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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

Big Money Still Has a Home in the Democratic Party

While Bernie Sanders diehards roasted in the heat at the DNC, politicians, lobbyists and industry players got down to business.

Hamilton "Tony" James is president of the private equity giant Blackstone, and until very recently might have served as the perfect foil for a Bernie Sanders tirade about the evils of America's One Percent. At the Democratic National Convention last week, the financier was holding court in downtown Philadelphia at a caricature of the kind of shindig people imagine when someone bemoans money in politics: mini hamachi tacos, free-flowing wine, and small bottles of champagne to keep attendees entertained on the shuttles that took them to Wells Fargo Center to hear Hillary Clinton's acceptance speech.


Tony James really, really wants Hillary Clinton to be the next president.

"Every election, people say, '"Oh, this one really matters,'" he told his guests. "I think this one really matters."

The private reception was held in a lavish space adjacent to a Post-Impressionist art museum, but much of the influence peddling at the DNC went on in plain sight. Lobbyists and industry players imbibed generously at lush hotel bars and could be seen posted up in suites far above the convention floor. Spirits were high, and why not? Wall Street saw massive growth under the Obama administration, and corporate lobbyists were finally unleashed in Philly after the ban keeping them on the sidelines during the Democrats' last two conventions was lifted. Now they were free to help fund the proceedings, where select insiders enjoyed "Friends and Family" convention packages or "honored guest" badges that brought special status.

Onstage and in primetime, speaker after speaker celebrated America's diversity, pumped the crowd up with invocations to patriotism and social justice, and of course ripped Donald Trump's greed and narcissism. The convention also provided a preview of what Hillary Clinton's America might look like, and at first glance, that version of America looks a lot like the current one: a place where the rich have almost nothing to fear from the government.

Clinton is intimately linked to Wall Street—notoriously, she gave speeches at Goldman Sachs for hefty fees soon after leaving the State Department. The perception that she is deeply indebted to big finance caused her some trouble during her prolonged primary battle against Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, and while Trump is himself wealthy, he seems more comfortable bashing the globalism-loving elite and shady bankers than Clinton does. Her campaign and supportive super PACs have also raked in some $41 million from the financial services industry and its employees so far this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, compared to just $109,000 for Trump.


Wall Street's passion for Clinton has obvious roots. She seems far more stable than Trump, has a track record of supporting free trade, and generally represents continuity—not the volatility that might come with her Republican opponent.

But how close is too close for comfort when it comes to Hillary Clinton and America's largest corporations?

The scene at the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Philly after a long convention night. Photo by Pete Voelker

The swanky party thrown by James—who has long been rumored to covet a job in the White House—was littered with veterans of the revolving door between Wall Street and the federal government. Star economist Larry Summers, the former treasury secretary under Bill Clinton who went to bat for Citigroup after leaving the Obama administration in 2010, was on hand. So was Steven Rattner, the Wall Street veteran who oversaw the auto-industry bailout during Obama's first term and then got charged in a pay-to-play scheme involving New York pension funds. (Rattner settled with the SEC and remains banned from the investment industry.)

There were also a few politicians who didn't exactly star onstage at the DNC but seemed in their element with this crowd. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, recently dogged by videotaped killings of black people at the hands of his city's troubled police force, got a special shout-out at the party. At one point, James jokingly called New York City mayor Bill de Blasio—whose administration is facing a bevy of corruption probes—"my boss," perhaps referring to his role in the mayor's campaign to curb income inequality.


The camaraderie reflected the close working relationship between the Democratic Party and wealthy businesspeople in the Obama era.

"For lobbyists who are coming to the DNC, they are working—this is business," Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, told me a couple days before James's party. "These are clients they're representing at the events they're hosting, and they're hoping to make it lavish enough and interesting enough to entice members of Congress—sitting public officials—to attend."

Though the final Democratic platform includes promises to rein in Wall Street excess by imposing tough regulations and a new financial transaction tax, you didn't get the sense these people were living in terror of a Clinton presidency. They were certainly more comfortable than the many delegates who crowdfunded their way to the convention—and more comfortable still than the Sanders holdouts who spent the week protesting in the brutal heat.

The love-in for corporate America wasn't confined to the financial sector, either. On Tuesday, Obama campaign wunderkind David Plouffe starred in a panel about how America—and millennials in particular—love the sharing economy. After leaving the White House, Plouffe was recruited by ride-share giant Uber to help it navigate a hostile climate of local regulation and national scrutiny. He's since stepped back from that role but still serves on the company's board and as a senior advisor, so of course he gushed about the massive startup, which operated an air-conditioned tent lounge at the DNC where passengers could wait for their rides.


During a question-and-answer period, I asked Plouffe and his cohorts if they had qualms about expanding the universe of non-employees who lack basic worker protections of the sort for which Democrats have traditionally advocated.

"Very important members of the Obama coalition and the Democratic coalition use these services, which make a great impact in their lives," Plouffe said, citing millennials, blacks, and Hispanics as key beneficiaries while acknowledging there was bound to be some "tension" with all the growth.

"From a progressive standpoint, when you look at who's benefiting from these platforms, I think it's the people that during my years in politics I was trying to fight for every single day," he added.

Plouffe's co-panelist, former Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter, seemed to bristle at the idea that the sharing economy represents a new source of lobbying power. "I'm quite sure that the horse and buggy industry hired the appropriate number of lobbyists and lawyers to fight Henry Ford and folks coming along with these newfangled things called cars," he said.

A Bernie backer who wasn't quite ready to get on board with Clinton in Philadelphia

If the primetime speeches at the DNC largely consisted of attacks on Trump over his views on race and immigration, the danger for Clinton heading into the final stretch this fall is that she's seen as too cozy with the rich people high on her candidacy. The GOP nominee's convention speech was comically dark, but it was also consistent in hammering home a message of economic decline caused by nefarious foreigners and elite deals struck behind closed doors. Unemployment numbers are low and the stock market is trading high, but many low-wage workers without college degrees feel left behind by the recovery and may be looking to buy what Trump is selling.


In public, of course, Clinton says all the right things about standing up for working people and reducing corporate power, but some doubt the candidate's sincerity given her proximity to its beneficiaries. Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, an old Clinton campaign hand, made what was perhaps the only gaffe of the Democrats' week-long party when he suggested Clinton was lying when she claimed to oppose the TransPacific Partnership trade deal with Pacific Rim countries. The TPP is a frequent punching bag for Trump, who promises to renegotiate deals that are screwing over Americans.

Of course, actually getting money out of politics is more of a pipe dream than a serious proposal at this point. Clinton has pledged to pass a constitutional amendment reversing the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision—but it's hard to imagine any amendment clearing a bitterly divided Congress, no matter who is president. That reality aside, Trump is happy to exploit Clinton's perceived coziness to Wall Street to cast himself as a candidate of change.

"Big business, elite media, and major donors are lining up behind the campaign of my opponent because they know she will keep our rigged system in place," he said during his own acceptance speech in Cleveland. "They are throwing money at her because they have total control over everything she does. She is their puppet, and they pull the strings."

More than anything else, the two major-party conventions drove home the absurd state of affairs when it comes to money in American politics today. Both nominees are basically rich New Yorkers who hang in some of the same social circles—Clinton attended Trump's wedding, and Ivanka Trump and Chelsea Clinton were, at least until recently, quite friendly. As the two candidates jockey furiously to appease the economic angst that hangs over the country, the only question is if Trump's assurances that he cannot be bought (by virtue of his own alleged wealth) are more convincing than the steady diet of support Clinton enjoys from some of the biggest names in American business.

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