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September 19, 2013 6:49 pm
Mr Summers was widely seen as US President Barack Obama’s most likely choice as the next Federal Reserve chairman, until a funny thing happened to the Harvard economist on the way to the central bank. Several Democrats – yes, Democrats – on the Senate banking committee said they would vote against Mr Summers’ nomination, prompting him to withdraw his name from consideration this week.
This was bad news for Mr Obama, who is having a tough time lately in any number of hemispheres. But the nature of the Democratic opposition to Mr Summers should also be a cause for concern for the Clinton camp as it looks towards the 2016 party primaries.
The Democratic rebels were looking for people to blame for the financial crisis and that led them to Mr Summers’ work as Treasury secretary in Bill Clinton’s administration. Mr Summers was a bad guy in their eyes because he had a “history of helping to deregulate financial markets”, as a spokeswoman for one of the senators put it.
To my mind, this means Hillary faces a new kind of Bill problem. In this instance, his lips are sealed and his trousers are zipped, but his record as president has somehow got stuck in the craw of members of his own party. It’s an ironic development because Democrats of various ideological stripes still get a big kick out of the Big Dog, as Mr Clinton is known. When he spoke at the party’s convention last year, he stole the show, delivering a primer in progressive politics that mixed common sense and comic observation with the aplomb of a 21st century Will Rogers.
But many of the folks who laughed along with Mr Clinton that night find nothing funny about his past supervision of Wall Street. The crisis has left the party faithful – particularly activist elements on the left – suspicious of bankers and complex financial instruments, and our triangulating 42nd president was a friend of both, in his fashion.
Lest we forget: it was during the later stages of Mr Clinton’s second term – when most of us were distracted by Monica Lewinsky’s dress – that the US scrapped the banking rules of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and replaced them with a more freewheeling regulatory regime that made the world safe for Citigroup.
When Mrs Clinton ran for president in 2008, this wasn’t much of an issue with her fellow Democrats. Back then, a Clinton restoration was firmly linked in the public imagination with the Clinton prosperity of the previous decade. Being a member of the Clinton inner circle – as Mrs Clinton was and is, for better or for worse and for richer, but probably not for poorer – gave her an image of competence in economic affairs.
Since then, Mrs Clinton has been strangely absent from the financial-crisis conversation. By the time Lehman Brothers failed in 2008, she had been knocked out of the presidential race and was licking her wounds. The next year, she signed on as Mr Obama’s secretary of state, positioning her to steer clear of the debates on whether financial groups were too big to fail and why no big bankers were going to jail.
My question is whether the kind of Democrats who find Mr Summers unpalatable will start taking aim at Mrs Clinton for similar reasons. She was tripped up by a challenger from the left in 2008 – our current commander-in-chief was the peace candidate in those days – and that could embolden such people in the coming months.
Could it work? It’s far too early to say. But I could imagine how the action would unfold as a prominent bank critic – say, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts – took to the debate stage in one of those college towns in an early primary state and ripped into the fat cats. I could see how people too angry to forgive our political class for their pain – or too young to remember that couple from Arkansas who couldn’t stop thinking about tomorrow – might turn away from Mrs Clinton and fall in love with someone else – someone new, as they did in 2008.
Mrs Clinton was the inevitable Democratic nominee the first time she ran for president, and she lost to a black guy with an unusual name who had yet to finish a full term in the US Senate. Stranger things, in other words, have happened.
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