Last night in Las Vegas, Hillary Clinton debated a fellow democrat, an independent socialist and two career Republicans as part of the Democratic presidential primary.
While we hesitate to pick "winners" in debates, it is fair to say that Hillary's performance was akin to Ronda Rousey taking on the members of Fall Out Boy in a cage match.
That should be taken less as a ringing endorsement of Hillary than as a deep and probing criticism of what the f#ck the other candidates were doing out there. While Hillary took most questions in relative stride, Bernie Sanders dutifully performed the angry pinko uncle routine that has won him so many followers on the far left, Martin O'Malley took every topic as an invitation to pontificate in the voice of the world's oldest class president, Jim Webb whined about his lack of speaking time when not fondly recalling the day he killed a man in Vietnam, and Lincoln Chafee engaged in two-and-a-half hours of self-harming verbal slapstick.
Overall, the debate was decidedly not much fun to watch. Compared to the Republican debates thus far it felt like someone had grabbed your TV remote and changed the channel from "Sons of Anarchy" to "Downton Abbey." But unlike the Republican version, the candidates did actually talk about Wall Street.
Here's some of what they said:
We need to separate the casino, speculative, mega-bank gambling that we have to insure with our money, from the commercial banking.
You know, people are disgusted with the way that money has corrupted our political process, intimidating incumbents and empowering Wall Street every day, the turnstile government that we see, and also the power of the financial sector in both parties.
Let us be clear that the greed and recklessness and illegal behavior of Wall Street, where fraud is a business model, helped to destroy this economy and the lives of millions of people.
That gives you a sense of the overall tone.
The other two strong themes were A) Hillary is way too close to Wall Street, and B) Glass-Steagall is regulatory magic and should become a constitutional amendment.
Surprisingly, Hillary did not do a very good job defending herself from the former topic. Considering that it is something she's been dealing with for years, and that it is the only real tentpole of Bernie's campaign, it stood to reason that she would have had a litany of witty comebacks and strong stats close at hand. Instead, she said this:
"You know, I respect the passion and intensity. I represented Wall Street as a senator from New York, and I went to Wall Street in December of 2007, before the big crash that we had, and I basically said, "Cut it out! Quit foreclosing on homes! Quit engaging in these kinds of speculative behaviors."
By painting herself as "the cool mom" regulator, Hillary left herself open to even more salvos from Bernie, O'Malley and the other two. Luckily for her they went with Glass-Steagall as their rhetorical cudgel of choice.
Why lucky? Because before choosing a weapon - even an allegorical one - it serves to know how it actually works. The understanding of Glass-Steagall on the debate stage ranged from simplistic devotion to "I never read it."
O'Malley staked out the side of vague understanding by saying that he would modernize and reinstate Glass-Steagall to prevent another 2008.
"I would push to separate out these too-big-to-jail, too-big-to-fail banks, and put in place Glass-Steagall, a modern Glass-Steagall that creates a firewall so that this wreckage of our economy can never happen again."
But neither Lehman nor Bear Stearns nor AIG would have been under the purview of Glass-Steagall. Additionally, Glass-Steagall would have done literally jacksh!t about shadow banking because it was written in 1933. It is therefore also a bit thin on how to handle stuff like quant desks and high frequency trading.
These points have been brought up time and time again but fail to resonate with politicians that want to appear wonky and righteous without going too far and reminding people of Al Gore. Hillary's opponents in this cycle are also quite fond of talking up Glass-Steagall because her husband's signature is on the legislation that repealed it in 1999. Bringing up Dodd-Frank or the Volcker Rule would be much more useful, but Hillary was involved with those in the Senate, so they're politically useless and therefore borderline irrelevant... except that, y'know, they totally are.
One candidate that did not come off as too wonky when discussing Glass-Steagall was Chafee, who voted to repeal it as a Republican member of the Senate but argued last night that he shouldn't be held accountable for that decision because, well, he had literally no idea what he was doing.
He had this exchange with moderator Anderson Cooper:
COOP: Governor Chafee, you have attacked Secretary Clinton for being too close to Wall Street banks. But in 1999, you voted for the very bill that made banks bigger.
CHAFEE: Glass-Steagall was my very first vote, I'd just arrived, my dad had died in office. I was appointed to the office. It was my very first vote.
COOP: Are you saying you didn't know what you were voting for?
CHAFEE: I'd just arrived at the Senate. I think we get some takeovers, and that was one. It was my very first vote, and it was 92-5. It...
COOP: With all due respect, Governor...
CHAFEE: But let me just say...
COOP: ...What does that say about you that you're casting a vote for something you weren't really sure about?
CHAFEE: I think you're being a little rough. I'd just arrived at the United States Senate. I'd been mayor of my city. My dad had died.
Glass-Steagall might as well been Infinite Jest as far as Lincoln Chafee is concerned.
Should he have read it? Probably?
Did he? You bet your ass he didn't.
Hillary managed to smack down some of the Glass-Steagall madness by momentarily drawing attention to the fact that the Left's ongoing obsession with "Too Big To Fail" is a woefully outdated way to criticize Wall Street. After saying that her plan to regulate Wall Street would include measures to reign in the larger banks and go after bankers with criminal charges, Hillary cautioned her fellow candidates that there needs to be a more fulsome view of what the financial sector looks like today.
I will say it tonight. If only you look at the big banks, you may be missing the forest for the trees.
The comment was actually pithy and could easily have led to a deeper unpacking discussion of how Democrats will engage with modern Wall Street, but it was made during a televised debate so the conversation immediately devolved into all five candidates talking at once and Jim Webb complaining for the umpteenth time that no one was saying his name.