she’d say:
You want to know why they paid me hundreds of thousands of dollars to give a speech? It’s because I’m famous and important, and the people who have that kind of money like to brush up against famous and important people. The executives want to get their picture taken chatting with me so they can put it up on their “brag wall.” They want to tell their buddies on the golf course, “Well here’s what I told Hillary Clinton …” It feeds their egos. And the money? Yeah, it’s hard to turn down that kind of money. So I go, I talk for an hour about the complex challenges America faces in an ever-changing world, blah blah blah, do the grip-and-grin and get a six-figure check. You would too, if you could.
That’s the truth, but the chances that Clinton would ever say that are approximately zero. Because politicians have to pretend that every moment of every day they’re thinking about nothing more than how they can help this great country of ours and they never do anything for venal or even mundane reasons, that they’re not just like us but better than us.
That doesn’t mean that Sanders is wrong when he says Clinton’s speeches are just one more example of an inherently corrupt system. Raising money from Wall Street and giving speeches to Wall Street, as many candidates (both Democratic and Republican) do, does create personal relationships that the industry can call on later. It doesn’t mean there’s a quid pro quo, but it does mean that at some later date, the politicians in question might be willing to hear the bankers out when they make their case. That’s true even though the real influence Wall Street exercises, as it is with most powerful industries, comes from things that are largely invisible to the public, like lobbying Congress on the arcane details of securities law.
But Clinton is also not wrong when she argues that in the larger scheme of things, the speeches are basically irrelevant. Paying a former secretary of state for giving a speech is what companies and associations do when they want to feel important, not when they want to influence legislation and regulations. They have lots of other ways to do that.
So if you want to know how Clinton would deal with Wall Street, there are better questions to ask than who she gave speeches to, like precisely what reforms she’d like to see beyond Dodd-Frank and what kind of people she’d appoint to key oversight positions in agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Sanders could ask those questions, and he’d probably find plenty to take issue with.