Littin: Wall Street questions drag Hillary Clinton down

Mike Littwin
Fair and Unbalanced

It was great theater, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t an act.

I’m guessing Hillary Clinton actually believes that there’s too much big money in the political system, corrupting everything and everyone it touches — except, well, her. And that Bernie Sanders, if he were honest with himself, would know that, too.

It’s a theory. And, more than that, it was a strategy.

And it was a way, finally, for Clinton to answer the Wall Street/Goldman Sachs question, for which, if we’re honest, there is no good answer. In fact, we’ve seen her give inexplicably bad answers. It was 9/11 that made her do it. She was “dead broke.” And in the Wednesday night town hall, when asked about the $675,000 for three speeches, she shrugged and said that’s what they were offering. It was a gif and a gift.

But there we were one night later, in the second of the back-to-back episodes of the Bernie-Hill Show, the first of the many head-to-head debate confrontations to come, and Clinton was on the attack.

The situation was obvious. They had fought to a virtual tie in Iowa, Clinton seeming to have pulled out a tight win that included winning a series of coin flips, of all things, while losing more than 80 percent of the 18 to 29 vote. And now in New Hampshire, where she had come back to beat Barack Obama in 2008 despite trailing by 11 points — her comeback based on the still-recalled near-tear moment — she was now trailing someone everyone had once considered a fringe, one-message candidate by 20 points or more. She wasn’t just losing on enthusiasm. She also was losing on losing. In the year of the outsider, Clinton is pure establishment. And even in rejecting the label, she later name-checked Henry Kissinger, who — for those who may not remember him — was someone people who support Bernie routinely call a war criminal.

Sure, Clinton remains the heavy favorite to win the nomination, and liberal candidates routinely make futile runs, with varying levels of success, at Democratic establishment types (Dean, Bradley, Hart et al) but none of them was a self-described Democratic socialist who says, as Sanders did in the debate, that “the business model of Wall Street is fraud.”

How do you fight that? Does Clinton really want to debate the fairness of the American economic system with Sanders? But backed into a corner, Clinton did what you’d expect her to do — she came out swinging.

The debate began on the question of who is really the progressive in the party. Since Sanders is a self-proclaimed democratic socialist and Clinton is a mainstream Obama-style liberal, there’s really no debate, but we had one anyway. Clinton said that Bernie was the purist “gatekeeper” of all things progressive, and that by his definition, Obama, Joe Biden and the late, great Paul Wellstone didn’t quality. This was part of her dreaming-is-fine, but-getting-things-done-is-what-really-matters tact.

It was working, for something like a half hour, although Sanders made his case for effecting real change, if not actually showing how to pay for it or how any of it might get passed through Congress short of Bernie’s political revolution. But if you watched the cranky old man with the unkempt hair and the Brooklyn accent, it’s no secret why those millennials searching for something or someone to believe in have picked Sanders.

And then came the Goldman Sachs question, and whether the Clintons could raise obscene amounts of money from Wall Street and get paid obscene amounts for making canned speeches and still be trusted to reform Wall Street.

Clinton faced at least two problems. One is the fact of the money. I mean, it’s a lot of money, even these days — and for what? Everyone knows for what. And the second problem, the bigger problem, is judgment. How could anyone planning to run for president in 2016 fail to see how this would be used against her?

After all, there is no Bernie Sanders in this race without the issues of income inequality and big banks and the 1 percent. But it didn’t need to be Bernie. It could have been Elizabeth Warren. Actually, it could have been anyone. In this climate, Clinton would have been better off giving paid speeches in defense of the Oscars.

But this is Hillary Clinton we’re talking about. And so even if there isn’t a good answer, even if Sanders was standing there representing one of the nation’s few unsullied-by-money politicians, Clinton did what she could. She attacked. She accused Sanders of accusing her — and anyone else taking speaking fees or donations from “interest groups” — of being “bought.” She said she was tired of the “innuendo” and the “insinuation.”

“Enough is enough,” she said, talking directly to Sanders, who had that Bernie-eye-bulging-in-disbelief look on his face. “If you’ve got something to say, say it directly. … I think it’s time to end the artful smear that you and your campaign have been carrying out in recent weeks, and let’s talk about the issues that divide us.”

Artful smear? By Bernie?

The crowd booed a little (and cheered a little), and it didn’t solve Clinton’s problem, but it did put Sanders on the defensive — he gave out a Bernie o-o-o-h and the eyes bulged.

If big money has corrupted Clinton, she wanted to know; show her some examples. She can point to the Wall Streeters and hedge-funders who have funded attacks against her for decades. Wasn’t that proof whose side she was on?

Sanders didn’t attack Clinton. He could have, just as he could have on the emails. Instead, he attacked the system, insinuating, yes, that Clinton is part of the system.

Sanders: “Let’s talk about why, in the 1990s, Wall Street got deregulated,” Sanders said, going back to Bill’s Wall Street dance. “Did it have anything to do with the fact that Wall Street provided — spent billions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions? Well, some people might think, yeah, that had some influence.”

As the debate headed into its second half, Bernie faltered on foreign policy — bringing everything back to Clinton’s 2002 vote on Iraq, allowing Clinton to get off the line that nothing that happened in 2002 will help us defeat ISIS today. There were a lot of “I think Secretary Clinton” is right answers, and if that’s all the debate you saw, you’d wonder why Bernie has been such a phenomenon.

It’s a year, looking back, in which someone like Sanders was inevitable. And now Clinton’s Wall Street problems of 2016 are not unlike her Iraq problems of 2008. And now we’re left wondering how she’s going to answer it next time.

Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for