This Isn’t Your Father’s Democratic Party

(Updated below)

There’s nothing new in Paul Krugman’s column today but he does ask the question many of us, particularly Democrats, have been asking for months if not years: Can the Democratic party – and our democracy – survive the influence of money on the campaign process?

It is, as he says, a good question. It may be the only question that matters. Our corporate oligarchy has owned the GOP outright for decades. Thanks the to the alliance between Al From’s conservative Democratic Leadership Council and the Congressional Blue Dog Caucus, the corporatocracy now also owns the Democratic party leadership, including Pelosi, Reid, and more than half of the Democratic presidential candidates. Money now dominates the election process to such an extent that you can usually predict the winner by picking the candidate with the biggest war chest. Not always, but usually.

A bevy of frustrated Donkey activists, mostly progressives, have been either baffled by or incensed at what they deride as the “politics of cowardice”, “spinelessness”, “fear”, and/or “incompetence” that seem to be the determinants of what Democrats decide to do – or, more regularly, NOT do – about any given issue. (Before SCHIP, telecom amnesty, the Mukasey nomination, and the Bush trade deals, I might have given them the benefit of the doubt and said “any given controversial issue” but there’s nothing genuinely controversial about any of them and the Donkeys are about to cave in yet again on all four.)

But, as I have said many times before, fear and/or incompetence has nothing to do with the Democrats’ abysmal performance since they became the majority a year ago this week. If there is a single factor controlling their questionable antics, it can be explained without even using words: $$$

Money Rules.

Money buys campaigns, elections, lobbyists and laws. Congressional pols often spend, by their own account, 4 out of every 5 days raising money for their next campaign. They spend 5 out of 5 days being badgered, hounded, pressured, and threatened by corporate lobbyists. Without the obscene amounts of money it takes to buy TV time, newspaper ads, and a machine to crank out the voters, they don’t stand a chance of winning.

The power of money has perverted our democratic system at the national level so badly that the vast majority of us believe – correctly – that the people who are supposed to be our representatives no longer listen to us because they can no longer afford to listen to us.

The public wants change. ?If Americans have ever been angrier with the state of the country,? begins a new strategy memo from the polling organization Democracy Corps, ?we have not witnessed it.?

Nor is the demand for change solely about Iraq: there has been a strong revival of economic populism. Democracy Corps asked those who believe America is on the wrong track to choose phrases that best described their views of what?s gone wrong. The most commonly chosen were ?Big businesses get whatever they want in Washington? and ?Leaders have forgotten the middle class.?

(emphasis added)

A couple of years ago when the Dems were in the minority, we could lay that feeling directly at the feet of Bush and the corporate puppets of a Republican Congress. No more. It isn’t Tom Tancredo who’s pushing the abominable Peru trade deal through a reluctant House, it’s Charlie Rangel. It isn’t Sam Brownback who’s violating Senate protocol to deny Dodd’s hold on the unconscionable telecom immunity bill, it’s Harry Reid. And as Krugman points out, it isn’t the Republicans who are “dithering” over the hedge fund loophole, it’s the Democrats.

[O]ne big reason the Democrats are having trouble finding their voice is the influence of big money.

The most conspicuous example of this influence right now is the way Senate Democrats are dithering over whether to close the hedge fund tax loophole ? which allows executives at private equity firms and hedge funds to pay a tax rate of only 15 percent on most of their income.

Only a handful of very wealthy people benefit from this loophole, while closing the loophole would yield billions of dollars each year in revenue. Retrieving this revenue is a key ingredient in legislation approved by the House Ways and Means Committee to reform the alternative minimum tax, something that must be done to avoid a de facto tax increase for millions of middle-class Americans.

A handful of superwealthy hedge fund managers versus millions of middle-class Americans ? it sounds like a no-brainer.

But as The Financial Times reports, ?Key votes have been delayed and time bought after the investment industry hired some of Washington?s most prominent lobbyists to influence lawmakers and spread largesse through campaign donations.? It goes on to describe how Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, was ?toasted by industry lobbyists? (and serenaded by Barry Manilow) at a money-raising party for his special fund to help Democrats get elected next year.

Is this the shape of things to come?

No, it’s the shape of things that are here. NOW.

Krugman, in a valiant attempt to maintain hope in the face of adversity, insists that SCHIP proves the Democrats are still “different” from the Republicans. What he’s missing is that while some are, the party leadership IS NOT. While Democratic rank-and-file pols have pushed SCHIP into the spotlight, it is the leadership that has led the charge to the rear, caving in again and again, watering the bill down to the point where its ability to do anything about insurance-less kids is in question. It isn’t the White House they’re afraid of, it’s the insurance lobby.

