Opinion writer

Are Hillary Clinton’s policy positions and instincts shaped directly by the money she has taken from Wall Street and corporate interests? Clinton has repeatedly answered this question — which has emerged as central to the Democratic primary battle — with a firm No. The Sanders campaign has equivocated on it, with his campaign aides suggesting the answer is Yes, while Sanders himself has mostly demurred, instead appropriately directing his criticism at the whole system, while noting that Clinton remains a part of it and wouldn’t sufficiently challenge it.

Today, Post fact checker Glenn Kessler moves the ball forward substantially in this debate, with a deep dive into the question of whether Clinton’s positions on an overhaul of bankruptcy laws were shaped by her corporate contributors. After Clinton repeated her suggestion at Saturday’s debate that Wall Street money doesn’t influence her, the Sanders campaign circulated evidence that Elizabeth Warren has sharply criticized Clinton for ultimately supporting the bankruptcy overhaul as a senator, after she had opposed it as First Lady, and blamed that on Clinton’s acceptance of contributions.

Kessler’s look at what happened is — warning!!! — very nuanced. Clinton actually insisted on the addition of a number of amendments to protect women — such as “allowing women to collect child support payments after the father has declared bankruptcy” — as a condition for her support, and she voted to advance a version of the bill in 2001. But Warren dismissed those additions as largely meaningless, and consumer groups opposed it, while many media accounts portrayed it as a victory for financial lobbyists. And yet, this version did not end up passing, and Clinton opposed the version that finally passed a few years later (though she didn’t vote against it because she was visiting Bill Clinton in the hospital).

Warren’s criticism of Clinton preceded her opposition to the final product, and Kessler concludes that this criticism is thus “out of date.” However, Warren’s office tells me (and Kessler) that she won’t be commenting on the Sanders camp’s use of her criticism.

The bottom line: Clinton argued for improving the bill as a condition for her support, and did support it at a juncture where it was still seen as a big win for financial interests, but thought doing so was necessary to make the outcome less bad. Clinton herself has defended her approach along these lines.

It’s important to note that this episode, in some ways, supports both sides’ arguments. How is this possible? It turns on the deeper nature of their dispute.

Both Clinton and Sanders make good arguments

For Clinton, the bankruptcy episode supports her broader case, because she is explicitly arguing that she will successfully work within the system to advance progressive priorities whenever possible, even if it means making ugly compromises, and that taking Wall Street money, if anything, actually gives the Democratic Party a better chance at succeeding on this front, because getting elected is an obvious precondition for doing this.

At the same time, this episode also lends some support to Sanders’s argument. Sanders is explicitly arguing that Clinton’s half-a-loaf approach isn’t good enough, and that the entire system is being corrupted by oligarchic money — and rendered paralyzed in the face of our monumental long-term challenges — in a fashion that can only be broken by forswearing that money entirely.

For Sanders, individual politicians are to some degree beside the point. Indeed, Elizabeth Warren has taken a lot of financial services money. Will Tucker, a reporter for the Center for Responsive Politics, tells me that Open Secrets data shows that Warren has benefited from over $750,000 in securities and investment industry money. That’s not much, to be sure. And at any rate, Sanders would not dream of calling Warren beholden to Wall Street, since she obviously isn’t. This seems to suggest such money does not inevitably result in that.

Sanders probably agrees with this, and indeed, he stops short of arguing that Clinton has personally been unduly influenced by Wall Street money. His argument is that the system itself has been rendered catastrophically dysfunctional by it. In this telling, Clinton’s push for bankruptcy bill concessions — even if it improved a bad bill — is part of the broader problem, which turns on the overall orientation of our whole system.

Thus, for Sanders, the reforms of the Obama era (Dodd-Frank included) were woefully insufficient, mainly because Obama failed to rally the grassroots against the power of the oligarchy and because the Democratic establishment continued to take oligarchic money. Only a fundamental re-imagining of American democracy will enable us to meet our great challenges, and even if that falls short, staking out the most aggressive position now holds out the possibility of broadening the window on what’s possible.

I’m skeptical of Sanders’s case that Obama could have gotten a lot more than he did or that his explanation accounts for the constraints on what Obama did achieve. I’m also skeptical of Sanders’s case that he can fundamentally transform the system. But his overall arguments about big money skewing policy outcomes towards the wealthy are generally valid — I strongly recommend Rick Hasen’s book about it — and he’s forcing the debate about that subject on to the national agenda, which is an unqualified good.

What’s at the bottom of this whole debate

Ultimately, at the bottom of this whole argument is a debate over what money really buys in politics. This is not a simple subject, and despite Clinton’s protestations, the debate does not end with a lack of proof of a direct line from money to policy positions. As Ezra Klein argues, Clinton’s Wall Street contributions could very well have resulted in more Wall Street access to her and/or more general sympathy with Wall Streeters’ worldview. Meanwhile, liberal groups rightly point out that Clinton could settle a lot of doubts now about her sympathies by promising not to appoint Wall Streeters to financial oversight positions, which she hasn’t done.

Of course, none of that should be too surprising. While some liberal economists have concluded that Clinton’s Wall Street plan has some very tough elements that draw on Warren’s approach, Sanders probably would be tougher on Wall Street in some ways than Clinton would. As Kevin Drum notes, at a minimum he would relentlessly use the power of the bully pulpit to spotlight Wall Street recklessness and malfeasance.

But this doesn’t settle the debate for Sanders, either, since Clinton argues that getting half a loaf is all that is possible and that it’s better than getting nothing, and that a fully confrontational posture towards Wall Street is not a precondition for getting that half a loaf in the first place. Ultimately, it’s hard to determine which candidate has the superior argument to the other, since their arguments are proceeding on separate tracks.