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Why Democrats Don't Need Wall Street

My old colleague Doug Schoen from the Clinton White House days has an op-ed out in the New York Times that is remarkable for its audacity. In “Why Democrats Need Wall Street,” he argued that Democrats have not been winning many elections lately because the party philosophy has become more Bernie Sanders and less Bill Clinton. According to Schoen, “moving the party away from a reflexive anti-Wall Street posture” was a key factor in the success of one Clinton presidency and the defeat of another.

Let’s start with the basic premise, that getting closer to Wall Street helps in winning elections. Any serious look back on Clinton’s 1996 campaign would have to note that the most important moment by far was the 1995 government shutdown fight with Newt Gingrich and the eventual Republican nominee, Bob Dole. Before that fight, Bill Clinton was about ten points down in the national polls against Dole. After the smoke cleared, Clinton was about ten points ahead, and the race never again got close.

Schoen and his partner, Mark Penn, argued against having that fight with Newt and Dole, saying Clinton would look more moderate by just splitting the difference and coming to a quick compromise more on their terms. But when Clinton rejected that advice, and instead announced he would fight to the end on preserving money for Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment, the polling turned bad for the Republicans. We won decisively.

Oddly enough, President Clinton’s campaign stump speeches that year never did mention his desire to deregulate Wall Street.

Fast forward to 2010, which was a terrible year for Democrats. Voters were outraged by the Wall Street bailouts, the fat bonuses that went to the same executives that crashed the economy, and the utter failure to prosecute any bankers that were responsible. Exit polls noted that 24% of the public thought the top blame for the bad economy was due to Bush, 29% said Obama, and 44% said Wall Street. Of those who blamed Wall Street first, Democrats got beat almost 2-1. Pollster Stan Greenberg argues compellingly that these soft-on-Wall Street factors hurt Hillary’s 2016 campaign badly and are still haunting Democrats today.

Even though the economy remained weak and Obama was vulnerable, Democrats got lucky in 2012 when the Republicans nominated Mitt Romney of Bain Capital. Obama won in great part due to bashing Romney for his financial industry track record of stripping jobs from communities for the sake of big profits for his company.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Warren was the only challenger in the country who beat an incumbent senator, a well-liked moderate one at that. Sherrod Brown had more money spent against him than any senator in the country, yet never trailed in the ultimate swing state of Ohio, winning by more than Obama. Tammy Baldwin upset a popular ex-governor to win an open Senate seat. All three based their campaigns in large part on running against Wall Street. 

Two years later, the 2014 elections were a debacle for Democrats nationwide, but especially for more centrist Democrats. Strong advocates of Wall Street accountability like Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Al Franken of Minnesota, and Gary Peters of Michigan all won races that were supposed to be challenging rather easily.

In 2016, while Secretary Clinton certainly took some progressive stands on economic issues, she rarely waved the populist flag or made tough attacks on Wall Street. In fact, Clinton was badly damaged by taking six-figure speaking fees for speeches to Goldman Sachs. She never fully embraced Elizabeth Warren’s Wall Street reform agenda, and instead of picking a populist VP candidate such as Warren or Sherrod Brown, she chose the single candidate who was widely seen as closest to Wall Street.

Meanwhile, Trump attacked Wall Street, hedge funds, and firms like Goldman Sachs in speech after speech, as well as TV ads. He even endorsed Warren’s idea of reinstating Glass-Steagall and breaking up the biggest banks. 

Schoen says Democrats need Wall Street’s money, but Warren in her Senate race and Sanders in his presidential campaign proved small online contributors could make a strong populist campaign financially competitive with a Wall Street-funded campaign. Schoen argues that there are more people who self-identify as moderates than liberals, ignoring the fact that most moderate swing voters hate Wall Street.

Finally, Schoen says Democrats need to be a pro-small business/pro-entrepreneur party. On this I heartily agree with him. The problem is that being pro-Wall Street is not the same thing. The too-big-to-fail banks rarely lend to small businesses and start-ups. They work mostly with the biggest businesses when they are lending, and use much of their money for financial speculation in the markets.

And what Schoen views as policy successes – Clinton’s deregulation of media and banking that has led to the consolidation of those industries into oligopolies – inherently crushes the little guy. Truly being pro-small business entails using anti-trust law to free markets from monopolies; making sure community banks can lend money to local businesses; and making sure potential customers of those local businesses make enough money to be able to buy things from those local businesses.

Schoen’s op-ed fails at policy and fails at politics. Hillary Clinton didn’t lose because of her wild, raging, left-wing populism -- she lost because working-class voters who haven’t gotten a raise in years don’t think Democrats are willing to fight for them.

Mike Lux is a co-founder of Democracy Partners, a political consulting firm with a mission of building the progressive movement. Previously, he was Senior Vice President for Political Action at People For the American Way (PFAW), and the PFAW Foundation, and served in the Clinton White House from 1993 to 1995 as a Special Assistant to the President for Public Liaison. While at Progressive Strategies, Lux founded, and currently chairs American Family Voices.

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