In a packed ballroom in midtown Manhattan, Hillary Clinton is addressing hundreds of civil rights activists and labor leaders convened by the Rev. Al Sharpton for his annual National Action Network conference. The junior senator from New York starts slowly but picks up steam when she hits on the economic anxiety many in the room feel. “We’re not making progress,” she says, her sharp Midwestern monotone accented with a bit of Southern twang. “Wages are flat.” Nods of agreement. “This economy is not working!” Applause. She’s not quite the rhetorical populist her husband was on the campaign trail, but she can still feel your pain. “Everything has been skewed,” Clinton says, jabbing her index finger for emphasis, “to help the privileged and the powerful at the expense of everybody else!”
It’s a rousing speech, though ultimately not very convincing. If Clinton really wanted to curtail the influence of the powerful, she might start with the advisers to her own campaign, who represent some of the weightiest interests in corporate America. Her chief strategist, Mark Penn, not only polls for America’s biggest companies but also runs one of the world’s premier PR agencies. A bevy of current and former Hillary advisers, including her communications guru, Howard Wolfson, are linked to a prominent lobbying and PR firm–the Glover Park Group–that has cozied up to the pharmaceutical industry and Rupert Murdoch. Her fundraiser in chief, Terry McAuliffe, has the priciest Rolodex in Washington, luring high-rolling contributors to Clinton’s campaign. Her husband, since leaving the presidency, has made millions giving speeches and counsel to investment banks like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup. They house, in addition to other Wall Street firms, the Clintons’ closest economic advisers, such as Bob Rubin and Roger Altman, whose DC brain trust, the Hamilton Project, is Clinton’s economic team in waiting. Even the liberal in her camp, former deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes, has lobbied for the telecom and healthcare industries, including a for-profit nursing home association indicted in Texas for improperly funneling money to disgraced former House majority leader Tom DeLay. “She’s got a deeper bench of big money and corporate supporters than her competitors,” says Eli Attie, a former speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore. Not only is Hillary more reliant on large donations and corporate money than her Democratic rivals, but advisers in her inner circle are closely affiliated with unionbusters, GOP operatives, conservative media and other Democratic Party antagonists.
It’s not exactly an advertisement for the working-class hero, or a picture her campaign freely displays. Her lengthy support for the Iraq War is Clinton’s biggest liability in Democratic primary circles. But her ties to corporate America say as much, if not more, about what she values and cast doubt on her ability and willingness to fight for the progressive policies she claims to champion. She is “running to help and restore the great middle class in our country,” Wolfson says. So was Bill in 1992. He was for “putting people first.” Then he entered the White House and pushed for NAFTA, signed welfare reform, consolidated the airwaves through the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (leading to Clear Channel’s takeover) and cleared the mergers of mega-banks. Would the First Lady do any different? Ever since the defeat of healthcare reform, Hillary has been a committed incrementalist, describing herself as a creature of the “moderate, sensible center” whom business admires and rewards. During her six years in the Senate, she’s rarely been out front on difficult economic issues. Given her proximity to money and power, it’s not hard to figure out why she keeps controversial figures close to her–even if their work becomes a liability for her campaign.