Throughout the Democratic presidential primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders challenged Hillary Clinton to release excerpts of the paid, private speeches she delivered to Wall Street audiences following her time as secretary of state. She refused—which occasionally made things pretty awkward, since her resistance suggested the remarks could contain something explosive.
Now excerpts of the speech transcripts appear to be out. On Friday evening, WikiLeaks released a trove of hacked emails belonging to Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. These include a long missive from the candidate's research director, Tony Carrk, in which he flags portions of Clinton's remarks that could potentially trip up the campaign. “There is a lot of policy positions that we should give an extra scrub with Policy,” Carrk wrote to his colleagues.*
BuzzFeed reporter Ruby Cramer dug up the email, and Clinton's team declined to confirm to her whether the passages are authentic, adding that the Obama administration has “removed any reasonable doubt that the Kremlin has weaponized WikiLeaks to meddle in our election and benefit Donald Trump’s candidacy.” Assuming the excerpts are the real deal, however, it seems fairly obvious why Clinton would not want them to see the light of day in the primary—when she was trying to prove her progressive bona fides and was fighting the perception that she'd be soft on banks—or even the general election. In the excerpts, Clinton presents herself as a finance-friendly moderate who is willing to criticize the industry but who also believes it took an excessive amount of heat for the financial crisis. She also suggests politicians need to hide their true policy positions from the public—not great for a candidate voters already tend to distrust—and that her long-term “dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders,” which Donald Trump is sure to pounce on. Breitbart is already screaming about the open borders bit.
The choicest excerpts fall neatly into three categories: Stuff that would have played badly in the primaries; stuff that plays badly against Trump; and stuff where Hillary comes off looking reasonably well. You can read the emails in their entirety at BuzzFeed.
Remarks That Would Have Played Terribly in the Primary
One of Clinton's big weaknesses as a candidate is that, fairly or not, a good many Americans think of her as a liar. Her Wall Street speeches were controversial because voters suspected she might have told a room full of wealthy bankers one thing while telling voters another. And the transcripts probably wouldn't have helped that impression. During a talk before the National Multi-Housing Council in 2013, she talked about the need to keep political negotiations secret, for instance, citing the example of Abraham Lincoln's wheeling and dealing to get the 13th amendment passed. "I mean, politics is like sausage being made," she said. "It is unsavory, and it always has been that way, but we usually end up where we need to be. But if everybody’s watching, you know, all of the back room discussions and the deals, you know, then people get a little nervous, to say the least. So, you need both a public and a private position."
I'd argue Clinton is probably right here. But the phrase, "you need both a public and a private position" isn't going to soothe anyone's doubts about her trustworthiness.
Clinton also comes off fairly amenable to the financial services industry—which isn't surprising, given banks were paying her good money to come and chat. Take this passage, which Carrk flagged under the heading, "CLINTON TALKS ABOUT HOLDING WALL STREET ACCOUNTABLE ONLY FOR POLITICAL REASONS,” from a 2013 speech at a Goldman Sachs event, in which she appears to suggest American banks were criticized more than they deserved following the financial crisis.
That was one of the reasons that I started traveling in February of ‘09, so people could, you know, literally yell at me for the United States and our banking system causing this everywhere. Now, that’s an oversimplification we know, but it was the conventional wisdom. And I think that there’s a lot that could have been avoided in terms of both misunderstanding and really politicizing what happened with greater transparency, with greater openness on all sides, you know, what happened, how did it happen, how do we prevent it from happening? You guys help us figure it out and let’s make sure that we do it right this time.
Clinton's is actually offering a subtle criticism of the financial services industry here: She's saying that if the banks had been more transparent they would have been treated less harshly. But fundamentally, she's still opining that much of the criticism of Wall Street after 2008 was “politicized” and that the “conventional wisdom” that U.S. banks were to blame for the worldwide meltdown was an inaccurate “oversimplification.” On a substantive level, that should be a little worrisome for financial-regulation advocates. And politically, Sanders would have had a field day. He also likely would have hammered her for remarks Carrk labeled, “CLINTON SUGGESTS WALL STREET INSIDERS ARE WHAT IS NEEDED TO FIX WALL STREET,” which she offered at the same Goldman symposium:
There’s nothing magic about regulations, too much is bad, too little is bad. How do you get to the golden key, how do we figure out what works? And the people that know the industry better than anybody are the people who work in the industry.
Clinton isn't outright saying she would populate the Treasury Department with Goldman and J.P. Morgan alums (though in a separate excerpt, she does suggest politicians have made it too hard for people who have been successful in business to serve in government). But she clearly is saying she's open to their input on how their companies should be regulated.
