Today's Democratic Party-- Soul On Ice
If you're from Connecticut, you probably remember Bill Curry as a leader of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and a two-time nominee for governor. Most Americans who know who he is, though, know him for his role as a domestic policy advisor to Bill Clinton. I know the Clintons are very touchy about their sometimes tattered brand and I suspect Bill Curry won't be invited to the Medici Palace when Hillary takes over the world. A look at the piece he wrote Sunday for Salon-- My party has lost its soul: Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and the victory of Wall Street Democrats, makes you wonder if Curry will even be able to force himself to vote for her. When you say "Wall Street Democrats" you could be talking about Chuck Schumer or Joe Crowley or Steve Israel or Jim Himes but mostly you're talking about Hillary Clinton's soul being sold to the banksters.
According to Curry, the beginning of the end for the Democrats having a soul came in 1980, not because of a Reagan landslide per se, but because a crooked California congressman, Tony Coelho-- the Rahm Emanuel of his day-- was made DCCC chair. "It is inarguable," wrote Curry, "that Coehlo set Democrats on an identity-altering path toward ever closer ties to big business and, especially, Wall Street… In 1985 moderate Democrats including Bill Clinton and Al Gore founded the Democratic Leadership Council, which proposed innovative policies while forging ever closer ties to business. Clinton would be the first Democratic presidential nominee since FDR and probably ever to raise more money than his Republican opponent."
Between 1996 and 2000 the Wall Street Democrats who by then ruled the party’s upper roosts scored their first big legislative wins. Until then their impact was most visible in the quietude of Congress, which had not enacted any major social or economic reforms since the historic environmental laws of the early ’70s. It was the longest such stretch since the 19th century, but no one seemed to notice.Curry is writing a book about populism now. When he writes his condemnation of the Democratic Party I hope he looks beyond the Clintons and scrapes a little Steve Israel, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Steny Hoyer off the bottom of the barrel too.
In the late ’70s, deregulation fever swept the nation. Carter deregulated trucks and airlines; Reagan broke up Ma Bell, ending real oversight of phone companies. But those forays paled next to the assaults of the late ’90s. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 had solid Democratic backing as did the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999. The communications bill authorized a massive giveaway of public airwaves to big business and ended the ban on cross ownership of media. The resultant concentration of ownership hastened the rise of hate radio and demise of local news and public affairs programming across America. As for the “modernization” of financial services, suffice to say its effect proved even more devastating. Clinton signed and still defends both bills with seeming enthusiasm.
The Telecommunications Act subverted anti-trust principles traceable to Wilson. The financial services bill gutted Glass-Steagall, FDR’s historic banking reform. You’d think such reversals would spark intra-party debate but Democrats made barely a peep. Nader was a vocal critic of both bills. Democrats, he said, were betraying their heritage and, not incidentally, undoing his life’s work. No one wanted to hear it. When Democrats noticed him again in 2000 the only question they thought to ask was, what’s got into Ralph? Such is politics in the land of the lotus eaters.
…Democrats today defend the triage liberalism of social service spending but limit their populism to hollow phrase mongering (fighting for working families, Main Street not Wall Street). The rank and file seem oblivious to the party’s long Wall Street tryst. Obama’s economic appointees are the most conservative of any Democratic president since Grover Cleveland but few Democrats seem to notice, or if they notice, to care.
…In 2009, when he had the votes in Congress, Obama chose not to raise the minimum wage. Not till late 2013 did Democrats press the issue. Why then? As the New York Times reported, “they found an issue they believe can lift their fortunes both locally and nationally in 2014.” If there’s a true populist revolt on the left it is as yet invisible to the naked eye.
Meanwhile the populist revolt on the right persists. In 2010 the Tea Party declared open season on GOP incumbents. It has since bagged quite a few. But Republicans don’t just fight over offices, they fight over ideas. It’s hard to track all the players in their endless policy scrum: Heritage, American Enterprise, Focus on the Family, Club for Growth, etc. Rand Paul pilfers Democratic issues like a fox stealing chickens while dynasty star Jeb Bush grapples with such timeless questions as whether there can be such a thing as a conservative social program.
Democrats aren’t even having a debate. Their one think tank, the Center for American Progress, serves their establishment. (Its founder, John Podesta, once Clinton’s chief of staff, is now counselor to Obama.) The last real primary challenge to a Democratic senator was in 2006 when Ned Lamont took on Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman. They say the GOP picks presidents based on seniority. Two years out, Republicans seem headed for a bloody knife fight while Hillary Clinton may be headed for the most decorous, seniority-based succession in either party’s history. (If she loses this time it will be to herself.)
If Democrats had caught populist fever they’d be reappraising their own orthodoxy and offing a few of their own incumbents. Owing only partly to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, they instead spend their days as Republicans do, in an endless search for new ways to help the rich pump money into politics. As public alienation deepens, polls show Democrats generally content with their party’s leaders. Of such stuff revolutions are not made.
...Republicans make their livings off the misappropriation of populism. Democrats by their silence assist them. Rand Paul is more forceful than any Democrat on privacy and the impulse to empire. The Tea Party rails loudest against big banks and corporate corruption. Even on cultural issues Democrats don’t really lead: Your average college student did more than your average Democratic congressman to advance gay marriage.
It’s hard for Democrats to see that their problems arise from their own mistakes. Obama called the 2008 recession “the worst since the Great Depression.” It wasn’t; by most measures-- jobs, wages, exports-- it was the worst since 1982. The valid comparison to the 1930s is that now as then all our vital institutions are broken. Our healthcare, banking, energy and transit systems are badly broken. Our defense policy is obsolete. Politics is a cesspool. Oddly, the one system working relatively well, public education, is the object of our only sustained reform effort.
