If Hillary Clinton is to be believed (and she is probably not), she and her husband are the protagonists of the greatest rags to riches story in memory. Having exited the White House in 2001 “dead broke,” the Clintons have since amassed a fortune of some $100 million, much of it speaking fees and book sales. Horatio Alger, eat your heart out.
Getting paid to schmooze and charm and write about how you’ve schmoozed and charmed is nice work if you can get it, especially while being treated like a fastidious monarch. A recent Washington Postexposé reveals that the former Secretary of State was paid $300,000 by the University of California at Los Angeles to deliver a speech last March. When UCLA officials asked if they could pay a reduced rate because it’s a public university, they were informed that this was the reduced rate.
Were this not enough, the school also had to oblige some of Clinton’s idiosyncrasies by providing crudité and hummus, diet ginger ale, sparkling water, regular water, a bowl of lemon wedges, a specific room temperature, and chairs Team Hillary found agreeable. And when this veritable crew of sycophants did not find the podium she was to use to their liking, UCLA officials scrambled to find another one.
Individually, comments about being “dead broke,” extravagant speaking fees, and fussy accommodation requests are not likely to inflict any serious political harm, but the more stories like these surface, the easier it will be for Clinton’s 2016 Democratic rivals — whoever they are — to portray her as a wealthy and out of touch member of the political establishment, which is the very thing she’s going to have to run against.
To be sure, one can’t draw any policy leanings from such episodes. Some members of the famed 1% can and do have ideas that have mass appeal to liberals. But even here, despite her undoubtedly immense popularity, there are signs that should give pause to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Much as she would like to, Clinton cannot simply take a knee until the clock runs out in 2016. As the front-runner, she will have to spend much or her time playing defense and explain why credentials are liberal enough to notch her the right to be the party’s presidential nominee.
Those credentials are anything but beyond reproach. For one thing, her close ties to the financial services sector should trouble anyone who, for example, nods in agreement with the warnings of potential 2016 rival Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) concerning too big to fail banks. While Wall Street campaign donations went more heavily to Barack Obama than John McCain in 2008, Obama’s anti-bank rhetoric and the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act laid the groundwork for a reversal in 2012. This was no better exemplified by the dramatic about-face many employees of Goldman, Sachs, who collectively donated more money to Barack Obama than employees from any other private institution. But those donations went from nearly 5 to 1 in favor of Obama over McCain in 2008, to nearly 5 to 1 in favor of Mitt Romney over Obama in 2012.
Clinton has hardly been an anti-Wall Street firebrand like Obama in 2008 or Warren now, and even on those rare occasions when she does jab at the big financial institutions, those who work at them don’t take such comments very seriously. As one Wall Street executive told Politico, “She’ll do what she needs to do, but it’s not a ‘Let me blame you.’ It’s, ‘Hey, here’s what you’ve got to do.’ And I think that’s very different.”
This sentiment is understandable, especially considering that Hillary and Bill have long had close ties with Wall Street. This most notably manifested itself when the Democratic president and Republican-controlled Congress came together to enact two major deregulatory laws: the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, the latter of which turned the derivatives market into a financial bacchanalia gone horribly wrong in 2008.
But this isn’t how Hillary sees it. Politico summed up a speech she gave in New York last December thus: “We all got into this mess together, and we’re all going to have to work together to get out of it.”
This will surely come as news to people like Bill Clinton and Alan Greenspan, who both admitted that they screwed up by acting on their belief that Wall Street could adequately police itself.
Beyond Hillary’s coziness with Wall Street, her hawkishness in foreign policy should give liberals great pause. As a senator she supported the Iraq war in 2003. As Secretary of State, she often found herself in agreement with defense secretary Robert Gates, who together were often at odds with President Obama’s more dovish inner foreign policy circle.
She also supported the bombing campaign in Libya that helped depose Moamar Gadhafi, leaving devastatingly chaotic power vacuum in its wake. In August, she attributed the rise of ISIS to the Obama administration’s reluctance to assist the moderate Syrian opposition more. Finally, she called one of the preeminent war criminals of the latter of of the twentieth century, her “friend.”
Clinton is going to have to defend her record to primary voters just as she did in 2008, but now that record is longer and contains more items on which challengers can pounce. The thought of challengers hammering Clinton for her ties to Wall Street and general hawkish foreign policy is one that should concern the presumptive nominee, who’s as presumptive now as she was in 2008.