<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="65001"%> O'Leary Following the Brand

Wayne O’Leary

Following the Brand

The Democratic Party is at a crossroads. Its activist base wants change, the change it didn’t really get from Barack Obarna, namely, a shift to the left that accommodates the economic populism articulated in recent weeks by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The party’s centrist establishment, on the other hand, including most importantly its big-money contributors, is happy with the status quo and resistant to altering direction. Something has to give.

This as yet quiet drama is playing out under the encroaching shadow of the 2016 election season, and complicating it is the character of the party’s possible candidates — some would say candidate — for president. As we enter the last two years of Barack Obama’s incumbency, the likeliest scenario for determining his successor seems increasingly to boil down to a choice between presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and resurgent Republican ex-governor of Florida Jeb Bush, whose fortunes have suddenly revived.

Why these two, in particular? First, there’s the factor of branding. In a time of complexity, confusion, and uncertainty, American voters are increasingly gravitating toward what they feel are known quantities — political brands. We know the Clintons and Bushes; they’ve been around, it seems, forever, and they’ve held power before. In short, they are brand names; we think we can predict their behavior and depend that they won’t stray far from the comfortable mainstream of their respective parties, rhetorically or substantively. They’re reassuringly familiar variations of the same product — classic Coke and new Coke, perhaps, but both Coke.

More importantly, Wall Street and corporate America in general, holders of the nation’s political purse strings, would prefer a choice between Clinton and Bush. And what the big money wants, it usually gets. Informal surveys of Wall Street’s presidential preferences in mid-2014 produced a broad consensus favoring George W.’s younger sibling, with Chris Christie and Clinton close behind. A more recent year-end poll of America’s millionaires reversed the positions, placing Hillary first with 31%, Jeb second with 18%, and a fading Christie third. Obama’s former secretary of state thereby built on her carryover edge with the monied class from 2008, when she was endorsed in the funding sweepstakes by no fewer than 150 corporate CEOs.

Corporate America’s comfort level with Jeb Bush comes as no surprise; he’s a standard-issue big-business Republican, who once described his ambition outside of politics thusly, “I want to be very wealthy.” In quest of that goal, he’s been an avid investor, board member, and entrepreneur, working variously in banking, real estate, energy development, private equity (for the ill-fated Wall Street gambling den Lehman Brothers), and the healthcare industry, among others. His non-political career, like Mitt Romney’s, can best be described as that of a venture capitalist.

Hillary Clinton’s business ties, aside from time spent on the board of notoriously anti-union Walmart, have emphasized the tainted financial-services sector, where she and husband Bill have raised literally millions in political donations over the years, according to The Nation magazine, most especially from the high-rolling Wall Street investment banks Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley. Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein, a close friend and benefactor, has been particularly helpful in funneling money to the ubiquitous Clinton Foundation, as well as arranging high-paid speaking gigs before corporate audiences for the former first lady.

Giving the rhinestone devil his due, the average Wall Street CEO can sometimes be a social liberal — Citigroup’s Robert Rubin is a classic example — and therefore willing to back centrist Democrats like Clinton; he may have no problem with gender equality and minority rights, or limited environmentalism, and he may even support policies like gun control — witness Michael Bloomberg. Just don’t touch his money, or question how he got it; above all, don’t interfere with his business practices, tax his profits, or regulate his industry. Wall Street, which exercises substantial veto power in both political parties, may want a president with a “modern” outlook, but that president must be one with a capital-centric mindset and a compliant attitude when it comes to the market economy.

Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, multi-millionaires in their own right, certainly satisfy the big-money power brokers on that score; they both endorse corporate America’s political priorities — free trade, education and tax “reform,” enhanced immigration, and the like. Their potential problems are with the grassroots of their respective parties, the progressive-populist wing of the Democrats and the tea-party wing of the Republicans; they will have to dissemble their way to nomination — in Hillary’s case, faking left before pivoting right with the expectation of governing somewhere in the officially sanctioned center.

Can Hillary Clinton, a candidate closely attuned to Wall Street, pass herself off as an Elizabeth Warren look-alike in the 2016 primaries, now that Warren has issued her Shermanesque withdrawal? It’s an iffy proposition, given the presence of a remaining triumvirate of prospective rivals with more genuine populist roots: Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and Jim Webb.

Sanders, Vermont’s independent senator (who would run as a Democrat) is a proud democratic socialist unafraid to wear the label; his pro-worker critique of corporate America and “the crooks on Wall Street” carries bite, and he articulates middle-class concerns more forcefully than anyone else. O’Malley, ex-Maryland governor, has criticized President Obama for timidity in economic policy, viewing the 2009 stimulus as too small and the financial-reform package as lacking teeth; like Sanders, he’s also willing to discuss inequality, an issue the Clintons studiously avoid.

Webb, ex-Virginia senator and former secretary of the Navy, threatens Clinton from two directions at once — from the right as a socially conservative decorated military hero (a marine veteran wounded in Vietnam), from the left as a critic of open-ended foreign interventions, including “humanitarian” wars, and as a latter-day Jacksonian angry about the financial sector’s contemporary domination of both political parties.

Because of his proven ability to win white working-class votes, Webb could be Clinton’s biggest headache in the heartland. Another southern populist, John Edwards, caused her trouble in 2008 before he imploded. But any of her three potential challengers could tap the rich Democratic vein of economic populism that has lain dormant since that time, a vein exposed anew by the ravages of the Great Recession. The question is, will Democrats choose that direction, or will they just follow the brand?

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2015


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