Then there are the bits that sound OK in context but cringe-worthy in isolation. Take this bit from an event in San Diego:
When I was a Senator from New York, I represented and worked with so many talented principled people who made their living in finance. But even thought I represented them and did all I could to make sure they continued to prosper, I called for closing the carried interest loophole and addressing skyrocketing CEO pay. I also was calling in ‘06, ‘07 for doing something about the mortgage crisis, because I saw every day from Wall Street literally to main streets across New York how a well-functioning financial system is essential. So when I raised early warnings about early warnings about subprime mortgages and called for regulating derivatives and over complex financial products, I didn’t get some big arguments, because people sort of said, no, that makes sense. But boy, have we had fights about it ever since.
The big idea here is that Clinton takes a balanced approach to regulation, making sure the industry could thrive while calling out its dangerous excesses. It's a reasonable position, though there's still plenty to argue with on the merits; one might say Wall Street's profits should be curbed regardless of whether it's presently endangering the entire world economy. But how long do you think it would have taken the line, “I represented them and did all I could to make sure they continued to prosper” to meme its way around Facebook and Twitter?
Some of Clinton's other attempts to position herself as a centrist might trouble progressive Democrats as well. At one point, she tells a crowd at Xerox that America needs “two sensible, moderate, pragmatic parties,” which in these sorts of settings comes off as code for “pro-corporate.” And at a Morgan Stanley get-together, she says the framework and big elements of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan, loathed by many progressives because of its cuts to the welfare state, “were right.”
Is the Hillary Clinton of 2016 still secretly a debt hawk who thinks Wall Street needs generous input on the laws governing it? Who knows. But up against an anti-bank crusader like Sanders, who wanted to radically expand the social welfare state, these remarks would have left her with a lot of explaining to do.
Remarks That Could Play Terribly Now
Clinton's speeches are also going to hand Donald Trump some easy fodder—his own Friday evening problems notwithstanding. First, there are long disquisitions on the State Department's security protocols and the cyber threats posed by foreign governments—which again raise the question of why she thought it was kosher to use a private email server. The worst bit in this vein might be this part, from a talk at the University of Connecticut:
At the State Department we were attacked every hour, more than once an hour by incoming efforts to penetrate everything we had. And that was true across the U.S. government. And we knew it was going on when I would go to China, or I would go to Russia, we would leave all of our electronic equipment on the plane, with the batteries out, because this is a new frontier.
Then there's the bit on globalization. Trump and surrogates like Rudy Giuliani have said Clinton is in favor of open borders, full stop. Clinton has said this is false. But in a 2013 appearance at Banco Itau, she apparently said, “My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders, some time in the future with energy that is as green and sustainable as we can get it, powering growth and opportunity for every person in the hemisphere.” This may thrill the editors at Vox, but presumably not white working-class voters in Ohio. Point Trump.
Remarks That Come Off Well for Clinton
There are also sections of the transcripts where I'd argue Clinton comes off in a fairly positive light, even though her campaign seemed concerned about them. At one point she admits she's a bit “out of touch” with the struggles of middle-class families—but, if anything, that suggests encouraging self-awareness. She says that the mere perception that “the game is rigged” in favor of the wealthy is harmful for the country, and that those guilty of wrongdoing need to be “held accountable.” She talks about how the Supreme Court has turned campaign finance into the “wild west,” which suggests she's a sincere critic of Citizens United. Even a seemingly incriminating bit about how Wall Street donors should exercise their power, shared at Goldman Sachs, turns out to be pretty benign on closer inspection:
Secondly, running for office in our country takes a lot of money, and candidates have to go out and raise it. New York is probably the leading site for contributions for fundraising for candidates on both sides of the aisle, and it’s also our economic center. And there are a lot of people here who should ask some tough questions before handing over campaign contributions to people who were really playing chicken with our whole economy.
The key part here is “playing chicken with our whole economy.” This event took place in 2013, so it's pretty clear she was referring to the Republican Party's repeated showdowns over the debt ceiling.
So the transcripts, if they're authentic, aren't all bad. It's conceivable that had Clinton released them of her own accord earlier in the campaign, the progressive heresies eventually would have blown over, and she'd have avoided raising people's suspicions about her secrecy. But would they have been a headache for the campaign? Obviously. And now that they're out, I'm guessing they'll cause trouble all the way until Election Day.
*Correction, Oct. 7, 2016: This article incorrectly identified Tony Carrk as Tony Clark.