Obama's Corporatist Kabuki

Blurting out “I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street,” President Obama issues tough populist talk for the benefit of 60 Minutes’ audience this week:


He states that the only firms paying out such bonuses and avoiding the pay caps the government put on companies that used Troubled Assets Relief Program funds are the ones that paid the money back. Could they be paying the money back just to be able to pay the bonuses? “I think that in some cases, [to be able to pay bonuses] was the motivation,” he tells Kroft. “Which I think tells me that the people on Wall Street still don’t get it…They’re still puzzled why it is that people are mad at the banks. Well, let’s see. You guys are drawing down 10, 20 million dollar bonuses after America went through the worst economic year…in decades and you guys caused the problem,” says the president.

But this is a form of kabuki the far left must play with its even further leftwing base, as Jonah Goldberg noted back in April:

Honesty and marital necessity require me to state that everything I know about prostitution I have learned from a distance. That said, based on what I’ve gleaned from reading and from films of dubious artistic value, it seems to me that the farther you move up the prostitution price range, the more elaborate the lies become. A streetwalker trolling the docks during Fleet Week has little opportunity for self-rationalization, elaborate rituals, or ornate fictions. She never asks that drunk petty officer from Manila, “Do you love me?”; nor does she wonder why he never calls or writes. We all know what she’s selling, and we’re under no illusions about the fact that it’s for sale. Sure, for an extra $25, she might pretend to enjoy it, but ultimately, the cheaper the cost, the cheaper the lies.

The same holds true, I suppose, with many areas of commerce. A trip to a four-star restaurant involves lots of ritual, to heighten the richness of the experience. The ambiance surrounding the purchase of a McDonald’s Happy Meal, meanwhile, isn’t markedly different from the atmosphere at Home Depot when you buy a toilet brush.

But it’s prostitution that lends itself best to varying degrees of deception. Tony Soprano’s “gumars” always expected to be treated better than the slatterns in the backroom of the Bada Bing Club. And, no doubt, the late French president Francois Mitterand–who fathered a second family with one of his many mistresses–was no stranger to ornate fictions either. As the costs rise, the compliments become more sincere. The relationships grow not only more complex but more reciprocal–and, most of all, the real lies aren’t what the hookers tell the johns, but what both parties tell themselves.

That’s something to keep in mind as we watch the spectacle of American big business and the Democratic party seducing each other once again.

Visit any college campus, any Georgetown salon, any sweaty left-wing netroots comment section, or any space sufficiently accursed to have both Nancy Pelosi and a microphone in it, and you will be informed that the Democratic party stands up to corporate fat cats. President Obama spent much of the last two years denouncing the stranglehold that corporate interests have on American politics. “They don’t represent ordinary Americans, they don’t fund my campaign, and they won’t drown out the voices of working families when I am president.” “Right-wing and corporate forces,” the former director of advocacy for MoveOn.org writes in The American Prospect, “will do everything they can to block our agenda on things like universal health care and climate change.” It’s not just that they tell the world this stuff; they tell it to themselves. Former senator John Edwards–in many ways a cornpone Mitterand–was probably sincere when he said over and over again that he’s been preparing his whole life to fight big corporations in behalf of the one of his “two Americas” that doesn’t live like him. It’s quite easy to imagine his saying words to that effect every morning in front of one of the countless mirrors in his 28,000-square-foot home.

And indeed, early this year, Kevin D. Williamson wrote a perceptive article titled “Losing Gordon Gekko”, which explained that during the 2006 and 2008 elections, “Wall Street has gone over to the Democrats. Should conservatives miss it?”

In 2006 and 2008, Wall Street poured money on Democrats. Big Wall Street firms that made major political contributions — including Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, UBS, and Lehman — gave the majority of their contributions to Democrats. The hedge funds followed suit, as they are inclined to do — they depend on the big Wall Street institutions to clear their trades. And it wasn’t just Wall Street: Democrats led in six of the ten big-business sectors tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics: law, health care, defense contractors, communications/electronics, finance/insurance/real estate, and the catch-all category that includes chemical firms, retailers, manufacturers, food processors, and other industrial operators. Republicans held on to agriculture — which is, not coincidentally, the industry in which they are the least interested in practicing capitalism: It’s not the philosophical commitment to free markets that opens up corporate checkbooks, but the promise of favorable exceptions to those principles.

