If the Republican Party hadn’t nominated a man whose favorite pastimes (apparently) include committing sexual assault and then bragging about it, the Clinton campaign would be having a very bad Saturday.
Between the end of her tenure as secretary of State and the launch of her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton earned millions of dollars giving closed-door speeches to financial firms and other private entities. This was a risky enterprise for an aspiring presidential candidate to pursue. Nearly a decade after the financial crisis, Wall Street remains an object of scorn with a large swath of the American public; the idea that our government is too cozy with the big banks has purchase among voters of both parties. So, taking large sums of money to speak at the private functions of Wall Street banks — including ones that admitted to defrauding investors in the run-up to the crash — was never going to be a great look in 2016.
And then, Bernie Sanders made it a worse look. Or, at least, a more conspicuous one. Vermont’s favorite democratic socialist was uniquely well-positioned to exploit Clinton’s liability (leftwing gadflies don’t get many speaking invitations from Goldman Sachs and BlackRock). Throughout the Democratic primary, Sanders called on Clinton to make the transcripts of her remarks public. The front-runner refused, apparently deciding it was better to give credence to Sanders’s suggestion that she had something to hide, than to reveal the sentiments she shared with Lloyd Blankfein and friends.
But her campaign prepared for the possibility that those sentiments would become public, nonetheless. In January, Clinton’s research director, Tony Carrk, combed through the candidate’s paid speeches, flagged the most potentially damaging excerpts, and framed each as a rival opposition researcher might. He emailed this self-oppo to Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, whose account would later be hacked.
And so, late Friday afternoon — as Billy Bush and Donald Trump were discussing the art of groping married women on every nightly newscast — Buzzfeed’s Ruby Cramer dug up those excerpts from WikiLeaks’s latest trove of hacked emails.
Nothing in Clinton’s private remarks is more politically toxic than the worst of her opponent’s public ones. But in an alternative universe where the GOP nominated John Kasich, this is a rough October surprise.
First, there’s the stuff that threatens to demobilize her leftwing skeptics. After securing the nomination, Clinton sought to make peace with the Sandernistas by moving in the socialist senator’s direction on health care and higher education. But policy concessions only matter if the voters you’re hoping to win over trust you to pursue those policies. And, after Sanders spent much of the primary raising doubts about the sincerity of Clinton’s positions on trade and financial regulation, a portion of his base still distrusts the Democratic nominee.
Clinton’s remarks before the National Multi-Housing Council in 2013 could swell the ranks of such skeptics:
I mean, politics is like sausage being made. It is unsavory, and it always has been that way, but we usually end up where we need to be. But if everybody’s watching, you know, all of the back room discussions and the deals, you know, then people get a little nervous, to say the least. So, you need both a public and a private position.
There are more and less benign ways of interpreting this quote. Vox’s Matt Yglesias provides one of the former, noting the beneficent role secrecy played in facilitating the passage of agreements on education policy and the federal budget in Congress last December:
The key to both pieces of legislation was to be worked on quietly out of public view. And in the case of the budget deal, members of congress tell me that absolute secrecy — not just from the public but from the not-involved members themselves — was critical to success. The problem is that a public debate would necessarily have become an exercise in position-taking, which is antithetical to compromise. In private, members can admit that they care about some things more than others and find a way to reach an accommodation.
But read in combination with other leaked excerpts, Clinton’s tribute to the virtues of betraying one’s public position while making back-room deals becomes more damaging.
In her DNC speech, Clinton said she believed that “Wall Street can never, ever be allowed to wreck Main Street again.” But in a 2013 speech to Goldman Sachs, Clinton seemed to doubt that Wall Street had ever “wrecked Main Street” in the first place:
That was one of the reasons that I started traveling in February of ‘09, so people could, you know, literally yell at me for the United States and our banking system causing this everywhere. Now, that’s an oversimplification we know, but it was the conventional wisdom. And I think that there’s a lot that could have been avoided in terms of both misunderstanding and really politicizing what happened with greater transparency, with greater openness on all sides, you know, what happened, how did it happen, how do we prevent it from happening? You guys help us figure it out and let’s make sure that we do it right this time.
Imagining the worst possible frame a rival could put on this excerpt, Carrk titled it, “CLINTON TALKS ABOUT HOLDING WALL STREET ACCOUNTABLE ONLY FOR POLITICAL REASONS.” That may not be the fairest summary of the quote. As Slate’s Jordan Weissman notes, there’s a subtle criticism of the finance industry’s lack of transparency embedded in the remarks.
Nonetheless, the suggestion that outrage at the U.S. banking system for its role in the financial crisis was based in “misunderstanding” and “politicizing” is risible. Here’s what one U.S. bank was up to seven years before Clinton’s speech:
In April 2006, Goldman Sachs provided investors with a bullish report on Countrywide’s high-quality mortgage loans — loans the bank had helpfully packaged into AAA-rated mortgage-backed securities, thereby offering those lucky clients a low-risk way of profiting from America’s housing boom. When the bank’s head of “due diligence” saw the report, he typed a short email to his colleagues: “If only they knew…”
You need both a public and a private position.
