The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hillary Clinton invoked 9/11 to defend her ties to Wall Street. What?

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It was perhaps the one critique that Hillary Clinton really should have been ready to manage.

With just three people on the Democratic debate stage -- one of them a democratic socialist and the other in possession of a tiny share of Clinton's mammoth campaign resources and support -- Clinton really should have had one of those well-rehearsed responses prepared when the issue of campaign donations from Wall Street arose.

Instead, when the evils and excesses of Wall Street, banking regulation and her relationship to the world's most famous financial district became unavoidable for a seemingly well-prepared Clinton, this exchange followed.

"Well, why do they make millions of dollars of campaign contributions?" Sen Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) asked. "They expect to get something. Everybody knows that."

Clinton responded:

CLINTON: Oh, wait a minute, senator. You know, not only do I have hundreds of thousands of donors -- most of them small. And I'm very proud that for the first time a majority of my donors are women, 60 percent.
CLINTON: So I represented New York, and I represented New York on 9/11 when we were attacked. Where were we attacked? We were attacked in downtown Manhattan where Wall Street is. I did spend a whole lot of time and effort helping them rebuild. That was good for New York. It was good for the economy, and it was a way to rebuke the terrorists who had attacked our country.

As a defense of your Wall Street contributions, it was bad. Very, very bad. The critiques started flying fast. Some came from totally predictable corners.

Some were deeply personal and highlighted just how emotional Americans remain about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Wall Street activity that helped to produce the Great Recession and the economy's near-collapse.

Here's Lis Smith, the deputy campaign manager for Clinton's opponent, Martin O'Malley:

And others still offered sarcastic compliments -- make that commentary -- about Clinton's gall.

Take a look at that sampling -- and it is just a sampling -- of the tweets that followed Clinton's comments. You have the Republican Party chairman, four reporters and a top aide to O'Malley's campaign offering pretty unflinching critiques of  Hillary Clinton's 9/11 comment. And yes, we do realize that one of those journalists is the founder of The Fix. But the point stands.

This is not an answer that will likely fade into the ether. It will not be quickly forgotten. It will become a part of somebody's fundraising queries, one or two ads and several YouTube mashups before this election is over.

Now, in fairness to Clinton, it was a low point in an otherwise pretty solid debate performance. And again, given her dominance in both the polls and fundraising race, Clinton did not emerge from the debate in any more substantive danger than she faced before the debate began. Clinton is in a truly dominant position when it comes to voters and when it comes to money, even if some of the later did come from Wall Street.

But these two things must be said.

Clinton actually tried to offer an explanation for the number of Wall Street banks and titans among her donors that amounted basically to something like this: After 9/11, Wall Street needed help. I provided it. They are now supporting me, along with many women. They should expect nothing in return but broad regulatory enforcement.

Sanders didn't strike back in a very hard way. But Clinton's answer was not just convoluted; it was very poorly timed -- and some might say, utterly tacky.

Wall Street is not a warm and fuzzy friend in need of comfort in the minds Americans still digging themselves out from the Great Recession and monstrous housing crisis. So, on this basis alone, that was certainly not the kind of answer that Democrats -- particularly Sanders supporters -- are likely to find even remotely acceptable. Clinton's answer will likely make some people in Camp Sanders and some in her own want to know more about her donor mix. Reasonable voters raise an eyebrow about the relationship between campaign contributions and political influence with the receiving candidate, in the abstract. Clinton helped to make their import a little more concrete.

Those are the politics. Then, there is the matter of decorum.

Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives on 9/11, on American soil. The country's sense of safety was forever changed. New and still-relevant questions about how to balance security and liberty remain. And just the day before Saturday's debate, millions of Americans watched in horror as France, this country's first ally, endured its own large-scale terrorist attack. Especially in this context, it was not -- and on this there really is little room for debate -- appropriate to summon the memories of 9/11 or the fallout from a terrorist attack to explain her connections to Wall Street and its campaign cash.

Clinton really should have come prepared to tell the truth. There was even a ready political spin to put on that truth. Clinton has received a lot of donations from Wall Street and will accept more. She could have said she and any other Democratic candidate will have to in order to wage a successful general election war against the eventual Republican nominee.

Here's how much that 9/11 answer mattered: CBS turned to Twitter -- live -- and plucked out a question raised by someone in Iowa. This was no snarky one-liner. It was, unlike so many attempts to allegedly engage the young people on social media, a moment full of substance. It was provided by an American who might cast a vote, moments after Clinton tried to tell the country that Wall Street donations don't matter in a most unfortunate way.