Economy

Dem Party Disaster: Subservience to Wall St. Is Destroying Its Foundations

It's about politicians from both parties insuring their re-elections, says Harper's Magazine publisher.

In this web extra, John R. MacArthur, president and publisher of Harper’s Magazine, talks to Bill about an obscure provision attached to the $1.1 trillion dollar spending bill passed by Congress this week. A section on “other matters” on page 1,599 of the spending bill would dramatically increase the amount of money that wealthy political donors could give to political parties.

MacArthur calls the provision “incumbency insurance” adding that “the two parties are most interested in getting themselves and their regular members re-elected and this is a way to prevent competition.”

MacArthur also talks about the serious fallout from politicians protecting Wall Street, his views on a Clinton-Bush rematch and the “most hopeful” moment he saw in politics this year.

Producer: Gina Kim. Editor: Sikay Tang. Segment Producer: Rob Booth. Archival credits: AP Images.

BILL MOYERS:
Let’s begin with the news of the week. For me, the news of the week is that Congress passed a trillion dollar omnibus bill this week that contains an obscure provision on page 1,599, that would enable just one donor to contribute over $750,000 to the party committees each year. What does that say to you, that they could get a provision like that sneaked through a big bill like this that fundamentally further alters our political dynamic?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR:
The long and the short of it is that the press is asleep. That’s one thing. But that it’s incumbency insurance. The two parties are most interested in getting themselves and their members, their regular members, re-elected, and this is a way to prevent competition.

The Republican Party notably is threatened by tea party challenges by Dave Brat’s upset of Eric Cantor. They want to make it easier for incumbent Republicans who are reliable, who will toe the party line to be able to beat back challenges. And that means raising more money from people with interests in Washington.

BILL MOYERS:
And the Democratic Party is threatened by–

JOHN R. MACARTHUR:
The Democratic Party is also very interested in that, because they don’t want primary challenges any more than Republicans do. You think that the Wall Street Democrats like Schumer and Gillibrand want to be challenged by left wing or progressive Democrats who are unhappy with their pro-business, pro-Wall Street votes and policies?

They’re– that’s terrible. It’s a matter of internal party control. You don’t want competition. These are closed shops, the two parties. And when somebody gets in like Elizabeth Warren, who for a long time did not have the official backing of the official Democratic Party, and then she became too strong on her own to stop. She’s a troublemaker. They don’t want troublemakers like Elizabeth Warren in the caucus. And you see what’s happening–

BILL MOYERS:
And this is one way to keep the rich people from–

JOHN R. MACARTHUR:
Right.

BILL MOYERS:
–donating to her.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR:
Right. If you make it easier for rich people to give to the incumbent, to give more money to the incumbent, it makes it harder for a challenger or a primary challenger to challenge the incumbent. And so it’s insurance. It’s insurance. And it’s also in keeping with Barack Obama’s terrible, terrible decision to renounce public financing in the 2008 campaign.

His rival, John McCain who was the co-sponsor of McCain-Feingold, the only decent public financing law we’ve ever had respected it. Obama said, I can raise more money outside the public financing system from Goldman Sachs, from all the big banks, from Morgan Stanley, from the corporations, from the PACs, and so on and so forth. And he fundraised McCain to death. He out-fundraised him. And McCain stuck to his principles and was drowned in a sea of money. Now, there were other reasons Obama won.

BILL MOYERS:
Right.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR:
It’s not just money, obviously. The country was in crisis, people were scared, they didn’t want another Republican. But Obama helped kill public financing of campaigns. He set a very bad example in 2008.

BILL MOYERS:
This provision would almost guarantee that a relative handful of very wealthy people would be picking the candidates with their money who would run in the primary and therefore determining the candidates in the general election.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR:
Yes, although I still believe that the parties exercise tremendous power over what we call in Chicago slating.

