Bernie Sanders says that the business of Wall Street is fraud. Big money in general, he says, and big Wall Street money in particular, has distorted American politics and helped drive trillions of dollars out of the middle class and into the hands of the top 1%. He’s naturally suspicious of the millions of dollars that Hillary Clinton has received from Wall Street over the years, both when she was senator for New York and later when she was on the speaking circuit, getting paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for talks she gave at Goldman Sachs.
Clinton, for her part, says that Wall Street is spending millions of dollars to prevent her election, precisely because her plan for financial-industry reform would be much more effective than the plan Sanders has outlined.
So who’s right?
In this debate, the advantage goes to Bernie.
Clinton isn’t wrong when it comes to the nitty-gritty of financial regulation. Sanders’ plan is an attempt to implement heavy-handed policies that would change relatively little: They would just drain power from traditional banks and concentrate it in the lesser-regulated corners of the financial system known as the shadow banking industry.
But Clinton is being a bit disingenuous when she says that Wall Street is funding ads that attack her: While there is some basis in fact for her assertion, the reality is that Clinton is broadly popular on Wall Street, which she did represent as New York’s senator. She’s the kind of sensible centrist that Wall Street likes, which is why she is up there with Marco Rubio as the candidate getting the biggest donations from financial institutions.
Sanders, meanwhile, is spot-on when it comes to his broader critique: America’s politics have been deeply corrupted by money, and that corruption has helped exacerbate the increasing inequality in the country. Both candidates have spent enough time in Congress to see first-hand the pervasive influence of money in politics, and both have ended up voting how Wall Street lobbyists wanted them to. Clinton, for instance, has flip-flopped on bankruptcy, while Sanders’ vote for the disastrous Commodity Futures Modernization Act was surely the result of a great deal of concerted lobbying.
Sanders, to his credit, wants to end that game; Clinton wants to keep on playing it, on the grounds that, as she put it in Thursday night’s debate, “you will not find that I ever changed a view or a vote because of any donation that I ever received.” But the influence of money in politics is not about changing votes. It’s about electing (and keeping elected) people who will reliably legislate in the best interests of the monied classes. Clinton is undeniably more likely to do that than Sanders, which is why she is receiving much more money than he is from large-dollar donations.
Sanders is in many ways a revolutionary: He wants to upend the established system, which elects one Clinton or Bush after another, and replace it with something much more genuinely democratic. He’s unlikely to succeed: Even if he beat the odds and won the White House, it would only be the first step toward his goal.
Clinton, on the other hand, is no revolutionary. She works within the system, making changes as and where she can. There’s nothing wrong with that: Barack Obama told Marc Maron that his job is “to steer the ocean liner two degrees north or south so that, in 10 years, we’re in a very different place than we are now.” He knows that trying to turn the liner on a dime, as Sanders seems to want to do, is dangerous, and probably counterproductive.
Still, Sanders is correct, as far as he goes. Clinton is an incrementalist candidate who is going to be broadly acceptable to Wall Street. So was Obama. The difference is that Obama’s big private-sector payday is still in the future. Clinton has already made her money, which makes her that much more vulnerable to the Sanders critique.