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Fact Checking The Democratic Debate: Clinton, Sanders Battle Over Wall Street


Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders squared off in their first head-to-head presidential debate last night. It was spirited, to say the least, coming off their close finish in Iowa and days ahead of the New Hampshire primary next week. So now we're going to break it down.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Where's the beef? When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad - where's the beef?

CORNISH: NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now for our regular reality check on what the candidates are saying. Hey there, Scott.


CORNISH: So these two candidates do have a lot in common, but one area where they differ is how they're paying for their campaigns, right? How did that play out in the debate last night?

HORSLEY: Yeah, Bernie Sanders is raising most of his money from small donors. Hillary Clinton gets less than 20 percent of her money that way. And if you look back at the whole of Clinton's career since she first ran for Senate, her top five sources of money are the employees of Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and DLA Piper, a big law firm. Now, to Sanders, that kind of money in politics is a problem. We get this tape courtesy of MSNBC.


BERNIE SANDERS: There is a reason why these people are putting huge amounts of money into our political system. And in my view, it is undermining American democracy, and it is allowing Congress to represent wealthy campaign contributors and not the working families of this country.

HORSLEY: Sanders argues that money in politics like that is corrupting and leads to policies that he disagrees with, such as financial deregulation and unfettered pricing power from drug companies.

CORNISH: And how did Clinton respond?

HORSLEY: Well, she suggests Sanders and his supporters have been engaging in what she call an artful smear.


HILLARY CLINTON: Enough is enough. If you've got something to say, say it directly. But you will not find that I ever changed a view or a vote because of any donation that I ever received.

HORSLEY: And Sanders didn't point to any specific policy where Hillary Clinton had changed her position because of a donation. Some observers, however, have pointed to a flip-flop on bankruptcy. Sen. Elizabeth Warner has told a story of how, back in the 1990s when she was first lady, Clinton opposed a bankruptcy bill that would have made it harder for borrowers to erase their debts. But banks and other creditors really wanted that bill. And after she became a senator, Clinton voted for it. Now, can you draw a line between the bank's campaign contributions and that change of heart? No. But certainly some of Clinton's liberal critics have drawn that conclusion.

CORNISH: Right. Sensing a theme here, right? How does this fit into the larger narrative in the Democratic primary when it comes to Wall Street?

HORSLEY: Yeah, Clinton and Sanders have been arm wrestling for months now about who'd be the tougher sheriff to ride herd on the financial industry. Sanders says he wants to break up the big banks. Clinton says, hey, the banks aren't the whole story. And she singled out one Sanders vote last night when she tried to turn the tables on him.


CLINTON: You're the one who voted to deregulate swaps and derivatives in 2000, which contributed to the over-leveraging of Lehman Brothers, which was one of the culprits that brought down the economy.

HORSLEY: Clinton's talking here about Commodities Futures Modernization Act, which Sanders did vote for when he was in the House. So did just about every other house member. Sanders now says he regrets that vote, which, conveniently for Clinton, came a year before she was in the Senate.

CORNISH: Finally, campaign-finance. Chuck Todd, the moderator, put Sen. Sanders on the spot about why he didn't go with public financing. And Sanders said, well, the system's antiquated. Let's hear it.


SANDERS: It no longer works. Nobody can become president based on that system.

CORNISH: Scott Horsley?

HORSLEY: He's right, I'm afraid. The problem with public campaign financing is the money is too little, and it comes too late. The system was set up back in the 1970s. And, you know, our campaigns today, they're just a whole lot longer, as you know, and they're a lot more expensive.

CORNISH: NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.