Hillary Clinton’s campaign is staffed with veteran Democratic advisers, fundraisers, pollsters, and consultants. Some of them worked on Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns. Others cut their teeth working for John Kerry in 2004, or on Bill Clinton’s campaigns in the 1990s. They’re career Democrats.
A handful of Clinton’s key personnel also work for Washington firms that have lobbied or consulted for various corporate interests. Some are principals in those firms. And in some cases, those companies worked on behalf of their corporate clients to defeat or water down progressive legislation that Clinton touts as major Democratic accomplishments.
These kinds of ties between high-level Democratic operatives and multinational corporations and trade groups that seek to influence legislation are nothing new, but until recently they didn’t receive the level of scrutiny that they’re getting today. That’s partly because the 2016 campaign is being fought at a time when Thomas Piketty’s wonky tome on inequality hit the best-seller lists, the pope is condemning unbridled capitalism as “the dung of the devil,” and an unabashed democratic socialist is giving the presumptive nominee a serious run in the Democratic primaries. With the “Warren wing” of the Democratic Party on the rise, the party’s business as usual is no longer being taken for granted as it once was.
But if we’ve known this for a long time, why is the critique sticking this time around? Even more than the broader political context, it’s due to the distrust that many within the Democratic Party’s liberal base have for the Clintons—both because of policy differences on issues like NAFTA and welfare reform and because of a more general unease with the Clintons’ big-money lifestyle and apparent comfort hobnobbing with various corporate titans. Campaign stories tend to gain more traction when they confirm something that voters already believe to be true of a candidate. For example, when, during a 2012 debate, former Texas Governor Rick Perry couldn’t recall what government agencies he’d shut down, it hurt him badly because he had a reputation as not exactly being a rocket scientist. But when Ted Cruz, the Ivy League debater known for his sharp intellect, suffered an identical brain freeze last November—he could name only four of the five agencies he wanted to shutter—it barely registered with voters.
In February, the Democratic National Committee rolled back an internal policy, pushed by Barack Obama in 2008, that barred it from taking contributions from federal lobbyists. Campaign finance reformers were rightly outraged. In addition to the questionable “optics,” it gave big corporations yet more ability to influence the party. At the same time, this was exactly the kind of inside-baseball, process-based story that tends to fall on deaf ears.