Flatiron Hot! Pundit: Hillary Clinton and Wall Street – Get it Together!
- Eric Shapiro
- On December 14, 2015
Hillary Clinton’s performance in the last debate was smooth and polished, albeit unremarkable. Kind of like her campaign ever since it extricated itself from the morass of e-mail pseudo-scandal, and Joe Biden decided not to throw his hat into the 2016 presidential ring. Alas, after demonstrating a grasp of foreign policy that highlighted Senator Bernie Sanders’ and former governor Martin O’Malley’s comparative lack of depth on foreign affairs, she made an unforced error unseemly for a veteran pol of her stature. But, here’s how she can reconcile her Wall Street ties with her campaign narrative – and in an age strident left and right wing economic populism, the sooner she does this, the better!
After failing to parry Bernie Sanders’ predictable criticism of her close ties to Wall Street and reliance on the dreaded super PACs birthed by the Supreme Court’s reviled Citizen United, she then proceeded to fall on her sword by playing the 9/11 card – one of the select few that American politicians should be loath to play because the deaths of over 3,000 Americans should never be politicized in a less-than-substantive manner. While Clinton’s unfortunate violation of one of the few rules in contemporary American politics is what grabbed the headlines, the reason she felt pressured into it is ultimately of far greater significance to her campaign and to the American people.
Clinton is caught in a bit of a bind; on the one hand, she’s running to be the nominee of a party that rightfully abhors the notion in Citizens United and related rulings that money equals speech, and therefore wealthy donors can make unlimited, anonymous donations to entities known as super PACs, which can spend on behalf of candidates as long as they do not directly “coordinate” with their campaigns.
On the other hand, Hillary Clinton, either a pragmatic idealist or a shameless opportunist depending on who you ask, is well aware that refusing to play by the current rules of campaign finance will place her, and by extension a Democratic Party that has invested in her all their hopes, at a disadvantage in what is shaping up to be a “nail-biter” of a general election with the fate of 8 years of important Democratic initiatives hard won by the Obama administration hanging on the results of 2016 contest. A GOP victory, with the likely result of across-the-board control of all three branches of the national government, will be catastrophic for Democratic priorities.
To make Clinton’s situation even more difficult, she already has a reputation as being an establishment figure in bed with Wall Street, based in part on her numerous paid speeches and activity in the Clinton Foundation non-profit, as well as her husband’s administration’s role in the deregulation of the financial industry. Unlike Barack Obama circa 2008, or Warren and Sanders, Clinton doesn’t have the progressive “street cred” to accept Wall Street cash and surround herself with Wall Street folks and expect to get a free pass.
Other than her debate gaffe, Hillary has done a serviceable job of deflecting criticism of her Wall Street ties with pledges to undo Citizens United and implement substantive financial regulation, if not quite at the level urged on her by the Warren/Sanders wing of the Party. Likewise , she has been clear in putting a prority on appointing Supreme Court justices that will consider a review of the sorry jurisprudence that has led to this unfortunate juncture. If she really wants to inspire some faith from the left, she must put an equal priority in commit to restoring Glass-Steagul, the Great Depression-Era legislation that seperates investment and commercial banking.
Clinton has also attempted with limited success “re-invent herself.” Hillary Clinton needs to face the fact that after decades in the public spotlight, America respects her, but it will never give her its collective love or its trust. I happen to think Hillary Clinton, in her rare moments of authenticity, is far more than “likable enough.” Clearly, trying to convince the American people that she is 1) honest and 2) not a robot ends up reinforcing those ideas.
So instead of relying on a combination of policy promises and image makeovers in an attempt to downplay her blatantly close relationship with Wall Street, she should explain the unexplainable in a way that highlights the characteristics that the public admires in her. No, not that she has the potential to break a certain glass ceiling; she already slipped in the gender card alongside the 9/11 card and it didn’t work. Instead, Clinton should play the “liberal pragmatist card.” Assuming she plays this card, she can not only parry inevitable GOP attacks on her Wall Street ties, but also take the opportunity to pivot to an as-of-yet underused narrative that may be her best shot at sitting in the Oval Office in 2017.
