News & Politics

Bernie's Political Tightrope - Sometimes Hillary's a 'Friend,' Sometimes Not So Much

What does Sanders really believe about Clinton?

When they debate, the Senator from Vermont usually refers to the former secretary of state as his "friend" -- not in the Congressional-speech sense of someone that he actually despises, but in what is presumably his deeply authentic, Brooklyn-born candor. He speaks frequently of his "great respect" for Clinton. And he has said more than once that "on her worst day" she would be a far better president than any of the potential Republican candidates "on their best day."

Even more often, however, Sanders suggests that Clinton has sold out to the financial industry for campaign contributions, or for donations to her super PAC, or perhaps for those big speaking fees she has pocketed since leaving the State Department. Certainly, he has fostered that impression among his supporters, who excoriate Clinton in the most uninhibited and sometimes obscene terms on social media.

But if Sanders believes that Hillary Clinton is "bought" -- as his legions to shrilly insist -- then how can he say, "in all sincerity," that she is his respected friend?

To date, his criticism of Clinton on this point is inferential, not specific. He hasn't pointed to any particular vote or action that proves her alleged subservience to the financial titans she once represented as the junior senator from New York. As Sanders knows, Clinton's actual record on such issues as the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill and the Consumer Financial Protection Board ran opposite to the banksters.

Back in 2007, eight years before she could ever imagine facing the socialist senator in debate, she spoke up against the special "carried interest" tax breaks enjoyed by hedge-fund managers. Her proposals to regulate banks more strictly have won praise not only from New York Times columnist and Nobel economist Paul Krugman, but from Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., the populist Pasionaria, as well.

Still, to Sanders the mere act of accepting money from the financial industry, or any corporate interest, is a marker of compromise -- or worse. Why do the banks spend millions on lobbying, he thunders, unless they get something in return? The answer is that they want access, and they often donate even to politicians who don't fulfill their wishes.

Meanwhile, Sanders doesn't apply his stringent integrity test to contributions from unions. This is a category of donation he accepts despite labor's pursuit of special-interest legislation -- and despite the troubling fact that the labor movement openly supports the Citizens United decision, which expanded their freedom to offer big donations to politicians.

By his standard, Sanders shouldn't take union money because the AFL-CIO opposes campaign finance reform, which he vociferously supports. Perhaps we shouldn't believe that he truly supports campaign finance reform, because he has accepted so much money from unions.

Such assumptions would be ridiculous, of course -- just as ridiculous as assuming that Clinton's acceptance of money from banking or labor interests, both of which have made substantial donations to her campaign, proves her advocacy of reform is insincere.

But political history is more complex than journalistic melodrama. If critics arraign Clinton for the decision by her husband's administration to kill regulation of derivatives trading, it is worth recalling that she was responsible for the appointment of the only official who opposed that fateful mistake. She had nothing to do with deregulation, but as first lady, she strongly advocated on behalf of Brooksley Born, a close friend of hers named by her husband to chair the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. As one of the few heroes of the financial crisis, Born presciently warned about the dangers of unregulated derivatives.

So it is fine to criticize Clinton's speaking fees from banks and other special interests, which create a troubling appearance that she should have anticipated. It is fine to complain that politicians are too dependent on big-money donors. And it is fine to push her hard on the issues that define the Sanders campaign, which has done a great service by highlighting the political and economic domination of the billionaire elite.

But it is wrong to accuse Clinton of "pay for play" when the available evidence doesn't support that accusation. And if Sanders wants to hold her to a standard of absolute purity, he should apply that same measure to himself.

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.