In April 2015, Clinton announced her support for a Senate bill aimed at closing the “revolving door” between Wall Street and the agencies tasked with regulating it. “If you’re working for the government, you’re working for the people — not for an oil company, drug company, or Wall Street bank or money manager,” Clinton wrote, in an op-ed co-authored with Senator Tammy Baldwin.
But speaking with Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein at the firm’s builders and innovators summit in 2013, Clinton suggested Wall Street money managers who wish to serve in government should face fewer regulatory obstacles than they currently do:
But, you know, part of the problem with the political situation, too, is that there is such a bias against people who have led successful and/or complicated lives. You know, the divestment of assets, the stripping of all kinds of positions, the sale of stocks. It just becomes very onerous and unnecessary.
In a separate speech to Goldman that same year, Clinton suggested that only Wall Street veterans were qualified to regulate their industry:
There’s nothing magic about regulations, too much is bad, too little is bad. How do you get to the golden key, how do we figure out what works? And the people that know the industry better than anybody are the people who work in the industry.
Clinton’s current platform calls for an expansion of Social Security, but in 2013 she praised the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan — which called for Social Security cuts — in remarks to Morgan Stanley.
Other, largely benign excerpts feature individual sentences that could have been damaging in a Democratic primary, like “I represented them [employees of the finance industry] and did all I could to make sure they continued to prosper,” and we need “two sensible, moderate, pragmatic parties.”
How all this would have impacted the Clinton-Sanders race is impossible to know. It seems unlikely that any of these excerpts would have been damaging enough to overcome Clinton’s outsize margins with registered Democrats and African-American voters. But they likely would have emboldened the Bernie or Bust caucus at the Democratic National Convention.
If these speeches became public two weeks ago, they might have amplified fears that disaffected, left-leaning Millennials would “throw away” their votes to third-party candidates and, thus, throw the presidency to Donald Trump. But in the post–grab ’em by the pussy world, the inclinations of such voters don’t seem to matter much.
Ditto for the right-wing voters who might have been energized by some of Clinton’s other remarks.
Trump has centered his campaign on a forthright defense of American nationalism, casting Clinton as a rootless globalist, more concerned with toppling foreign regimes and welcoming Syrian refugees than with improving the lives of her own constituents.
More concretely, he has made trade and immigration two of his campaign’s central issues, juxtaposing his opposition to bad trade deals and illegal immigration with Clinton’s support for NAFTA and “open borders” (even though Clinton has never publicly expressed support for the latter).
Seperately, he has attacked Clinton for sacrificing America’s coal industry to the fiction of climate change.
This quote from a 2013 Clinton speech to Banco Itaú fits Trump’s message to a tee:
My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders, some time in the future with energy that is as green and sustainable as we can get it, powering growth and opportunity for every person in the hemisphere.
No non-policy issue has dogged Clinton’s campaign more than her handling of classified information. Speaking at the University of Connecticut, the Democratic nominee touted the importance of the State Department’s cybersecurity protocols — thereby begging questions about why she flouted those protocols with a private server.
At the State Department we were attacked every hour, more than once an hour by incoming efforts to penetrate everything we had. And that was true across the U.S. government. And we knew it was going on when I would go to China, or I would go to Russia, we would leave all of our electronic equipment on the plane, with the batteries out, because this is a new frontier.
This would be grade-A fodder for a Republican nominee whose campaign wasn’t collapsing upon itself. But, for the party’s current standard-bearer, attacking Clinton for her husband’s decades-old sexual behavior in a bid to absolve himself for his own degeneracy appears to take precedence.
Horse-race considerations aside, do Clinton’s speeches give us any meaningful insight into how she would govern? Yglesias suggests not, arguing that Clinton’s private statements are far less important than her public ones:
Clinton can say whatever she wants to a private room of Brazilian bankers and it will in no way constrain her scope of action in the future. By contrast, when Clinton makes a public commitment to change the regulatory interpretations surrounding the Volcker Rule she is creating a real problem for herself if she doesn’t do it. Presidents usually make good faith efforts to implement their campaign promises, because politics is fundamentally a public undertaking. When you say you are going to do something, you probably have to try to do it and the more publicly and prominently you make the promise the harder it is to slip out of. Something said in private to Goldman Sachs is, by contrast, cheap talk.
There’s certainly some truth to this. But it’s also true, as Yglesias separately observes, that there are a lot of policy decisions that the public has little to no awareness of — the provisions on pharmaceutical patents in trade deals, how a federal agency chooses to interpret or enforce a given financial regulation. Clinton’s speeches suggest that, where the public isn’t looking — but Lloyd Blankfein is — she may take a different posture towards Wall Street than she does on the stump.
The challenge for Clinton’s left-wing skeptics, then, is to keep an eye on those places and a bullhorn in hand.