Wall St. eyes Hillary Clinton's anti-bank message

Hillary Clinton has tacked hard left in recent appearances on the stump in midterm campaigns in Minnesota and Massachusetts, slamming banks for behavior during the financial crisis, criticizing CEO pay and even (mistakenly, it turns out) saying companies are not the generator of jobs in the American economy.

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Clinton walked back that goof on Monday, saying she meant to criticize tax breaks for corporations and remained committed to the idea that businesses do, in fact, create jobs.

"I shorthanded this point the other day so let me be absolutely clear," Clinton said. "Our economy grows when businesses and entrepreneurs create good-paying jobs here in America and workers and families are empowered to build from the bottom up. Not when we hand out tax breaks for corporations that outsource jobs or stash their profits overseas."

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So far there is little panic on Wall Street over Clinton's lurch to the left. In interviews on Monday, several bankers said they understood that Clinton needs to appease the Elizabeth Warren wing of the party with more fiery, progressive rhetoric even if it rings hollow given Clinton and her husband's close relationships with bankers and the huge sums the former first lady, New York senator and secretary of state earned speaking to Goldman Sachs and other financial groups.

The real concern, according to these bankers, will come if Clinton starts espousing new policies, such as bank breakups, much higher bank taxes and pay restrictions.

One top executive at a large Wall Street bank told me: "I'd be shocked if she didn't try to channel Warren occasionally. And I'd also be shocked if she chose to make it personal at any point or if she proposed any significant new policies."

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This banker said once a campaign starts, Clinton could in fact propose some tougher policies on Wall Street without fully alienating the financial services industry that is a big source of campaign cash.

"She could do a bank tax as part of corporate tax reform proposals and banks could still wind up paying a lower rate than they do now," this person said. "So some new policy could be fine. But it really depends what it is."

Robert Wolf, an investment banker at 32 Advisors and close friend and fundraiser for President Barack Obama, said Wall Streeters understand the audiences Clinton is now addressing (deep blue states) and the politics of the Democratic Party right now.

Control of Congress in crosshairs

"It doesn't seem to me that Wall Street is too focused on the comments that possible Democratic or Republican general election candidates are making at these local, midterm election events in places like Minnesota, Iowa or Massachusetts," he said.

"Thus, I certainly do not think anyone is extrapolating Secretary Clinton's or anyone else's remarks as her or his national agenda. We all know that the hotly debated topics of today will unlikely be the key ones a year from now."

Clinton's recent moves do not suggest any big policy shift. Warren recently softened her disavowals of a presidential run, increasing pressure on the former first lady to appeal to the Massachusetts senator's vocal constituency, which is desperate for further crackdowns on banks and more progressive tax policy.

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What the moves do show is that Clinton is not great on the stump and is pretty bad at going left. These problems helped sink Clinton's campaign in 2008 when Obama caught fire with progressives with his soaring rhetoric and his consistent opposition to the Iraq War.

A 2016 campaign will be quite different, of course. There is no Barack Obama on the horizon. Even Warren, if she runs, would be very unlikely to defeat Clinton in the primaries, though she might get close or even win an early state or two.

But Clinton's deficiencies as a politician could prove far more damaging in a general election campaign, especially if Republicans nominate a candidate with broad national appeal who can compete in swing states like Ohio and Florida.

Right now it looks like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, should he get in, would be the most likely candidate to take advantage of a weak Clinton campaign. But even one of the other Republicans considering a run such as Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., or Marco Rubio, R-Fla., could wind up displaying superior political skills and denying Clinton the White House.

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The main takeaway here is not that Clinton is going to run as a pitchfork-wielding, fire-breathing scourge of the banks. That's not going to happen. It's that she has to step up her campaign game in a major way to make it to the Oval Office.