BILL MOYERS:
Slating?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR:
Yeah, in Chicago you call it slating. You slate people. And to be slated, you still need the support of the official Democratic Party, the central committee as it were, or the central committee of the Republican Party. And these people are not interested in reform. They’re interested in things staying the same. And you see it again and again when an incumbent or, I’m sorry, a more reform-minded independent gets into the Senate. My favorite example, Jim Webb, got elected in 2006.

BILL MOYERS:
To the Senate for Virginia.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR:
To the Senate from Virginia as a Democrat on a wave of anti-war sentiment and disgust with George Bush, with President George Bush. This is a guy who went from right to left. It’s very unusual in American politics, Webb’s story.

And Webb tried to introduce a windfall profits tax on corporations that had borrowed money from the government in 2009. He was discouraged very clearly by the Senate leadership, the Democratic leadership, not to do it, which was in the majority. And he said, I’m going to do it anyway. He introduced the bill on the Senate floor. And Kirsten Gillibrand, the Senator from New York, or you might say, the Senator from Wall Street, the junior senator from Wall Street, ran over–

BILL MOYERS:
Chuck Schumer being the–

JOHN R. MACARTHUR:
Chuck Schumer being the senior senator, ran over to the desk and yelled at him, screamed at him. How dare you do this. How dare you do this without getting the permission of the caucus. And then the bill was snuffed by Senator Dodd, as chairman of the banking committee. These people don’t want independent voices in the party. And they don’t want to threaten their fundraising base. Dodd, Schumer, Gillibrand, these are people who think every day about how to raise money for the Democratic Party and for the incumbents who run it.

BILL MOYERS:
Bruce Bartlett wrote a cover story for The American Conservative magazine not long ago in which he said Obama is, and this a Republican writing, Obama a Republican, a moderate Republican, as we used to judge them when President Eisenhower was in office. But here is a Republican, conservative economist saying that Barack Obama governs as a Republican.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR:
As a Republican, he’s not a progressive or a liberal Republican in the old-fashioned sense.

The thing with Obama is he says the, occasionally will say, the right thing. And then he immediately goes and does the wrong thing, like with public financing of campaigns. But where I’m just astonished is things like Glass-Steagall. Glass-Steagall was repealed in 1999 with the help of Bill Clinton, of course, and his economic advisors like Robert Rubin, and it led to the collapse of the economy in 2008.

There’s been a bill introduced two sessions in a row by John McCain and Maria Cantwell, bipartisan, to restore Glass-Steagall. Why doesn’t it get out of the banking committee? Because the Democratic Party doesn’t want it to come out of the banking committee. They don’t want to threaten their fundraising base, which is Wall Street. Just as much as the Republicans have a fundraising base in Wall Street, the Democrats are just as dependent on that money, just as interested in protecting it.

In fact, McCain and Cantwell now have other co-sponsors. They have Elizabeth Warren. And they have Angus King, the independent senator from Maine. It’s going nowhere. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next session. But I don’t expect to see Barack Obama encouraging bipartisan cooperation on the restoration of Glass-Steagall.

BILL MOYERS:
You chided The New York Times recently for promoting the inevitability of Hillary Clinton’s nomination as the next democratic candidate for president. Do you think she’s inevitable?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR:
I hope not. I would, just as a citizen, not just, forget about my political opinions, I’m opposed to stasis in politics.

BILL MOYERS:
Stasis?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR:
You know, the absolute freezing of political discourse, where you have the same people running for office over and over again. I mean, we’re talking, really, right now about a Clinton-Bush rematch, Hilary Clinton against Jeb Bush. So just as a civic matter, you would want there to be some competition in the primaries. But people saying that she’s inevitable becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy. If you keep saying it, well, I guess it does become inevitable.

And then you’ve got Clintonism redux. You’ve got Clintonism. You’ve got free trade. You’ve got Wall-Street-friendly Democrats. You’ve got this unholy alliance between the Chicago Democratic machine and the eastern banking crowd, which has been funding these campaigns. You got all these people pushing them up and rewarding them for their bad behavior. I still, I cannot believe that Obama would appoint Larry Summers to his cabinet, that he would ask his advice about anything.