In the first half hour of the debate, she demonstrated a grasp of foreign policy that eluded Senator Bernie Sanders and Governor Martin O’Malley. She also did a serviceable job contrasting Democrats’ inclusive, pro-middle class agenda with the GOP’s rabid nativism and policies that favored the 1%. Her one major stumble came in the candidates’ discussion of Wall Street regulation. Clinton, an unabashed policy wonk, had no problem making a case for her regulatory policy. Liberals have understandably condemned Clinton’s unwillingness to re-impose Glass-Steagul, the New Deal-era legislation that broke up big banks and survived until Bill Clinton repealed it in the 1990s. But Clinton’s substantive, relatively timid approach to Wall Street regulation probably won’t be a liability in a general election battle against a Republican who will most likely call for far less.
However, her deservedly panned response to Sanders’ predictable attack on her choice to accept money from Wall Street could very well come back to haunt her. In blatantly politicizing 9/11 in a way that must have come across as cynical and unpersuasive even to viewers who associate the term “super PAC” with beer rather than complex campaign finance laws, Clinton played into her image as a heartless opportunist who will say and do anything to get elected.
Although it doesn’t look like Clinton has much to fear from Bernie Sanders, whose so-called political revolution has seemingly stagnated, much less O’Malley, who registers less than 5% support in polls with a margin of error is 3%, she would do well to clarify her acceptance of super PACS and Wall Street dollars before Republicans can smear her as a hypocrite. Her current approach of claiming innocence is worse than useless; justified or not, voters have an image of Clinton as a career politician who is at least somewhat compromised by financial interest. The more she tries to reinvent herself and shrug off this perception, the more guilty she looks. Even endorsing the strictest Wall Street regulation policy in existence will be of little help.
Instead, Clinton should tell a version of the truth that compliments her image as a pragmatist who won’t let ideology prevent her from getting things done. In order to get things done, she must win a general election against a well-funded Republican bought and paid for by a menagerie of right-wing plutocrats. In order to triumph over a Republican, she must have sufficient funds to build a comprehensive political organization across many states that can employ a staff of thousands, use cutting edge technology to gather date on voters and, most importantly, register and turn out voters despite the best effort of Republican state legislators to disenfranchise Democrats’ core constituencies. Suffice to say, such an organization isn’t cheap. And even Barack Obama, for all his charisma, could not win the White House in the post-Citizens United era without the support of super PACs. Hillary Clinton should declare something along the lines of: “competing in a general election without super PACs and big donors is like showing up to a gunfight with a stick.
Lest her acceptance of the campaign finance status quo come across as self-serving, she should preface her pragmatism with two underlying messages. First, the stakes are high in 2016. Given that the stakes are so high and the Republican Party as it exists today is so dangerous, Democrars would be irresponsible to blow an election because current campaign finance laws do not match up to our ideological vision. Anything short of the utmost effort would be a form of surrender that could very well haunt future generations of Americans. Clinton need not resort to hyperbole to make the case that America is at a pivotal crossroads. She need only point out the gaps between the two parties on such consequential matters as income inequality, the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court for a generation, climate change, war in the Middle East, the fate of the Affordable Care Act, the survival of Roe v. Wade, social justice; for every major Democratic constituently and, indeed, for every American, 2016 offers a stark choice.
Hillary Clinton may never be more than “likeable enough” and the prospect of her election may not send shivers up our spines like Barack Obama’s did. The prospect of change in a government beset by dysfunction and gridlock may seem remote. And no matter what any candidate tells us, it’s tempting to doubt that whoever sits in the White House that couldn’t seem further removed from our daily lives, that it matters all that much who ends up in the Oval Office.
It is tempting to register our protest of a government, a political party and a nominee that in some significant ways does not embody our progressive values by staying home on Election Day. But in truth, staying at home is not an empowering act of ideological empowerment or a rebellious vote of no confidence in the system. If anything, it is a “fuck you” to your country and to your children, who will have to live with the consequences of an untimely surrender.
