Bill Bradley: Wall Street's Favorite Guy
Mark Twain once said, "Why shouldn't truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to make sense." I've been trying to make sense of the fiction that next year's Democratic presidential primary is going to offer voters a real alternative to the thoroughly corpratized Al Gore (whose own mother has called him "a born conformist"). The claim is that Bill Bradley is the progressive surprise in the 2000 Cracker Jack box, that he's a maverick with a liberal heart who'll shake things up if he makes it to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It's pointed out that he's talking about campaign finance reform, that he's filled with sincerity about racial healing, and that he really cares about poor people.Good for him! But it's a measure of how faint the flicker of progressivism has become in the Democratic Party that we're thrilled when a candidate sounds even slightly progressive.We've been suckered by these same sounds before. In 1992, the "man from Hope" also talked about campaign finance reform, racial healing, and poor people, and many progressive pollyannas at the time insisted that he was a closet populist who would make us proud. (Of course, he wasn't and he didn't.)As we learned from Clinton, caring about issues is just not the same as acting on them -- or, as Pete Seeger once said, "Do-so is more important than say-so." Anyone who had taken a hard look at Clinton's governorship and seen his early fealty to moneyed interests would have known that this was not a guy who was ever going to lead the progressive charge.So, before we hoist another Bill onto our shoulders as the putative people's champion, it's worth looking behind Bradley's say-so to check out his do-so.A Checkered RecordQuick: name a major progressive cause, some matter of importance that Senator Bradley championed in his 18 years in Washington or in his years since. Keep thinking.Even on the issues he now says are at the center of his campaign, he's never made an in-your-face challenge to the power elites or attached his name to a progressive achievement. Sure, he cast some good votes during his tenure: money for kids and the environment, against Clinton's welfare deform, and for arms control. But voting is merely showing up -- it's the least that a senator does and bears little relationship to leadership.The few issues that got his juices flowing and focused his energies were decidedly antiprogressive: (1) he strongly backed Ronald Reagan & Co. in the dirty war against Nicaragua in the 1980s; (2) he was an enthusiast for Reagan's voodoo tax act of 1986, slashing the tax bill for corporations and the wealthy and jacking it up on working stiffs; and (3) he was a particularly peppy cheerleader for the passage of NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, and every other legislative scheme to extend the global reach of corporate power.This son of a small-town, Missouri banker distinguished himself in the Senate chiefly as a compliant servant to Wall Street bankers and corporate chieftains who were his steady and generous financial backers. The man who now talks loudly of campaign finance reform was tagged in his last senate race as "the king of bundled contributions" by the Center for Responsive Politics.Bundling is a loophole that corporations use to dump otherwise illegal wads of money into a favored candidate's pockets. For example, on June 16, 1989, thirty executives of the Wall Street firm Shearson Lehman Hutton suddenly and individually decided that it would be a good day to write checks of $500 to $1,000 to Bradley's senate campaign. What an amazing coincidence! A week later, thirty-two other Shearson executives were struck by the same spontaneous impulse. In all, Shearson bundled up more than $71,000 for the senator -- the largest donation to a senate candidate that year.Bradley's Drug ProblemIn the Senate, just like in his round ball days with the New York Knickerbockers, Bradley was a pay-to-play guy.In his excellent book, The Buying of the President, Charles Lewis writes that in Bradley's last senate campaign he took more money from drug companies than any other candidate in the country.These pharmaceutical giants were not giving to Bill because they were old Knicks fans. They were avid fans of a loophole in the tax code called Section 936, and Senator Bradley, who sat on the tax-writing finance committee, was their chief defender to keep the loophole in play. Section 936 had been passed years ago as an economic development boost for the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, allowing companies that created jobs there to avoid paying taxes on profits they made from their Puerto Rican operations. Fine, but in the 1980s, legal beagles for the drug makers twisted this good intention into a billion-dollar-a-year boondoggle for themselves.Here's the trick. Profits from drug making come from the marketing, development, and research stages, with the actual manufacturing of a pill being an almost inconsequential part of the process. The corporations, however, saw Section 936 as a bird nest on the ground, for it allows them to shift good-paying medicine-manufacturing jobs from workers here in the states to low-wage Puerto Rican workers -- not only pocketing a cheap labor windfall, but also claiming that every dime of the profits they make on the drugs are tax free, since they are "Made in Puerto Rico."The bottom line on this bookkeeping maneuver is that we taxpayers dole out a subsidy of some $70,000 a year to these giants for each and every pill-making job that they move to the island, even though the workers themselves are paid only around $12,000 a year. When senate reformers tried in the 1986 tax bill to stop this rip-off, Bradley defended it with more frenetic energy and sprightly moves than he ever used in guarding Jerry West, and he saved Section 936 for his drug-company contributors.Asked by the Center for Public Integrity about the connection of such campaign contributions to legislative results, Bradley responded: "The assumption that the only reason anyone donates to a political campaign