BILL MOYERS:
He probably would’ve appointed him Fed chairman.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR:
And he would’ve if he could’ve. He tried, he tried.

BILL MOYERS:
That was one time that progressives–

JOHN R. MACARTHUR:
Yeah, yeah. Stopped him.

BILL MOYERS:
Stopped him, right.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR:
I interviewed Larry Summers for my NAFTA book. And he said to me, there is one free trade element to NAFTA which we don’t talk about. Americans can now dump, American factory farms can dump corn on the Mexican market with no tariffs. This has driven hundreds of thousands of little Mexican corn farmers off the land, driven them north, where they can work in the maquiladoras assembling things that used to be assembled in the United States. And I asked Summers, “What– is that a good thing?”

And he goes, “How can it be a bad thing? I’m giving workers, we’re giving workers a choice.” They can, in other words, they can starve on the farm in Mexico, or they can work in a maquiladora for $1, $1.80 an hour and in Mexico. They have the same attitude towards American workers. They’re not worried about their pain. And they say, “Well, he has a choice. He can go to work in a fast food restaurant. He can work at Wal-Mart. He can work in a prison.” For a considerably lower wage, that’s true. But he thinks that just fine in the long run.

You see that they view these things as successful. We see them, or at least I see them, as bad for the country. But they want to, they want to build on their success and continue with the same horses, the same politicians. The most hopeful thing I’ve seen in the last year in politics is the upset of Eric Cantor by Dave Brat.

BILL MOYERS:
Eric Cantor was the Republican leader in the House.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR:
In the House. The Republican leader in the House who had a well-financed incumbent’s dream of a campaign war chest. And here comes Brat with no money, I think with a couple hundred thousand dollars, and an idea. It’s not my idea, but it’s an idea. And he wins. He can beat the big money. And why the Democrats don’t do this, why disaffected liberal or leftwing or progressive Democrats, whatever you want to call them, don’t do this, I cannot understand.

I ask people, rhetorically, what’s the worst Supreme Court decision over the last 10 years? Probably most people would say Citizen’s United, which has just absolutely unleashed the power of money and plutocracy in this country. Who’s the engineer behind this decision? Chief Justice Roberts. Who let Roberts through the gate? Senator Pat Leahy, when he was on the judiciary committee. One day he was leading–

BILL MOYERS:
Democrat from Vermont–

JOHN R. MACARTHUR:
Democrat from Vermont. He was leading the charge against Roberts, and all of a sudden one day he says, “Well, I’ve decided that Roberts is a man of integrity and I’m going to vote for him.” And that let it out of the committee. It was a majority con– it was Republican-controlled at that point, but if Leahy had really fought it, he could’ve stopped it, I think.

He lets it go through. Roberts makes one of the, pushes one of, or engineers, one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in our lifetimes. And what happens to Leahy? Nothing. Nobody challenges him in the primary. Nobody tries to punish him. Believe me, in Chicago, in my hometown, when Richard M. Daley, who was so angry that the city council forced this big-box minimum wage increase, bill, on him, vetoes it. He doesn’t just veto it, right? He waits and he waits, and the next time there are alderman elections, most of the people who voted for the big-box minimum wage suddenly found themselves with well-financed and sometimes quite articulate opponents for the first times in their political careers. That’s Daley. That’s the way politics works in Chicago. I don’t understand why people don’t learn that in the rest of the country. You punish these people, or at least you challenge them for bad decisions.