It goes without saying that Hillary Clinton cannot resort to such abrasive language. To some extent, the electorate demands a soothing, uplifting message that is infused with possibility, optimism and the promise of transformative change. “Vote for me or else” is hardly a palatable campaign slogan. But somewhere in her gauzy, uplifting speeches about lifting up the middle class, somewhere amidst the promises to pass ambitious legislation and executive orders that those who bother to educate themselves about government know are impossible given Congress’s state of paralysis, Clinton must somehow convey to cynical, apathetic constituencies just how high the stakes are.
She must do something that is generally frowned on in politics but is, in light of the serious threats hanging over America and the world, is justified. Namely, she must intersperse empowering, uplifting rhetoric and substantive policy proposals with healthy doses of fear. Not exaggerated or irrational fear of the sort conjured up by Republicans. Not deep-seated, primal fear of “the other.” But rather, fear of the potentially irreversible damage that conservatives will do to the country if they seize control of the executive branch.
The Republican Party is already primed to impose its reactionary vision on America, seeing as it has the majority in both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court. The GOP is similarly dominant on the stage level, holding a majority of governorships and control of state legislatures. Armed with historical context and a sober understanding of the stakes in 2016, liberals, centrists, independents and perhaps even some of the fabled “moderate Republicans” who have watched their party jerk to the right will be considerably less likely to consider Hillary Clinton’s super PACs and Wall Street ties disqualifying factors at the ballot box.
None of this is to say that Hillary Clinton should embrace super PACs and do Wall Street’s bidding should she be elected. On the contrary, she should pledge to do everything in her power to challenge Citizens United via Supreme Court appointments that could lead to a reconsideration of the decision, and continue the ongoing fight in Congress against the finacial lobby and their Republican enablers, to implement tough Wall Street regulations.
To be sure, Republicans will accuse Clinton of hypocrisy – they have a record of doing so on many issues, and much ammunition, given Clinton’s extensive past history in the public eye. Such accusations of hypocrisy may well sway some voters; justifying super PACs and Wall Street donations as necessary evils to end super PACs and diminish Wall Street’s influence is a tough pill to swallow. But it’s a lot more effective and plausible than the argument Clinton made at the last Democratic debates. And it rings true given her image as a pragmatist who wants to get things done.
Appealing to the various interest groups that fall under the Democratic Party’s broad tent and trumpeting policies that will help the middle class are vital to Clinton’s 2016 efforts. So far, she has been quite effective at both, especially since a fortuitous October removed from her floundering campaign, at least temporarily, the black shroud of the Benghazi pseudo-scandal and the slightly more substantive (but still insignificant in the scheme of things) email scandal.
On top of that, Vice President Joe Biden decided not to run, eliminating the possibility of an establishment rival that could have damaged Clinton’s image and cost precious resources even if, as seemed likely to everyone, the latter emerged victorious in the end.
Lest anyone claim that Clinton’s newfound momentum was the product of external factors, Clinton used the two Democratic debates to her advantage, upstaging a principled-to-a-fault Bernie Sanders and a slew of other candidates with no real shot at winning the nomination.
With the winds at her back, it would be tempting for Clinton to continue trumpeting her support for the middle class and playing whack-a-mole with Democratic constituencies, hoping that her promises are enough to turn out the “Obama coalition.” But there’s one major problem with this strategy: Hillary Clinton is not Barack Obama. While it is possible that the current president has created a durable coalition on which future Democratic presidential nominees can rely, Hillary Clinton would be foolish to bet her candidacy on such a notion. The fact is that without Obama on the ballot, low turnout by Democrats led to grievous losses in the two mid-term elections during his term – this should set alarm bells ringing. She needs a rationale for her candidacy that goes beyond throwing breadcrumbs to interest groups.
For better and for worse, Hillary Clinton’s image is cemented in the public eye after decades in the political spotlight and trying to re-invent herself now will only seem disingenuous. While running for office on the notion that you are the only candidate who can be trusted at the driver’s seat is not exactly inspiring stuff, Clinton would be remiss not to take advantage of the very real fear on the part of Americans all along the political spectrum of what will happen if the nightmarish vision articulated by the Tea Party and it current advocates, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and the rest, becomes a reality.
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