is to Ôbuy access to power' is insulting to those who participate in politics." Bill always did show tail-wagging enthusiasm for corporate executives to participate in politics through him. He performed so consistently in their interests that Investment Dealers' Digest ranked him among "Wall Street's strongest advocates," and the official voice of corporate power, The Wall Street Journal, gushed in 1995 that Bradley was "the most admirable senator of this era."Will the Real Bill Bradley Please Stand Up?Stepping down from the Senate in 1996, he had a new chance to define himself by example, by deciding where and how to apply his abilities and influence. So, where did he go? Did he go to the low-income neighborhoods, perhaps joining Jimmy Carter in building homes for the poor? No. Did he tirelessly tour America speaking out on the issue that he says burns most deeply within him: race in America? No. Did he use his prominence and prestige to lead a grassroots rebellion against the big-money corruption of American government? No again.He went to Wall Street. He joined J.P. Morgan as "vice chairman of the international council" and he also hired on as a consultant to Morgan Guaranty Trust, raking in some $300,000 for services rendered. He talks now of "community" in America, but his own community outreach since quitting the Senate has consisted of crisscrossing America collecting fees for speeches he gives to the likes of Key Corp Bank, Barclays Global Investors, General Mills, National Association of Aluminum Distributors, and Chase Manhattan Bank.Now he's running for president because, he says, "I looked in the mirror and said, I'm ready. I'm really, kind of, at the top of my game." But his game is to be liberal on social issues, be Republican on economic issues, and stay hitched to the money. No doubt Bradley feels for the poor and wishes the middle class well, but he'll never offer anything but band-aids, because to do more requires challenging the corporate structure and the privileges of the rich.Probe even a bit beneath his caring demeanor, and you'll find that he's as solid a corpratist as Al Gore, or for that matter, George W. Bush. He accepts Wall Street's full agenda of globalization that would enthrone corporations and speculators as sovereigns over workers, farmers, the environment ...and governments.For the millions of hard hit working Americans who have been downsized, outsourced, and seen their real incomes fall during the "prosperity" of the Ô90s, he offers the same lame palliatives we hear from Gore and Bush: seek "retraining," learn to "work smarter," and "cross that bridge to the 21st century."On farm issues, he is clueless, mumbling about exports and the "magic of the marketplace." (Harry Truman once said, "No man should ever be president who doesn't understand hogs.")On issues of high-tech, biotech and any other tech, he's as gullible as a hick on his first trip to the state fair, shoving research subsidies at the gabillionaires who run these trendy corporations, supporting their demand for more foreign workers to displace U.S. programmers and engineers, and backing their long list of special breaks.And don't expect him to stand against the mega-mergers that are locking up industry after industry, essentially reconstructing the trusts of old, while they also squeeze out competition, raise prices, reduce service, and fabulously enrich the very CEOs and Wall Street bankers who are putting up the funds for Bradley's run for the White House.Even in his proposals to help the poor and middle class, he takes care to structure them in a way that will not offend his sponsors. Like Clinton, he would run most of his programs through corporations -- an approach that John Kenneth Galbraith once likened to feeding birds by passing the grain through a horse. An example is Bradley's widely-hailed health care proposal, announced in September. First, give him his due -- he deserves high praise for trying to put the issue of universal health coverage back on the table. But the praise stops there, because his idea amounts to a massive, money-sucking subsidy for insurance companies and HMOs. Rather than boldly advocating a single-payer plan that would eliminate the bureaucratic, wasteful, and fraud-ridden insurance middleman, Bradley wants to hook-up every American to these very insurance corporations, letting them control our medical decisions and continue their profiteering at our expense.The Money Trail"I am raising money from ordinary citizens, not from special interest PACs," Bradley has proclaimed, and indeed he (and Gore) are rejecting PAC funds. But before you swallow that "ordinary citizens" line, note that 82 percent of his presidential funds so far have come not from the $25 crowd, but from the big contributors -- a higher percentage of high-dollar checks than even Bush shows! And he has taken more Wall Street money than any other candidate in the race. As a political advisor to wealthy institutional investors notes, "Wall Street likes Bill Bradley. He is a Wall Street kind of Democrat ...the kind of guy corporate executives feel comfortable around."Why wouldn't they find him comfy as an old sweater, since he shares their world view? While he has a sweet concern for the underprivileged, he can absolutely be counted on not to rock the corporate boat.Among Bill's special buddies, actively collecting up bundles of checks for him, are Thomas Labrecque, CEO of Chase Manhattan; Disney's Chief Mousketeer Michael Eisner; Tommy Hilfiger of fashion fame (and a notorious exploiter of third-world sweatshop labor); latte baron Howard Shultz of Starbucks; media mogul Barry Diller; John Bryan, CEO of Sara Lee (another sweatshop exploiter and a big backer of extending NAFTA to the Caribbean and Central America, where he makes clothing), and book-chain czar Leonard Riggo of Barnes & Noble.This is the people's champion? Yes, Bill Bradley is smart. Yes, he's serious-minded. Yes, he's a decent and caring human being. Yes, he's got a jump shot and can run the pick and roll -- but, no, he won't take on the economic elites who are trampling America's workaday majority.