BILL MOYERS:
But, so what was behind that other bold cover story where you have Adolph Reed, the political scientist writing about, quote, “Nothing Left: The long, slow, surrender of American liberals?” You’re taking liberals and progressives to task for not standing up and fighting–

JOHN R. MACARTHUR:
Yeah. Well, this is–

BILL MOYERS:
The way Daley does?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR:
This is my– yeah, the way you’re supposed to fight in politics. You’ve got to fight in politics if you want to win. Everybody in politics knows that, but in the liberal world that I live in people think, “Oh, my goodness. How can we oppose Barack Obama? He’s the first black president. He’s the first president who sounds like me, who talks like me, who went to the same sort of schools that I went to,” in some respects.

“Sociologically, he’s much closer to me than any working-class person or left-wing person, and we just can’t undermine him. We can’t undermine him.” This was the problem with the black caucus. You know, the black caucus is very unhappy in the House, the Democratic black caucus, very unhappy with Obama, because he’s done, they feel, very little for black people. The Washington Post reported on this. This is not news. So the liberals at other magazines that I read faithfully and that I subscribe to, constantly make excuses for Obama.

“What about the Affordable Care Act? What about the speech in Cairo? What about this, what about that?” But on the big issues, and again, if you want to talk about the Affordable Care Act, I have real problems with it. But on the bigger issues, like income inequality, foreign policy, taxation, these are the key, the big money issues. As Marcy Kaptur used to say to me, the congresswoman from Ohio, she said, “They didn’t want me on the Ways and Means Committee,” because she was very anti-NAFTA. “That’s the money committee!” You know, anyway, these people don’t want to, or my liberal colleagues, don’t want to offend a party establishment that doesn’t care about the working class.

But it’s on the Affordable Care Act that it gets sensitive, because even though it’s a rank imitation of RomneyCare in Massachusetts it’s not original, it’s not radical. As we know, it’s not universal. It’s obviously not single-payer. It doesn’t address prescription drug prices, which they took off the table from the beginning. I told you this before, I grew up in a health insurance family. I know all about the health insurance racket. To leave health insurance in the hands of private health insurance companies is just unconscionable, in my mind, when you had an opportunity to really reform the system and make it essentially Medicare for everybody, with maybe some exceptions.

But the insurance lobby, of course, the insurance companies are delighted with Obamacare. A lot of free subsidized policies, paid for by the government. They don’t have to break a sweat to sell them. And their friends in Congress, like Max Baucus, who wrote the bill, by the way, with help from an executive, a former executive of WellPoint Insurance, they think it’s great. It’s also a great fundraising tool. The insurance companies give money to both parties. They give it to the Democrats now. And Max Baucus is now ambassador to China, overseeing the cheap labor goldmine in China.

BILL MOYERS:
Adolph Reed wrote that left lives only on the outer fringes of American politics. Is he right?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR:
Well, for now, the left is utterly marginalized. That’s why I wrote a column recently for the Providence Journal about this, that The New York Times, by saying Hillary Clinton is inevitable– is it’s a way of marginalizing the left. It’s assuming the left doesn’t exist, that the left can be taken for granted. And maybe they’re right. Maybe the left can be taken for granted because they don’t fight back.

BILL MOYERS:
So who is the left?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR:
It’s getting complicated because, you know, you see all sorts of interesting things happening. The tea party, yes, there’s some crazy rhetoric coming out of the tea party. But one thing the tea party people, some of them, have in common with the old left that I am interested in is a suspicion of the big money. They’re very anti-Wall Street. They’re the ones who stopped the first bank bailout, you know? Remember? They had to–

BILL MOYERS:
Oh, I do remember.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR:
When Bush is still president, they have to pass this emergency bailout, and the Republicans revolted in the House and said, “We’re not going to, we’re not going to do this.” Then, of course, they whipped ‘em, as they say in Congress, and they pulled in all their favors, and they finally passed it. But there should’ve been punishment for the people who did this to the country. The people who deregulated the economy, who repealed Glass-Steagall. And what Webb and others point out is there’s been no punishment. There have been no consequences for the people who did this.

Bill Moyers is the managing editor of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com.

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