So why is the bulls-and-bears set going donkey? Partly it’s self-interest: Wall Street loves a tax break, but Big Money has over the years found a lot to love about Big Government. Those carbon-offset exchanges may be clearinghouses for products that are, in essence, imaginary, but they are going to make a real bundle for the bankers who set them up — and, since they’ll inevitably have the support of government, there will be relatively little risk involved. And Democrats’ anti-war talk hasn’t spooked the defense contractors. For all the conspiracy-mongering about Halliburton Republicans, now that Democrats control defense appropriations it’s no surprise to find the likes of Rep. Ike Skelton, the Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, enjoying the support of military providers such as Armor Holdings Inc. What is surprising is that Democrats now lead Republicans overall in financial support from defense firms.

When Obama made his case for the stimulus bill — which is larded with corporate welfare — he was flanked by two big-league CEOs: IBM’s Sam Palmisano and Honeywell’s Dave Cote. For many on the anti-war left — the people who elevated Obama over Clinton during the primary — Honeywell is a war profiteer, only a little less detestable than Halliburton. You’d think this would chap the hide of the Democrats’ progressive wing. For the most part, you’d be wrong, though a few on the left, such as Harold Meyerson, have scolded the Democrats for courting capital. Success has a way of pre-empting criticism: Democrats may have kidded Clinton about being the best Republican president since Gerald Ford — Clinton himself raged that he’d been turned into Dwight Eisenhower — but they loved him, even if he is today seen less as the second coming of FDR than as John the Baptist to Obama’s Jesus Christ Superstar. But there’s no denying Clinton’s great political accomplishment in making peace between the Democrats and Big Business — and cutting into Republicans’ credibility on the economy.

That sort of Faustian pact worked well during Clinton’s era, and especially during FDR’s era when mass industry was king, and wanted a mass government to go along with it. Of course, what’s curious is that the right are also starting to triangulate against Wall Street with plenty of populist rhetoric of its own, as James Pethokoukis wrote last month, “Here comes Sarah Palin and the anti-Wall Street GOP:

Don’t interpret passage of the watered-down Kanjorski amendment as the peak of the “break up the banks” movement. It may be about to get some new allies on the right, folks tired of Big Government, Big Money and crony capitalism.

For the moment, though, it was arguably the best that Representative Paul Kanjorski, a Pennsylvania Democrat, [and Mr. New New Deal himself — Ed] could have gotten through the House Financial Services Committee. All the committee Republicans and even some of the Democrats voted against it. And even in its much-diminished state, the Kanjorksi amendment would likely be weakened further in the Senate. At the same time, the Obama administration seems little interested in such pre-emptive powers.

Wall Street, however, is hardly getting any more popular with Main Street. The Goldman Sachs Apology Tour is evidence of that. And there are mid-term elections in less than a year. Republican candidates will probably do well as high unemployment continues to drive voter anger at incumbents. As Gallup diplomatically puts it, “Republicans seem well-positioned to win back some of their congressional losses in 2006 and 2008.”  More accurately, fear of losing the House is now running high among congressional Dems.

And all those new Republicans are likely to be infused with the ethos of the Tea Party movement: anti-TARP, anti-Fed (the House GOP is already there on this), anti-bailouts and anti-Wall Street. It could be a group of newcomers, as John McCain recently said, that is populist, protectionist when it comes to China and the yuan and pro-financial regulation.

Sarah Palin could be a harbinger. Although she diligently promotes the wonder-working power of Reaganomics in her autobiography, she also warns about “the return of corporatism – government collusion and co-option of big business.” [More on corporatism here — Ed]

Of course, this is kabuki from both parties. A GOP that returns to power next year and (especially) 2012 would quickly make as much peace with Wall Street as the Democrats did long ago.

(Via Hot Air.)



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