Election 2016

Why Cory Booker and Corporate Friendly Dems Who Fear Attacking Wall Street Are a Big Problem for Democrats

You won't find Republicans who'll criticize the moves the Romney campaign has made.

If you needed a reminder that Democrats and Republicans approach presidential elections very differently, the past few days have provided a vivid object lesson. Mitt Romney has made his time leading Bain Capital the centerpiece of his campaign, so Barack Obama's campaign quite naturally decided to attack him on it, a decision that was surely made months ago. They are doing so in both concrete and abstract terms, criticizing Romney for specific moves Bain made involving the firm profiting off companies that went bankrupt, and making the more general argument that a successful career maximizing profit for wealthy investors does not prepare one for the presidency. Then suddenly, the Obama campaign became the target of an unusual amount of criticism from Democrats rising to the defense of the “private equity” industry.

The chorus of scolding certainly demonstrates just how entwined the Democratic party has become with Wall Street and large corporations more generally; when high-ranking Democrats criticize this campaign tactic, they're defending their friends and contributors. But it mostly shows that among Democrats, everybody thinks they ought to be running the presidential campaign. And they aren't afraid to say so.

It started with Newark mayor Cory Booker, who said he was "nauseated" by both sides' attacks, lumping together criticism of Romney's record at Bain with potential attacks on Obama's former pastor Jeremiah Wright in a bizarre false equivalence. Ex-congressman Harold Ford, who has fashioned a career as a "Fox News Democrat" (i.e. a Democrat whose job it is to come on television and criticize Democrats) and who now works for Merrill Lynch, predictably took to the airwaves to defend Big Finance's honor. Steven Rattner, the Wall Streeter who oversaw the auto bailout for the Obama administration and a former private equity chief himself, offered his own defense of Bain (though he also defended the Obama campaign). Former Pennsylvania governor and DNC chair Ed Rendell called Obama's criticisms "very disappointing." Senators Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Chris Coons (D-DE) said the Obama campaign should stop talking about Bain and move on to other topics. If you're a reporter looking to write a story about Democratic infighting, it won't be hard to find a prominent Democrat who'll give you a quote calling out the Obama campaign.

But you won't have nearly so easy a time finding Republicans who'll criticize the moves the Romney campaign has made or will make. It isn't that Republicans don't grouse about their candidate's campaign -- they just don't do it publicly. We will not see any Republican elected officials going on television or writing op-eds to express their displeasure with the Romney campaign's decisions. That's not how Republicans work. They put a great premium on loyalty, teamwork and message discipline. The various parts of the conservative coalition may have different agendas and long-held disagreements, but once an election approaches, they all understand who the enemy is and how important it is to maintain a united front.

Up until recently, Republicans certainly spent a good deal of time wondering whether Mitt Romney's eventual nomination might doom them to defeat in November. But in the time since Romney's nomination was assured, those notes of dissent have disappeared. Whether they like it or not, he's their nominee, and they won't do anything to undermine the cause. And if anyone does raise questions about decisions the Romney campaign makes, you can be sure that those questions will be tactical, not substantive. In other words, a Republican might say, "I don't think this argument is going to be effective in persuading voters" (in most cases, that will be because the person making the claim thinks the campaign should be tougher and harsher). But you won't hear any Republicans saying that the Romney campaign has stepped over some moral line in its attacks.

Which is just what Booker, Ford and the rest were arguing about Obama. They weren't concerned that criticism of Romney's tenure at Bain Capital wouldn't work; they were saying it's wrong to criticize Romney's time in the leveraged buy-out business. It was a milder version of the wailing that Republicans have been doing for some time over the tender feelings of the capitalist class. As Mitch McConnell recently said, "Capitalism seems to be under attack by this administration." Eric Cantor claimed that Obama's criticisms of Romney are actually harming the economy, since "we don't have enough people with confidence to put capital at risk right now, we don't have people who are willing to seek a loan from a bank and take that risk because they hear the hostility coming from the White House."

Yet the attacks on Romney over Bain by his primary opponents were much harsher than what Obama is saying today. Rick Perry called Romney a "vulture capitalist," while Newt Gingrich said Romney and Bain would "loot companies, leave behind broken families, broken towns" (see more here). In contrast, Obama always prefaces his remarks on the topic by saying that he supports business, making profits is a fine goal and the economy needs investors. Only after the encomiums to private enterprise does he get to his polite and restrained critique of Romney.

But for some, even those gentle criticisms are morally unacceptable, so fragile are the sensitivities of the finance industry. All manner of campaign hardball tactics can be tolerated, but asking what happens to a company's workers when a leveraged buyout goes bad? That's just going too far.

If you're a public official being asked to defend something your party's nominee is saying, you have two competing values. The first is the value of your party winning, and all the policy results that follow. The second is your vision of what a campaign ought to be and what kinds of criticisms are appropriate to make of the other side. In Republicans' case, the first value always takes precedence. Many Democrats, on the other hand, obviously aren't too concerned that they might be undermining their party's cause. You can regard that as admirable independence or treasonous narcissism, but the difference between the two parties is stark.

It's also telling that Obama's extremely mild criticisms of Romney's time at Bain have so roused the ire of so many Democrats. If Cory Booker was "nauseated" by the Obama ad, he has an awfully tender stomach. (Perhaps Booker's intestinal discomfort derives from the fact that he has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the financial industry, and more importantly, he knows he'll need Wall Street's support for future campaigns, including possible runs for governor and, some day, president.)

Despite the usual predictions of a terribly distressing election to come ("This is going to be the most negative campaign in history!"), this campaign has actually been remarkably tame, even respectful. There have been no menacing mug shots of black felons, no little girls being vaporized by nuclear explosions, no over-the-top portrayals of a candidate's home state as a post-apocalyptic hellscape. The Obama campaign's argument about Bain Capital comes down to this: in its quest for profits, Bain sometimes insensitively cast off the men and women who worked for the companies it bought, causing those workers great hardship. And no one has disputed that. It hardly seems that the Obama campaign's argument is some kind of vicious slander on Mitt Romney that simply cries out for condemnation from any honest observer.

We can be fairly sure that the Obama campaign will not be deterred by the griping from their side. As they showed four years ago (and it's pretty much the same group of people running this year's campaign), they have supreme confidence in their strategic decisions and the presence of mind to tune out both intra-party sniping and the collective obsession with who's winning the daily news cycle. But this will almost certainly not be the last time prominent Democrats issue public criticism of the way their standard-bearer is running his campaign, just so everyone knows they know better. They're Democrats; that's what they do.

 

Paul Waldman is a Contributing Editor at The American Prospect magazine.