Wayne O'Leary

The Empire Strikes Back

During the last week of July, as the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia wound its way toward a listless conclusion featuring lackluster and forgettable speeches by the presidential and vice-presidential nominees, one group of interested observers was anything but downcast. Representatives of corporate America, under the auspices of the Wall Street wing of the party, were on the scene in force and experiencing what can only be described as a natural high.

Pushed to the side in the primary season by the populist energy and momentum of the Sanders insurgency, the Democratic party’s moneyed elites and their corporate associates reemerged in the wake of the Clinton coronation and assumed what has become their accustomed role in party affairs. As reported by New York Times staffers Nicholas Confessore and Amy Chozick, the luxurious Ritz-Carleton Hotel in downtown Philadelphia became ground zero for a sanctioned coup by big-money Clinton donors dispensing their unique form of benevolence in the City of Brotherly Love. Apparently, the more things changed politically in 2016, the more they remained the same.

Among those getting up close and personal with Democratic pols at the quadrennial gathering were representatives of Blackstone, the leading private-equity firm; CSX, the railroad giant; Apollo Education Group, a shady operator of for-profit colleges; Goldman Sachs, the Clinton-connected investment bank; and assorted drug companies and health insurers. All were there to curry favor with the triumphant Clintonistas and offer cash for influence in the time-honored fashion.

Corporate cash has been flowing quietly into Clinton campaign coffers throughout the election season, but now it’s taken on torrential proportions and is coming from unexpected sources. Silicon Valley tech donors, such as venture capitalist Marc Andreesen, who backed Mitt Romney in 2012, are behind Hillary in 2016.

But the biggest tech-industry “get” for the Democratic nominee has to be billionaire Hewlett-Packard exec Meg Whitman, a top Republican donor and activist, who has supported Romney and Chris Christie in the past; this year, following “a lovely chat” on economic issues, she’s all in for Hillary and will contribute an estimated $500,000 to the Clinton campaign.

Thus far, Silicon Valley’s corporate leadership has funneled $2.7 million to the Democrats, compared to just $16,000 to the GOP. But it’s not just a tech-industry phenomenon. All across the board, normally Republican CEOs and their companies have concluded that Hillary is their best bet, making “the party of the people,” in the short run at least, the party of big business. The hedge-fund industry, for example, which employs Chelsea Clinton’s husband, has given a reported $49 million to the Democrats; the rival Republicans have garnered a mere $19,000 from the princes of speculation.

None of this squares with the superficial perception, arising from the Democratic platform hearings in Philadelphia, that a Clinton administration will implement a Sanders-inspired “socialist-lite” agenda. Shrewd business types need only look beyond the platform to Hillary’s choice of a running mate to realize this won’t happen.

Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, opposite number to Trump’s v.p. choice Tom Pence (Or is it Tom Kaine and Tim Pence? With these two interchangeable nonentities, it’s hard to recall.), is a business favorite. He’s been an outspoken advocate of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP) in the past, a defender of NAFTA, and a dependable vote for “fast track” on trade. He favors softening Dodd-Frank regulations on community banks and credit unions, supports Virginia’s “right-to-work” law, and stands accused of accepting (as governor) corporate gifts and free travel worth thousands of dollars. Corporate America knows Hillary’s veep would be no Bernie Sanders.

There’s a reason business Republicans are suddenly looking with favor on the 2016 Democratic ticket, and it can be summed up in two words: Donald Trump. Trump has been effectively caricatured by the corporate mass media and justifiably condemned for his undisciplined use of off-putting language and crude invective, a product of his reality-show background and glaring lack of political smarts. He’s a neophyte politician, whereas the Clintons have been at it for over three decades. In sharp contrast to press-conference-averse Hillary, the Donald just doesn’t know when to shut up.

But the business case against Trump is not stylistic; it’s substantive. David Mcintosh, president of the conservative business lobby Club for Growth, has accused Trump of being “in the mainstream of liberalism on economics.” It’s not an isolated opinion on the right. The Business Roundtable, which speaks for CEOs of the leading Fortune 500 corporations (including number one Walmart), opposes Trump on global trade and immigration. He’s also being attacked by the National Association of Manufacturers, especially on trade issues, and, most vehemently, by the US Chamber of Commerce. (The chamber represents, among others, IBM, Caterpillar, Phillips 66, Dow Chemical, and Allstate Insurance.) Together, Trump’s organized-business opponents form a who’s who of the conservative economic establishment.

Obviously, these interests feel Clinton will be less apt to cramp their free-enterprise style, which boils down to business as usual. Anyone who thought money, which is talking louder than ever, was getting out of politics has been whistling past the graveyard. Money is not leaving; instead, the money people are moving more deeply into the Democratic party and taking it over.

This is a good thing as far as some prominent Clinton supporters are concerned. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a longtime cheerleader for globalization, has called on his candidate Hillary to “inject some capitalism into her economic plan” and create a deregulatory, entrepreneurial, “pro-growth” agenda congenial to center-right business Republicans unhappy with Trump — create, in other words, a center-left/center-right governing coalition of exactly the sort recently upended in Great Britain.

Regardless, we may be headed there anyway. Conservative Clinton backer Gregory Mankiw, a right-leaning Harvard economics professor and former chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisors under George W. Bush, has pointed out approvingly that both of the Clintons come from a fundamental free-trade perspective and are aligned with “mainstream” (that is, neoliberal) economic thought.

There’s little reason to doubt Mankiw is correct. Look for Hillary, as president, to engage in an agonizing reappraisal of the Democratic platform’s Sanders-influenced economic approach and moonwalk her way back to where she’s most comfortable — as a centrist corporate Democrat.

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

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2016


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