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Hillary Clinton has already lost the fight over her Goldman Sachs speeches

Hillary Clinton at the Democratic debate in New Hampshire.
Hillary Clinton at the Democratic debate in New Hampshire.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton has not released the transcripts of the three speeches she gave to Goldman Sachs for $675,000 in 2013.

But that didn't stop Politico's Ben White from talking to people who attended the events. The details aren't a great look for the Clinton campaign, which has been struggling to ward off criticism from Bernie Sanders that she's soft on Wall Street.

Here's White's reporting in a nutshell:

"It was pretty glowing about us," one person who watched the event said. "It’s so far from what she sounds like as a candidate now. It was like a rah-rah speech. She sounded more like a Goldman Sachs managing director."

The speech controversy isn't about speeches

We don't really need to see the full text of the speeches to know the reasonably obvious fact that Clinton's speeches to Goldman Sachs were less than confrontational. She probably didn't take the lectern to deliver a stem-winder about the recklessness of commodities speculation.

By the same token, it's extremely unlikely that Clinton delivered a speech unveiling a secret plan to completely deregulate the financial services industry. Her views on Wall Street regulation are a matter of public record, and nothing said in private would be likely to meaningfully change that.

But the speech issue highlights the reality that Clinton and Sanders really do have fundamentally different visions of the role of Wall Street in the American economy, and the fight over the Goldman transcripts is an effective way for the Sanders campaign to dramatize that difference.

Clinton's camp has tried to focus on the idea that her regulatory plans would be tougher on Wall Street's than Sanders. And many experts do agree that by going after the "shadow banking" industry in a more comprehensive way, Clinton's proposed regulations could do more to reduce the level of risk on Wall Street than Sanders's laser-like focus on bank size.

But there's a reason Clinton's line here hasn't landed.

Beyond the speaking fees, Clinton has accepted millions of dollars in campaign contributions from the financial services sector. She served as a senator from New York, where the big banks are one of the state's biggest industries. Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman's CEO, has all but indicated he'd support her candidacy.

Sanders's attacks on the banks, meanwhile, have been relentless. He has made the case against Wall Street in moral, rather than technocratic, terms. At the Democratic debate in November, Sanders declared that the "business model of Wall Street is fraud."

His regulatory plans may not be as comprehensive in technical terms, but on a conceptual level it's clear he takes a much more skeptical role of the financial services industry than Clinton. No amount of squabbling over regulatory fine print is going to prevent people from seeing that.

The transcript fight is no-win

The fight over the transcripts puts Clinton in what Politico's White calls a no-win situation for the former secretary of state.

"The problem is, if Clinton releases the transcripts, Sanders and other progressive candidates could take even seemingly innocuous comments and make them sound as though Clinton is in the tank for Wall Street," White writes. "And if she doesn’t, it makes her look like she has something very damaging to hide."

That's true. But while Clinton may face a tactical question about releasing the transcripts, her more basic comfort with the role of Wall Street is already out in the open for anyone to see.

The real problem with the transcript controversy, from Clinton's viewpoint, is that it serves as a constant reminder that the speeches happened, which keeps the focus on broad themes and concepts rather than on the policy weeds she'd rather be discussing.