On the trail, everyone hates Goldman Sachs

Story highlights

  • Goldman Sachs is public enemy No. 1 on the campaign trail
  • Bernie Sanders is hitting Hillary Clinton for accepting money for speeches there
  • Donald Trump is calling out Ted Cruz's acceptance of loans from the bank, where his wife works

Farmington, New Hampshire (CNN)More than seven years after the height of the financial crisis, Goldman Sachs is making a comeback -- as one of the country's most popular villains.

Presidential candidates in both parties are delighting in slinging the words "Goldman Sachs" as political attacks, using the global bank as a two-word catchphrase to connote the dark side of politics, influence and campaign finance.
That strategy has been on full display on the campaign trail over the past week, as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders ratchet up their attacks on Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton days out from the Iowa caucuses.
    Speaking at a campaign rally in Carroll, Iowa, last week, Sanders hammered away at the lucrative speaking fees Clinton received from the bank.
    "Without naming any names, Goldman Sachs also provides very, very generous speaking fees to some unnamed candidates," Sanders said. "You gotta be really, really, really good to get $225,000 a speech. That's all I'll say."
    The emergence of Goldman Sachs as a major symbol of Wall Street greed and a rigged political system in the current campaign reveals the public's continued animosity toward big banks -- a sentiment that ran deep in the 2012 campaign.
    Attacks on institutions such as Goldman are particularly resonant in an election cycle that has so far rewarded insurgent, populist candidates such as Sanders, Trump and Cruz and exposed voters' impatience with establishment candidates such as Clinton and Jeb Bush.
    For Sanders, the attack line works because Clinton has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Wall Street banks for speeches and appearances. It both serves to re-emphasize the idea that Clinton is in the pocket of Wall Street and highlight Sanders' credentials as a self-described "democratic socialist" fighting the establishment.
    Clinton has pushed back on the criticism of her paid speeches by pointing out that a number of industries -- not just banks -- were interested in her views after she left the State Department, and she's also defended her record on financial regulations.
    "I was a senator from New York. I took them on when I was senator. I took on the carried-interest loophole. I took on what was happening in the mortgage markets. I was talking about that in 2006," Clinton said this weekend on NBC's "Meet the Press." "They know exactly where I stand."

    Trump vs. Cruz

    Across the aisle, Trump is using Goldman as ammo in his full-frontal assault on Cruz.
    Cruz's wife, Heidi Cruz, is an employee at the bank (currently on leave), and it was reported this month that the Texas senator failed to properly report hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans from Goldman and Citibank for his 2012 Senate campaign -- a revelation that Trump says is opposite Cruz's anti-establishment message.
    "He forgot to say that Goldman Sachs gave him money. He forgot to say that Citibank gave him money. OK? Because he's the man of the people, he's Robin Hood, right?" Trump said at a campaign rally in Muscatine, Iowa, on Sunday. "He doesn't want you to know that he borrowed from Goldman Sachs because let me tell you -- Goldman Sachs has him."
    The next day, Trump was at it again.
    "He's Robin Hood. He's Mr. Robin Hood, and he's going to protect you from the horrible Wall Street bankers," Trump mocked at a campaign event in Farmington, New Hampshire.
    Goldman Sachs finds itself at a "strange political intersection," said Bruce Haynes of Purple Strategies, as Trump and Sanders each attempt to cast themselves as the ultimate enemy of special interests.
    "Both Cruz and Clinton have financial relationships with Goldman Sachs in common, and both of their top competitors -- Trump and Sanders -- are trying to brand their opponents as elite and establishment," Haynes said. "Goldman Sachs has become the anvil that both the Trump and Sanders campaigns want to smash Cruz and Clinton's reputations for independence upon."
    Former New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, who was appointed an international adviser to Goldman in 2011, said it is not a surprise that big banks are once again on the receiving end of populist anger.
    "I don't think there's any question that populism has always been a major strain in American politics," said Gregg, who has endorsed Jeb Bush. "The enemies of populists have always been large banks."
    But Cruz, Gregg noted, has "trouble making the case" that he is the ultimate anti-establishment candidate, given his own ties to the bank. "Cruz has a bit of an issue because his wife worked for Goldman," Gregg said, adding of Trump's attacks: "I think it's more than fair."
    Asked about the recent Sanders and Trump attacks, Goldman Sachs spokesman Andrew Williams emphasized that Clinton's speeches were made to "clients, and not for employees of the firm."
    "We host hundreds of conferences around the world for our clients as do so many other companies. We all want speakers that will interest our clients," Williams said in an email. "For example, we have hosted speakers at client events ranging from Derek Jeter to Misty Copeland to Elon Musk."

    Goldman's power

    Goldman is no stranger to political scrutiny.
    After the 2008 financial meltdown, the firm, along with a handful of other big banks such as JPMorgan Chase and Citibank, became a favorite punching bag for lawmakers and regulators. Goldman executives, including CEO Lloyd Blankfein, have testified before members of Congress on topics ranging from causes of the financial crisis to its role in the commodities market.
    But while Goldman and other big banks suffered bruised reputations after the financial crisis, their influence in elections remain powerful.
    Goldman's political action committee and its employees were among the most generous contributors to Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. That support migrated to Mitt Romney in 2012, following what the industry viewed as an anti-Wall Street climate during Obama's first term in office.
    In the 2016 presidential campaign, Goldman employees are once again expected to fill the campaign coffers of candidates such asBush and Clinton, who enjoy long-running ties to the bank and its executives.
    Sanders, more than anyone else in the field, has emerged as the ultimate anti-Wall Street candidate. When he announced his White House bid, he answered the calls from the Draft Elizabeth Warren movement -- a grassroots campaign that sought to persuade Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to run for president.
    And unlike Clinton, whose super PAC has taken in millions of dollars from wealthy donors, Sanders has mostly disavowed super PACs. His unexpected popularity has put pressure on Clinton to embrace progressive views on issues ranging from Wall Street reform to campaign finance.
    Wall Street reform advocates say they are glad to see Goldman Sachs-related 2016 headlines bring more public awareness to financial regulatory and campaign finance issues.
    "Goldman Sachs has earned the reputation of being the most disliked company in America," said Craig Holman of Public Citizen. "Not only is Goldman Sachs largely responsible for the last financial meltdown, it has continued to operate in ways that cast serious doubt on its integrity. Goldman Sachs is the poster child for why 'too big to fail' must be ended."