The Democratic party has lost its soul: Clinton, Obama and the victory of Wall Street Democrats

A quick hit as we near the weekend. I thought you’d find this, about the soulless side of the Democratic party, a good and interesting read. (To jump to my Netroots Nation thoughts, click here.)

The piece is, in essence, about the neoliberal heart of the Democratic party, how it was born and grew. The author is Bill Curry. As the blurb says, he was:

White House counselor to President Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut. He is at work on a book on President Obama and the politics of populism.

Bet he doesn’t get invited to the next Clinton birthday party. Here’s Howie Klein on Curry (my paragraphing):

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 the the banksters.

That said, let me introduce you to the piece. It’s decently long, so this is just a taste or two. If you like it, head on over. I know this is up the alley of at least some of you.

Curry casts his opening by noting the success of one man, Ralph Nader, single-handedly the father of the modern consumer movement, who worked mainly through Democrats of that era. Then, starting around 1978 or so, the era changed, along with the Democrats.

This isn’t about Nader; it’s about the Democrats:

My party has lost its soul: Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and the victory of Wall Street Democrats
A former Clinton aide on how Democrats lost their way chasing Wall Street cash, and new populism the party needs

… For nearly 30 years Nader largely abstained from electoral politics while turning out a steady stream of testimony and books. But his influence waned. By the late ’70s the linked forces of corporate and cultural reaction we memorialize as the Reagan Revolution were gathering force. In 1978 Nader lost a pivotal battle to establish a federal consumer protection agency as key Democrats, including Jimmy Carter, whom Nader had informally blessed in 1976, fled the field.

In Reagan’s epic 1980 sweep the GOP picked up 12 Senate seats, the biggest gain of the last 60 years for either party. Nader had done his best business with Democrats, especially the liberal lions of the Senate; men like Warren Magnuson, Gaylord Nelson, Birch Bayh and George McGovern, all swept out to sea in the Reagan riptide. In the House, a freshman Democrat from California, Tony Coelho, took over party fundraising. It’s arguable that Coehlo’s impact on his party was as great as Reagan’s on his. It is inarguable 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. (Even Barry Goldwater outraised Lyndon Johnson.) In 2008 Obama took the torch passed to Clinton and became the first Democratic nominee to outraise a GOP opponent on Wall Street. His 2-to-1 spending advantage over John McCain broke a record Richard Nixon set in his drubbing of George McGovern.

Throughout the 1980s Nader watched as erstwhile Democratic allies vanished or fell into the welcoming arms of big business.  By the mid-’90s the whole country was in a swoon over the new baby-faced titans of technology and global capital. If leading Democrats thought technology threatened anyone’s privacy or employment or that globalization threatened anyone’s wages, they kept it to themselves.  In his contempt for oligarchs of any vintage and rejection of the economic and political democratization myths of the new technology Nader seemed an anachronism.

As Klein points out, if you’re looking for an original sinner, look at Tony Coehlo, named above.

But Clinton and Obama took the ball and ran with it:

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.

The furor over Nader arose partly because issues of economic and political power had, like Nader himself, grown invisible to Democrats. As Democrats continued on the path that led from Coehlo to Clinton to Obama, issues attendant to race, culture and gender came to define them. Had they nominated a pro-lifer in 2000 and Gloria Steinem run as an independent it’s easy to imagine many who berated Nader supporting her. Postmortems would have cited the party’s abandonment of principle as a reason for its defeat. But Democrats hooked on corporate cash and consultants with long lists of corporate clients were less attuned to Nader’s issues.

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.

Read the last sentence again:

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.

That takes us through just the first section. Please, do read the rest. Here’s a tease for section two (my paragraphing):

There’s much talk lately of a “populist” revival but few can say what a populist is. … Meanwhile the populist revolt on the right persists. … 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.)

There’s a wonderful comparison of Barack Obama in the crisis of 2008 to FDR in 1933. Not that Obama did different things (he did), but that Obama saw different things. Both saw through Democrat’s eyes. What does that say about Obama-era Democrats?

I’ll add that Curry isn’t a doomist. He sees a great coalition within the party that’s unexpressed by its leaders:

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.

Here’s hoping.

Netroots Nation and the “professional left”

Which leads to some preliminary thoughts on Netroots Nation. I’ve been holding off my comments, but they’re coming. And I’m not the only one thinking these thoughts — or “havin’ them dreams” as Bob Dylan once wrote. Simply put, there are two kinds of “Democrat” — the kind that hates what Obama and Clinton (and next-Clinton) have done and will do to the country, and the kind that’s kinda sorta OK with that.

Yes, I know … Republicans. But if your argument is “Stop Republicans ‘cuz Evil Deeds” then you have to stop Democrats when they do evil deeds too — and with the same passion — not just go look for your next movement job once the last sorta-OK Dem took office with your help.

That passion does describe and infuse many “movement” progressive activists, but there are plenty it doesn’t seem to touch, except when they speak. For all the Warren Wing enthusiasm, there are many who will work for Hillary, then not work equally as hard to stop her once she gets power. As one writer said about this year’s Netroots Nation:

A more appropriate slogan for the event, at least for some attendees, might have been “I’m resigned to Hillary.”

Let’s say that differently. How can one be “Ready for Warren” and “Ready for Hillary” too? If you actually listen to Warren, you can’t, even if you’re Warren herself.

I’ll have more on Netroots Nation soon. I’m collecting not just my thoughts, but those of others as well. The soul of the article above touches the soul of that event, and modern “Democrats” should read this piece carefully, for the all-too-obvious reason.


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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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