In an electrifying exchange over campaign money during Thursday’s debate, Hillary Clinton challenged Bernie Sanders to name one vote that she’d changed because of the influence of big donors. Sanders chose not to go straight back at her. Instead of trying to pin Clinton down on any one vote or policy position, the Vermont senator opted to highlight the influence of corporate money on several fronts — the regulation of Wall Street, Medicare’s inability to negotiate drug prices, Congress’s aversion to tackling climate change — and allow voters to draw their own conclusions about its influence on the former secretary of State.
But had Sanders been better prepared, there was at least one “gotcha” he could have pulled from his sleeve. And he would have been able to call in one of his party’s most popular figures as backup.
Few issues divide the interests of consumers and financial institutions more than bankruptcy. In the late ‘90s, one of the top legislative priorities of many banks and credit-card companies was bankruptcy reform — specifically, reforms that would make it more difficult for consumers to shed their debts.
When such legislation began to make its way through Congress, a certain Harvard Law professor wrote an editorial against it, arguing that the bill would disproportionately burden single mothers. First Lady Hillary Clinton read the piece and invited the professor, some finance wonk named Elizabeth Warren, to meet with her about the bill. In Warren’s telling, that meeting ended with Clinton standing up and saying, “Well, I’m convinced. It is our job to stop that awful bill. You help me and I’ll help you.” The legislation passed the House and the Senate, but President Clinton refused to sign it.
Several months later, the First Lady had become a New York senator — one who supported an updated version of that bill. Although the law was not identical to the one Clinton had promised to oppose, it was still anathema to many unions and consumer groups. During Clinton’s 2008 run, her campaign spokesman Phil Singer told the New York Times that the former senator had helped to “forge a compromise in the 2001 bill intended to ensure that custodial parents got child-custody payments.”
In a 2004 interview with Bill Moyers, Warren reflected on what might have persuaded Clinton to change her position.
“As Senator Clinton, the pressures are very different. It’s a well-financed industry,” Warren said. “She has taken money from the groups, and more to the point, she worries about them as a constituency … The credit industry on this bankruptcy bill has spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying.”
The bill did not end up passing until 2005. That year, Senator Clinton did not register a vote for or against, although she voiced opposition to the law.
Warren occupies a singular place in the 2016 Democratic scene. In the wake of the financial crisis, Warren emerged as a galvanizing voice for financial reform. The party’s left-wing activists rallied behind Sanders only after Warren repeatedly insisted that she would not run. An endorsement from Warren would likely go a long way toward boosting Clinton’s credibility on issues of Wall Street regulation. This week, a group of female senators is traveling to New Hampshire to stump for Clinton, and, according to The Hill, Warren was strongly encouraged to tag along.
For now, Warren isn’t taking sides. But if Sanders had invoked the bankruptcy bill Thursday night, he could have turned a younger Warren into a surrogate in one of the campaign’s most heated arguments.