How Hillary Clinton Once Disappointed Elizabeth Warren on Wall Street Reform

As a senator, Clinton doubled back on the advice Warren once gave her.

National Journal

On Friday, the Bill Moyers show released a vintage clip of Sen. Elizabeth Warren appearing on the show in 2004. In the video, Warren talks about a prescient meeting with then-first lady Hillary Clinton.

Warren tells the story like this: In the late 1990s, Congress was set to pass a bill that would make it harder for customers to alleviate their debt by claiming bankruptcy. Banks and credit card companies were pushing the bill hard.

Warren wrote an op-ed opposing the legislation, arguing the bill would disproportionately hurt single mothers. The first lady apparently read the piece, because Warren got a call from the White House asking if she'd meet with Clinton to discuss bankruptcy.

After Clinton gave a speech in Boston, Warren met with her. Over hamburgers and french fries, Clinton said to Warren, "Tell me about bankruptcy."

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"I gotta tell you, I never had a smarter student," Warren told Moyers, saying Clinton understood the principles of bankruptcy "quick right to the heart of it."

After their conversation, Clinton got up and said, "Professor Warren, we've got to stop that awful bill." And stop the bill they did. The bankruptcy bill was the last one to cross President Bill Clinton's desk, and he vetoed it. On the campaign trail in 2007, Hillary Clinton used the bill as evidence that she "fought the banks."

But when Clinton joined the Senate in 2001 and the bankruptcy bill came up again, Clinton the senator did what Clinton the first lady opposed—she voted for it.

"As Senator Clinton, the pressures are very different," Warren told Moyers. "She has taken money from the groups, and more to the point, she worries about them as a constituency."

As Warren sees it, the "student" she saw in that meeting over burgers and fries ultimately fell victim to a corrupt system. In Clinton-as-ideologue, Warren saw an ability to resist the lure of Wall Street. But Clinton the lawmaker could not resist its influence. "This is the scary part about democracy today," Warren said.

Warren's comments from 10 years ago align with her position on Wall Street today. In an interview with Katie Couric on Wednesday, Warren took former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to task for taking a well-paying gig at an investment bank. When Couric asked Warren what she thought about Clinton's "cozy" relationship with Wall Street, Warren demurred—but did not go so far as to defend Clinton's track record.

While some pundits may proffer a superficial "catfight" narrative between Warren and Clinton, there is a more substantive ideological gulf between them. And even though Clinton's reversal came all those years ago, it's a lingering contrast neither of them can avoid.