When SCHIP first emerged, the bill was to be paid for by adjusting the Medicare Advantage section, initiated by Bush and passed by the rubber-stamp Republican Congress, that was nothing more than a boondoggle for shoving piles of money into insurance company coffers. It was a brilliant solution to a difficult problem, good for the country and good for the kids. The original bill authorized a pittance of growth – $50Mil over 5 years – that would give most of the uninsured kids some coverage, at least, and mitigate the worst of the damage lack of insurance is perpetrating on some of the weakest in our society.

The Republicans – a minority, I remind you – nixed it with a threat to filibuster. Instead of saying, “Go ahead. Go on TV and fight against giving sick kids medical treatment”, the Democratic leadership amended the bill. Now the authorization is reduced to a pittance of a pittance – $35Mil – and is to be paid for with an additional $1/pack tax on cigarettes, leaving the Medicare Advantage rip-off as is. If that isn’t caving in to insurance industry lobbyists, what the hell is it?

And still we’re not done. Bush vetoed even that version with claims so absurd even Pubs were surprised.

In a pre-emptive strike on June 27, Mr. Bush ? standing before another Western image, an equestrian portrait of Theodore Roosevelt as a Rough Rider ? said the proposal would ?cause huge increases in government spending? and lead to ?government-run health care for every American.?

Senators were taken aback by what they saw as the ferocity of the president?s comments. Telephone logs and e-mail messages show that Republican senators and their aides had frequently consulted White House officials as the bill took shape.

One participant in the talks, Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, called the criticism and veto threats premature, ?disappointing, even a little unbelievable.?

So are the Democrats at last going to make the Republicans filibuster against sick kids on behalf of a runaway insurance industry? They are not. The leadership is back in committee trying to find yet another watered-down compromise Bush – and the insurance lobby – might accept.

Kyle and I have been having this discussion since I came on board, and we have reached a point, I think it’s fair to say, where we agree that the corporate-owned, DLC-controlled leadership is primarily at fault rather than rank-and-file members. The solution he has offered is to fight for more non-BD’s in the primaries. My response is that that begs the question. The real issue has been and remains campaign financing. As long as Money Rules, even non-BD Dems will have to fall into line if they want to get re-elected. The system as presently constituted doesn’t give them much choice. Would even Harry Reid be such a corporate puppet if he were freed from intense fundraising demands?

I don’t know but I’d like to find out.

Update: Kevin Hayden at The American Street uses Krugman’s column as a jumping-off point for a post about the way Democrats have lost their empathy since Jimmy Carter. He begins his conclusion:

FDR’s ‘forgotten’ men and women ‘at the bottom of the economic ladder’ were now on their own. Not only was I sensitized to it by a lifetime on the two bottom rungs of that ladder, but at the time, I’d just spent two years working with and advocating for homeless citizens. I had thought Bill Clinton would share that sensitivity as his income as Arkansas governor was relatively low compared to governors elsewhere. From there to his welfare deform bill, I came to the conclusion that, despite some positives elsewhere, the Clintons were not concerned with the interests of people like me, my family and friends.

Unlike Krugman, I no longer have the patience to see what Democratic rule will bring. I don’t believe in Santa Claus either.

I do believe 3/4ths of our elected Dems are more charitably minded than their skinflint GOP brethren, so the blue collar and the poor gain some decent crumbs that the GOP would order us to pay for. A raise in the minimum wage that lifted its buying power from a 67 year low, for example. Dems delivered on that….

In the current field of presidential candidates, I know that Kucinich and Edwards still have genuine empathy. I sense some in Richardson, too. And I don’t resent the wealth that any of them command. I just wished they’d spend more time pushing business to remedy the growing class divide, while making healthcare and education more affordable so working class people could have a solid foundation that their own initiative could build on.

Go read the rest and be reminded just how Clinton first let the country know he was no longer a “man of the people” but one of the Villagers.

One Response to “This Isn’t Your Father’s Democratic Party”

  1. eRobin says:

    People in the US mattered before globalization when it was important to keep them able to buy shit that captains of industry sold. Now we’re still important as a market but the shit doesn’t cost as much so we don’t need to earn that much. And we buy, buy, buy like drug addicts no matter what. keeping the pushers rolling in dough. (As for non-discretionary spending, we’re locked into that pain as prices skyrocket.) As China and India grow their consumer class, we’ll lose out ability to influence policy via our spending. The middle class in the USA will be dead but the powers that be don’t care. It will be some other country’s turn to prosper. Maybe that’s fair.

    I’m sure that this is overly simple but I don’t think it takes a PhD in Econ to see what’s happening here. But if you want to read a technical, smarty pants post about it, then here it is.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Connect with Facebook