There was a small political item today that I imagine piqued the spirits of those who hope Elizabeth Warren or some populist-oriented candidate runs for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. Hillary Clinton gave a speech at Goldman Sachs recently and reports of her remarks (not direct quotes) say that she said it was time to have a more constructive relationship with the nation’s financial institutions. To the bankers, this was refreshing after years of what they feel has been unfair criticism. After all, vilification is never just “business”; people take it personally, and many in the financial world are tired of being bashed for sins committed by others. Moreover, like many, they remember the Clinton years nostalgically, when the economy grew and their industry grew became the nation’s largest.
One doubts Ms. Clinton meant much by her remarks. Undoubtedly, her point was intended to be inoffensive. She wasn’t giving financial institutions a blanket pardon for the financial crisis, she simply was echoing her basic strategy, at least until she announces her candidacy. Her “slogan” for this period, if she had one, might be something similar to one of the longest slogans in political history. When Ed Koch first ran for mayor, David Garth wrote the line, soon plastered all over New York media, “After eight years of charisma and four years of the clubhouse, why not try competence?” Why not, indeed? Ms. Clinton’s presumed candidacy would be based on competence and getting people to work together to get things done. There is much to like in this positioning. It suits her. Voters overwhelmingly see her as smart; as a strong leader; and more experienced than most who have ever sought or held the nation’s highest office. After Bush’s blunders and Obama’s failure of hope and change, the country seems ready for a strong, capable leader and manager.
But first, 2016 is likely to present voters with another choice, and it was this itch Ms. Clinton stimulated with her remarks. I can imagine an Iowa night in 2015 inside a hot hall where the Democratic faithful will gather to see their primary candidates parade before them at the annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner. I imagine we will hear from someone to the left of Ms. Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, perhaps, who will frame the nation’s needs and the leadership necessary to meet them very differently. The question on that night may well be framed:
“Twenty years ago, I stood alone in Washington and said we needed tougher regulation of our nation’s financial institutions. But the banks steamrolled us and then took our nation into its worst financial crisis in history. Their greed and malfeasance wiped out the savings of millions of Americans, and we let them off with barely a slap on the wrist. Now today, we still have candidates who say we’ve been too tough on the banks. They say we are naive for not understanding how much good financial institutions do for our economy. Well, I have a different view. I think we need a president with the brains and guts to stand up to Wall Street, to hold them accountable and stop their choke-hold on the American middle-class.”
You get the idea. There are, as an old friend of mine used to say, “some votes in that speech.” The interesting question is: how many?