Top trial lawyer Reuben Guttman reflects on the result of this year's New Hampshire primary.
Every four years, candidates trudge through the snows of New Hampshire, courting voters to gain political legitimacy as measured by a solid showing in the nation’s first presidential primary. Front runners are expected to trounce the opposition and challengers must beat expectations to stay in the race. None of this is written; it is the common law of US presidential elections as handed down by journalists, news commentators, and pundits.
From the towns of Exeter to Rochester, candidates knock on doors and press the flesh at coffee shops, public schools and shopping malls. They talk about those without health insurance; those who struggle under adversity to support families; military veterans who have made personal sacrifices for their country. New Hampshire is an up close and personal experience for voter and candidate. It is also a political battleground that has killed the hopes of front runners. President Lyndon Johnson had this experience in 1968, bowing out of a race for re-election after a poor New Hampshire showing. Four years later, New Hampshire ended the candidacy of Maine senator Edmund Muskie when he seemingly showed weakness when tearing up during a speech in front the state’s largest newspaper, the New Hampshire Union Leader. Back then, the Union Leader’s publisher, William Loeb, had political leverage exceeding his actual readership; a Union Leader endorsement was a coveted prize for those seeking New Hampshire success as a path to the presidency.
This year marked another illustrious chapter in the history of this quintessentially American presidential rite of passage. Hillary Clinton came into the 2016 New Hampshire primary after squeaking by her opponent, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, by less than a percentage point in the Iowa caucus. She pressed the flesh in the coffee shops and on the streets as she did back in 2008 when she ran for president and scored a narrow New Hampshire primary win over Barack Obama. Her target this time around was to win the approval of voters in a state whose median household income is $66,000. As she talked to working class families, she talked about those she met on the campaign trail and those with problems or issues that seemingly might resonate with voters. In trying to connect with voters, there is something she did not discuss, at least not on her own and not as part of her 'stump speech.' She did not talk about another group of people she met on her journey: the Wall Street bankers.
The banter between candidate Clinton and voters in the gritty New Hampshire terrain was undoubtedly in marked contrast to the banter between the former Secretary of State and the Wall Street bankers who paid her hundreds of thousands of dollars to speak at their outings. Go back in time to 2014 and the South Carolina resort city of Bluffton, where Clinton was paid $225k to speak at a Goldman Sachs event. That was one of three Goldman events which generated a combined $675k for Clinton; three days of 'work' that earned her ten times the median household income for a New Hampshire family.
From her perspective, Clinton says that she took the money because that is what Goldman paid her. No doubt this is true. But was Goldman paying to gain insight or influence?
Clinton claims that in accepting these speaking fees – and she was paid by Wall Street institutions other than Goldman -- her votes or opinions were not influenced. Really? How can she be so sure? Lawyers, of course, understand the notion of conflict of interest. It is hard to really understand how monies or relationships influence human behavior and so – at least in the legal profession – conflicts of interest rules are rigid. It is no defense to maintain that although a conflict exists, 'I have enough will power to resist any influence.' Of course, the legal profession not only concerns itself with actual conflict, but also the appearance of conflict. People can only believe the system works if it has at least the appearance of integrity.
But do voters really care about these matters? Perhaps. The votes have been tallied; Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 New Hampshire primary by more than 20 percentage points. Was it her speaking engagements that swayed voters? Will this resounding defeat be the death knell for a candidate who was all but coroneted? This is what makes New Hampshire so interesting; up close and personal politics causes people to think hard and ask questions.
Reuben Guttman is a trial lawyer and founding partner at Washington, DC-based firm Guttman, Buschner & Brooks.