In a town where attention spans run short even when stakes are high, liberal Democrats wary of a Wall Street-friendly Hillary Clinton administration are digging in for an extended game of chess.
Far from hankering for a fight similar to the one that torpedoed the nomination of a senior Treasury Department official in 2014, Democratic lefties and their outside allies are eyeing a complex process that doesn’t over-emphasize the importance of any single nomination.
With Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat, at the center of the fight, progressives are also guarding against Clinton keeping power in the hands of White House staff or other appointees not confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The emphasis, say people close to the effort, is on the overall profile of her administration.
“It’s more about helping shape the short list, about excluding the problematic people and including people who are not the traditional ones,” said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, one group involved in the coming appointments battle. “Right now, we’re not saying, ‘you take our person or we fight.’”
Personnel as Policy
As Clinton’s transition team speeds up its preparations for appointing 4,000-plus people that a new administration requires, progressives have laid in a strategy with no precedent in recent memory. When Bill Clinton took office after the 1992 election and when Barack Obama won in 2008, the mantra that “personnel is policy” was never as widely accepted, nor were liberals so visibly on the upsurge.
Clinton will be coming off a campaign in which Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, have pushed her to the left on issues such as a financial transactions tax, the treatment of large Wall Street banks, and regulation of so-called shadow banks.
“They respect the power that the progressive wing brings to bear,” said one liberal activist who’s been in touch with the Clinton campaign. “They know they would be in a very different place if Bernie had not run.”
At the same time, Clinton partisans include veterans of high finance, and nurse suspicions of people who haven’t been with them through the tough days of the campaign. If they value loyalty over policy in their appointments, it could bring conflict with the Democrats’ liberal wing.
Warren Engaging Early
Early this year, Warren and the Clinton campaign kicked off a running discussion about appointments after the Massachusetts liberal sent her longtime aide Dan Geldon to speak with campaign officials, according to emails made public by Wikileaks. Since then, progressives have been quietly composing lists of possible appointees, and passing them on to the campaign, according to people involved in the effort.
Warren has highlighted her interest in personnel decisions in other ways. This month, she sought the removal of Mary Jo White, the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, on the grounds that White, a former corporate litigator and federal prosecutor, hasn’t pursued a rule requiring companies to disclose their political spending.
“The only way to return the SEC to its intended purpose is to change its leadership,” Warren said on Oct. 14.
Warren earned her spurs in the appointments game when she successfully killed off the nomination of Antonio Weiss to be undersecretary of the Treasury for domestic finance in 2014. Her stance in that fight stemmed less from a distaste for Weiss, a longtime executive with the boutique investment firm Lazard, than the White House’s refusal to take any of her personnel suggestions for other agencies seriously, according to a person involved in the dispute.
Example of Weiss
With Clinton moving into the White House, Warren will have her eye on the overall mix of officials taking office through Senate-confirmed and staff appointments. The example of Weiss will serve as a reminder of how things can turn out, and how ambiguous the results can be.
Weiss took office in 2015 as a Counselor to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, effectively skirting the Senate. But Weiss also helped broker a deal to restructure Puerto Rico’s debt, an important issue for Warren, a bankruptcy law expert.
Compounding the challenges for Warren and her allies: the progressive bench of people with experience in finance who also enjoy Clinton’s confidence isn’t terribly deep. Wall Street has been sending bankers to Washington for ages, but the financial regulation overhaul, Dodd-Frank, is only 6 years old.
A Warren appointee from her brief stint in the Obama administration who specializes in student debt issues, Rohit Chopra, joined the Clinton transition team this summer. But he took the job knowing he’d be seen as a Warren plant among Clintonites, according to a person familiar with his thinking.
The chief financial officer of the Clinton campaign, Gary Gensler, grew rich as a partner at Goldman Sachs. But he enjoys wide acclaim among Warren acolytes for having brought much of the unregulated derivatives market under federal oversight while he headed the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
State Officials Search
Liberal groups are also scouring state governments for people who may have demonstrated their chops in areas like consumer protection or banking supervision and would welcome a shot at a federal job. They pointed to Richard Cordray, the former Ohio attorney general who got the job Warren wanted — head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — as a prototype for this approach.
“In general, people are quite impressed by the job Cordray has done,” Hauser said.
If a fight does erupt between the White House and progressive Democrats, it’s likely to be over a Clinton nomination of a Wall Street veteran that’s done enough to catch her attention but not enough to convince liberals.
Tony James, a senior executive with private equity giant Blackstone, has drawn attention for his promotion of retirement savings ideas, but is exposed to criticism that he’s promoting the firm’s investments. Larry Fink, often mentioned as a potential Treasury secretary, runs asset manager BlackRock, a presence so large in the world of trading and investment that issues specific to that firm, like its proprietary trading software, may become the subject of federal scrutiny.
“How can you distance yourself from a company that powerful?” said Hauser.