Mistaking the nature of the crisis, Obama mistook massive fraud for faulty computer modeling and a middle-class meltdown for a mere turn of the business cycle. Had he grasped his situation he’d have known the most he could do by priming the pump would be to reinflate the bubble. Contrast him to FDR, who saw the systemic nature of his crisis. To banks Roosevelt offered only reform; financial help went to customers whose bad mortgages he bought up and whose savings he insured. By buying into Bush’s bailout, Obama co-signed the biggest check ever cut by a government, made out to the culprits, not the victims. As for his stimulus, it didn’t cure the disease and hefty portions of it smelled like pork.
Populist rage against the bailout and stimulus saved the Republican Party. In 2006 it had lost Congress, in 2008 the White House. Younger voters recoiled from its racial and religious politics. Middle-class decline had even devout Christians focused on family finances. That’s when Democrats handed over title to economic populism. Absent the bailout and stimulus it’s hard to imagine the Tea Party being born, Republicans retaking Congress or the government being so utterly paralyzed.
Liberals have spent the intervening years debating macroeconomic theory but macroeconomics can’t fathom this crisis. This isn’t just a slow recovery from a financial sector collapse, or damage done by debt overhang or Obama’s weak tea Keynesianism. We’re in crisis because of all our broken systems; because we still let big banks prey on homeowners, students, consumers and retailers; because our infrastructure is decrepit; because our tax code breeds inefficiency and inequality; because foreign interventions bled us dry. We’re in peril because our democracy is dying. Reviving it will take more than deficit spending and easy money. It will take reform, and before that, a whole new political debate.
…It pains us to watch Democrats bungle populist issues. We see Rand Paul corner the market on privacy and the scrutiny of defense budgets and wonder why no Democrat rises to expose his specious rantings. We yearn for a new politics but worry that our democracy, like that Antarctic ice shelf, has reached its tipping point. For things to improve Democrats must come up with better ideas and learn how to present them. So why don’t they?
One reason is that today’s Democrats think politics is all about marketing. While Republicans built think tanks Democrats built relationships with celebrity pollsters. When things go awry one pops up on TV to tell us how they “lost control of the narrative.” Asked to name a flaw, Obama invariably cites his failure to “tell our story.” Judging by his recent book, Tim Geithner thinks failing to tell his story was the only mistake he ever made. People don’t hate the bailout because Tim Geithner gives bad speeches. They hate it because their mortgages are still underwater.
Democrats must learn that policy precedes message; figure out what you believe, then how to tell people about it. A good idea advertises itself.
Democrats must also learn to argue history. They chortle when Michele Bachmann credits the founders with ending slavery or Sarah Palin forgets who Paul Revere rode to warn. Yet they let the right turn our founding myths into pulp propaganda with nary a reply from any but academics. In Unstoppable Nader enlists Jefferson, Adam Smith, Friederich Hayek and a raft of others to buttress his case and reclaim valuable ground.
Democrats think the power of money is greater than the power of ideas. Nader thinks that with the right ideas you can win even if outspent 100-to-1. Every year Democrats further dilute their ideas to get the money they think they need to sell them. The weaker the ideas, the more ads they need, the more money it takes, the weaker the ideas. As you can tell from their ads, they’ve been at this a long time.
They don’t believe in ideas because they don’t believe in people. Obama wasted years dickering with Republicans who wished him only ill. He should have talked to the people and let them talk to the Republicans.
One reason we know voters will embrace populism is that they already have. It’s what they thought they were getting with Obama. In 2008 Obama said he’d bail out homeowners, not just banks. He vowed to fight for a public option, raise the minimum wage and clean up Washington. He called whistle-blowers heroes and said he’d bar lobbyists from his staff. He was critical of drones and wary of the use of force to advance American interests. He spoke eloquently of the threats posed to individual privacy by a runaway national security state.
He turned out to be something else altogether. To blame Republicans ignores a glaring truth: Obama’s record is worst where they had little or no role to play. It wasn’t Republicans who prosecuted all those whistle-blowers and hired all those lobbyists; who authorized drone strikes or kept the NSA chugging along; who reneged on the public option, the minimum wage and aid to homeowners. It wasn’t even Republicans who turned a blind eye to Wall Street corruption and excessive executive compensation. It was Obama.
A populist revolt among Democrats is unlikely absent their reappraisal of Obama, which itself seems unlikely. Not since Robert Kennedy have Democrats been so personally invested in a public figure. Liberals fell hardest so it’s especially hard for them to admit he’s just not that into them. If they could walk away they might resume their relationship with Nader. Of course that won’t be easy.
Populism isn’t just liberalism on steroids; it too demands compromise. After any defeat, a party’s base consoles itself with the notion that if its candidates were pure they’d have won. It’s never true; most voters differ with both parties. Still, liberals dream of retaking Congress as the Tea Party dreams of retaking the White House: by being pure. Democratic elites are always up for compromise, but on the wrong issues. Rather than back GOP culture wars, as some do, or foreign wars, as many do, or big business, as nearly all do, they should back libertarians on privacy, small business on credit and middle-class families on taxes.
If Democrats can’t break up with Obama or make up with Nader, they should do what they do best: take a poll. They would find that beneath all our conflicts lies a hidden consensus. It prizes higher ethics, lower taxes and better governance; community and privacy; family values and the First Amendment; economic as well as cultural diversity. Its potential coalition includes unions, small business, nonprofits, the professions, the economically embattled and all the marginalized and excluded. Such a coalition could reshape our politics, even our nation.
|Wall Street controls the House Dems through these shills|