Bernie Sanders keeps hitting Hillary Clinton where it stings, and her campaign is feeling the burn.
He won’t let Clinton avoid her ties to Wall Street. He’s going to keep bringing it up as he barnstorms New Hampshire and the nation, and audiences love it. Not only does it address their anger at Wall Street, but it also feeds any sentiment that Clinton can’t be trusted.
The lingering flashpoint is the fact that Clinton was paid $675,000 in speaking fees by investment firm Goldman Sachs for three speeches, something she’s wrestled with each time it’s come up.
In a forum Wednesday, Clinton was asked why she was paid so much. “Well, I don’t know. That’s what they offered,” she said. In a debate Thursday, she hesitated when the debate moderator asked whether she’d release transcripts of her paid speeches. “I will look into it,” she said.
Friday, her pollster dismissed the notion that the public is eager to see such details.
“I don’t think voters are interested in the transcripts of her speeches,” said Joel Benenson, speaking at a Wall Street Journal media breakfast in Manchester.
While the question has been raised by the media as well as Sanders, Clinton aimed her response solely at her rival Thursday in their first one-on-one debate. She tried to grab the offensive with a passionate insistence that she’s no pawn of big money. She noted, correctly, that she urged Wall Street revisions before the Great Recession, as proof that she goes against the interests of finance.
But she’s still grappling with why she gets so much money, personally in speaking fees and politically in campaign contributions to her and to political action committees campaigning on her behalf.
Clinton is up against a relentless foe of big money who’s been on this crusade all his adult life. He’s touched a sensitive nerve with the American public, particularly in New Hampshire, which will hold the nation’s first primary Tuesday.
People still feel vulnerable in an economy whose recovery has been sluggish; they see corporate interests awash in cash, and they resent it.
Many see Clinton and her husband, Bill, the former president, with a quarter-century history of being cozy with Wall Street interests, a reason she’s having trouble being trusted.
In Iowa this week, a quarter of the Democrats attending precinct caucuses said the most important quality in a candidate was being honest and trustworthy. That bloc went for Sanders over Clinton by 83 percent to 10 percent, according to entrance polls of attendees.
People know about her big speech fees, and the big-money donors to her campaign. They hear Sanders’ pleas for overhauling the campaign finance system – a theme that vaulted Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to a big New Hampshire victory 16 years ago – and they like what they hear.
Clinton on Thursday called it an “artful smear” by Sanders.
In the most animated exchange between Democratic candidates this campaign season, Clinton charged Sanders with “innuendo, by insinuation . . . which really comes down to, you know, anybody who ever took donations or speaking fees from any interest group has to be bought.”
Clinton rejected that idea. “Enough is enough,” she said. “If you’ve got something to say, say it directly.”
Sanders, though, avoids direct personal insults. His style is to hit back by arguing his points vigorously and citing differences, so he would not send verbal darts Clinton’s way.
“Let’s talk about why, in the 1990s, Wall Street got deregulated,” he argued. “Did it have anything to do with the fact that Wall Street . . . spent billions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions? Well, some people might think, yeah, that had some influence.”
There is a reason why these people are putting huge amounts of money into our political system.
Sen. Bernie Sanders in Thursday’s debate
He would upend the system. He’d increase taxes on the wealthy and the big corporations. He would be obligated only to the legions of supporters who have built his campaign with small donations, he says.
Clinton said over and over that no contributions had affected policy, as first lady, U.S. senator or secretary of state.
Sanders just kept on going. “We have a corrupt campaign-finance system that separates the American people’s needs and desires from what Congress is doing,” he said.
Until this week, Clinton’s Wall Street ties were a nuisance; her key strategy against Sanders was to try to show she could match his liberalism.
She tried that tactic again Thursday. He wants universal health care? She would be a liberal, too, but one who would improve the system incrementally. Free public college tuition? Clinton’s plan to ease student loan interest rates would be more sensible, less costly.
“I’m not making promises I can’t keep,” Clinton said.
She cited her four years at the State Department and reminded that voters are picking not only a president but also a commander in chief. She championed her “distrust and verify” approach to Iran, saying Sanders was more eager to engage.
In the public mind, many of those points have been pushed aside. Martin O’Malley, a former governor of Maryland, left the Democratic race earlier this week, and now that Clinton and Sanders are engaged in a one-on-one duel, their differences become more stark, more magnified.