Moneybox

Hillary Clinton Is Better Than Bernie Sanders at Explaining Wall Street Regulation

She speaks wonk.

Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

If there was one subject you knew Hillary Clinton was going to be overprepared for going into her interview with the New York Daily News editorial board, it was financial regulation. She’s been needling Bernie Sanders for failing to do “his homework” on the subject ever since he sat down with the paper and delivered a vague, hard-to-parse explanation of how he would deliver on his signature promise to break up Wall Street’s big banks. (Personally, I thought some of the criticism was unfair, but such is life.) So the topic was obviously bound to come up, giving Clinton a chance to shine in juxtaposition. 

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Sure enough, the tabloid’s editors teed up a question about how the U.S. should deal with too-big-to-fail financial institutions, and Clinton hit back with a smooth, detailed, thoughtful, and probably well-rehearsed answer.

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For comparison purposes, let’s start with Sanders’ exchange on busting up banks, which was pretty much only comprehensible to people who were already following this issue closely.

Daily News: How do you go about doing it?

Sanders: How you go about doing it is having legislation passed, or giving the authority to the secretary of treasury to determine, under Dodd-Frank, that these banks are a danger to the economy over the problem of too-big-to-fail.

Daily News: But do you think that the Fed, now, has that authority?

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Sanders: Well, I don’t know if the Fed has it. But I think the administration can have it.

Daily News: How? How does a President turn to JPMorgan Chase, or have the Treasury turn to any of those banks and say, “Now you must do X, Y and Z?”

Sanders: Well, you do have authority under the Dodd-Frank legislation to do that, make that determination.

Daily News: You do, just by Federal Reserve fiat, you do?

Sanders: Yeah. Well, I believe you do.

And here’s Clinton.

Daily News: How do you stop too big to fail? What needs to happen?

Clinton: Well, I have been a strong supporter of Dodd-Frank because it is the most consequential financial reforms since the Great Depression. And I have said many times in debates and in other settings, there is authority in Dodd-Frank to break up banks that pose a grave threat to financial stability.

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There are two approaches. There’s Section 121, Section 165, and both of them can be used by regulators to either require a bank to sell off businesses, lines of businesses or assets, because of the finding that is made by two-thirds of the financial regulators that the institution poses a grave threat, or if the Fed and the FDIC conclude that the institutions’ living will resolution is inadequate and is not going to get any better, there can also be requirements that they do so.

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So we’ve got that structure. Now a lot of people have argued that there need to be some tweaks to it that I would be certainly open to. But my point from the very beginning of this campaign, and it’s something that I’ve said repeatedly: big banks did not cause the Great Recession primarily. They were complicit, but hedge funds; Lehman Brothers, an investment bank; a big insurance company, AIG; mortgage companies like Countrywide, Fannie and Freddie — there were lots of culprits who were contributing to the circumstances that led to the very dangerous financial crisis.

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You wouldn’t necessarily know it from a cold read, but Sanders and Clinton are actually covering some similar ground here. (Sanders, for instance, has said previously that he wants to break up banks through a somewhat expansive reading of Section 121.) But Clinton simply sounds light-years more fluent. Later on, she dives into the question of whether federal prosecutors needed stricter laws or more resources in order to pursue criminal cases against banks, expresses her frustrations about a recent court case involving MetLife that could undermine parts of Dodd-Frank, and even talks a bit about how a run on money market funds that held too much of Lehman Brothers’ debt helped precipitate the financial crisis. All of this stuff is tailor-made to make a wonk’s heart sing and inspires some confidence that Clinton knows of what she speaks.  

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But pleasing policy writers with thoughtful disquisitions about shadow banking isn’t really a president’s primary job. So does Clinton’s ability to explain this stuff in detail actually matter? Yes and no.

On the one hand, her familiarity with the subject is pretty clearly reflected in her nuanced but tough Wall Street reform plan (or, perhaps more likely, her advisers crafted a nuanced reform plan, and she spent time getting familiar with its justifications). Having a curious, intellectually engaged president is also useful if you don’t want the administration to be hijacked by aides (see: the Bush years).

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On the other hand, voters are still fundamentally picking between a candidate, in Clinton, who wants to do a better job fire-proofing Wall Street and another, in Sanders, who wants to tear down its whole edifice and rebuild. In her Daily News interview, Clinton says she would pick regulators capable of making the “hard calls” on whether banks need to be broken up under Dodd-Frank’s rules but doesn’t make any hard promises. Sanders says he’ll find a way to cut the big banks down to size within his first year as president (and yes, in that sense, he’s actually vowing to be less dependent on the judgment of his political appointees). Clinton is promising thoughtfulness, Sanders is promising dramatic action. Whether or not he has a clear sense of how to deliver it, nobody doubts that he’ll try.

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Read more Slate coverage of the Democratic primary.

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