This morning I asked a very close friend — a lifelong, dyed in the wool Democratic voter — if Hillary Clinton had said anything interesting in last night’s New Hampshire town hall event on CNN. She grimaced and said that when Anderson Cooper had asked whether Clinton regretted being paid $675,000 to give speeches to Goldman Sachs during the time period between her service as Secretary of State and her decision to run for President, Clinton said no — and when Cooper followed up by asking whether she had to be paid that much money, Clinton said: “Well, I don’t know . . . that’s what they offered.”
Look, I recognize that this is one of those issues that we’re not going to agree on. Hillary Clinton supporters will say that this is just another effort by Hillary Haters to tar Clinton on an issue when everyone who has served in an important public office makes a lot of money giving speeches, and anyway Clinton couldn’t possibly be corrupted by making $675,000 for giving three speeches. If you’re a Hillary supporter, you believe Clinton when she says precisely that, and can’t understand others who don’t take her word for it. (I should note. though, that Clinton’s later statement that the financial folks aren’t giving her a lot of money since she officially declared for President has been vigorously challenged by some journalists.)
But consider, please, what a terrible message Clinton’s rationalization sends. Basically, it’s saying that everyone who engages in “public service” cashes in and, in her case, gets paid more for making three speeches than many people make over a 20-year career and far more than most Americans have saved for their retirements. You can say that it doesn’t change your position on the issues, or give the people who paid that $675,000 special access, or make you any more likely to agree with what they have to say if you ultimately make it to the Oval Office, but such statements are very difficult for the ordinary voter to accept. To most of us, $675,000 is a hell of a lot of money.
And how can you possibly complain about the corrupting nature of campaign finance laws, where issues organizations that technically aren’t affiliated with your campaign can contribute toward commercials that provide support for your candidacy or attack your opponents, when you’ve taken $675,000 that is paid to you, personally, for giving three speeches? Ask most people what is worse — a direct payment of hundreds of thousands of dollars to the ultimate candidate, or indirect support through advertisements — and I’d bet that the majority say the direct approach is far more troubling.
But more damning still is the phrasing that Hillary Clinton used in her answer: “that’s what they offered.” It makes you wonder whether Goldman Sachs could have paid any amount that would have given Clinton pause. $1 million? $2 million? $5 million? It sounds like Hillary Clinton is allowing Goldman Sachs to define her ethical boundaries — which, unfortunately, seems to suggest that she doesn’t have much in the way of ethical boundaries in the first place.
As I said, I’m sure that Hillary Clinton’s supporters will pooh-pooh her answer and the amount she was paid for giving the speeches as another trumped-up tempest in a teapot. They will accuse critics of being hypocrites. But I think the Wall Street speech issue, and Clinton’s response to it, neatly capsulizes a much more significant, disturbing issue about the crushing presence of money in politics. It’s a big reason why Bernie Sanders is vastly outperforming inside-the-Beltway expectations.