December 15, 2014

Last week Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) warned that “the House of Representatives is about to show us the worst of government for the rich and powerful.” They promptly did, and the Senate quickly followed suit. We are now at greater risk of another derivatives-based financial crisis, and billionaires and corporations now have even more influence over the two party’s entrenched establishments.

The “CRomnibus” spectacle was a return to the showdown days of past years, with another phony “drama” ginned up around a “must-pass” bill in order to serve up a “compromise” – a “bipartisan” one, of course – that serves the interests of corporations and wealthy individuals.

But hold the cynicism, because all is not yet lost. “A few more such victories and we are undone,” the Greek general Pyrrhus supposedly said. But we’re looking at the opposite situation: A few more losses like this, and we might be getting somewhere.


It was certainly a strange spectacle: A president who’s largely been detached from the legislative process, reborn as an LBJ-like arm twister in order to pass a bill weakening one of the landmark achievements of his tenure. As President Obama and White House appointees called legislators on their cell phones urging them to support the deal that weakened Dodd-Frank financial regulations, they were joined in their efforts by the CEO of one of the most fraud-ridden and scandal-plagued banks in modern history.

When the boss calls, you’re supposed to listen. That is presumably why Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase added his voice to that of the president and vice president of the United States.

Predictably, most House Republicans fell in line. So did 57 Democrats. A smart analysis by Philip Bump of the Washington Post shows that these House Democrats received, on average, twice as much money from financial interests as those voting “no.”

(Okay, a little cynicism is understandable.)

I said this deal would be a “disaster” if it passed, and it is. An important fight was lost. But the good news is this: There was a fight, and it was a tough one.

Democratic Dissidents

It’s undeniably true that the Republicans back this deal’s servile provisions for the wealthy and powerful because it’s “who they are.”

But who, exactly, are the Democrats? Are they represented by a president who once again insists that a pro-corporate deal is the best we can expect, or by the revitalized populist wing that showed up in force for this battle? The rank and file would certainly be energized by a more populist party. So, according to the polls, would independents – and even some Republicans. But many more elected Democrats will have to switch sides and join the progressive tide if the party’s direction is to change.

That’s why battles like these offer reasons for long-term optimism amid the short-term disappointment: They force politicians on both sides of the aisle to choose sides. The more that happens, the more popular pressure will shift the political debate.

Yes, there were disappointments is this battle – major ones. But, for the first time in a while, there were some pleasant surprises too.

Surprise #1: It was expected that Sen. Warren would put up a fierce and well-fought fight. But she exceeded expectations with the force and clarity of her argument, the power of her leadership, and her willingness to name names. Her December 12 Senate floor speech is a must-watch for dispirited populists everywhere, especially for her willingness to call out both Citigroup (whose lobbyists wrote the bank-giveaway provision in this deal) and the past two Democratic administrations (for the extraordinary number of Citigroup executives they’ve appointed).

Surprise #2: A number of other Democrats – frankly, far more than we expected – showed up for the fight. We expected senators like Warren, Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) to make a stand. But so did 18 others, including Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). Even Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who once chastised President Obama for criticizing hedge funds, voted against the “CRomnibus” deal.

In the House, we also expected leaders like Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) and Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) to stand up. But Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), perhaps reinvigorated by a newly resurgent populist spirit, fought back, too. She defied the White House, rallied the troops, and nearly carried the day against powerful forces.

The Next Battle

There will be many more chances for the Democrats to define themselves in the weeks, months and years to come. The next opportunity will probably come when the Senate votes on the president’s nomination of yet another Wall Street banker, Antonio Weiss, to serve as deputy Treasury secretary for domestic finance.

The vehemence that Wall Street and its allies have shown toward opponents of the Weiss nomination has been illuminating, revealing both a profound shortsightedness and a persistent noblesse oblige. Most of Weiss’ public backers seem genuinely shocked that anyone might think Wall Streeters are not a superior breed, or that their willingness to take a government post – no matter how ultimately self-serving it might be for them and their industry – would be met with anything except unquestioning gratitude.

Leading the charge for Weiss from the media side is Andrew Ross Sorkin, who edits the New York Times “Dealbook” website. While we may have been the first to respond to Sorkin, others rose to the task brilliantly as Sorkin doubled down on his efforts and other Wall Street advocates joined him.

One of the elements that most of Weiss’ defenders share, besides emotionality, is a failure to address the broader issues raised by Warren and other opponents. Critics of the nomination point out that Wall Street’s perspective has dominated economic decision-making in government in recent decades, to the exclusion of others of equal or greater value. This has, in turn, led to some poor decision-making.

“Why can’t we have a consumer advocate as undersecretary for domestic finance?” asked former senior official (and Republican) Sheila Bair, reasonably enough. Simon Johnson, former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, wrote that Weiss has “no known relevant qualifications or experience” for the position.

Graham Goes Crackers

On both Weiss and the swaps push-out rule, Wall Street’s defenders quickly returned to a familiar playbook: isolate a “ringleader” (in this case Warren), marginalize her as “extremist,” and then characterize her as emotional and irrational. That was Sorkin’s strategy, and it was also deployed by Wall Street supporters like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

“Don’t follow her lead,” Graham said of Warren. “She’s the problem.”

As with all such entreaties, senators were urged to believe that acquiescing to threats and voting for big-money interests was the “mature” thing to do. “If you follow the lead of the senator of Massachusetts and bring this bill down,” said Graham, “ … people are not going to believe you are mature enough to run the place.”

Washington is long-acquainted with the spectacle of privileged insiders huffing with rage at the impertinence of upstarts. But it must be said that Lindsey Graham brought a special histrionic flair all his own to the effort, reaching an emotional crescendo when he described this billionaire-friendly agreement, not as a political failure, but as a success.

“Welcome to democracy,” Graham concluded without apparent irony.

If Cronyism Fails, Who Wins?

But this time the game isn’t working. As with the “CRomnibus” deal, the Weiss appointment is triggering defections from the corporate consensus. Six key senators have now expressed their opposition to the nomination, including Franken, Sanders, Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza says that Pelosi and Warren “lost the battle on the spending bill. But, they may have won the wider war – or at least scored a tactical victory that puts her and the party’s liberal wing in a stronger position come the 114th Congress.”

“I just want our Democrats to feel strong enough to fight,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), “not to cave in, not to be influenced or intimidated.” Waters added that Democrats will be “putting up a strong fight and getting ready for next year.”

Let’s hope so. The Democrats should see every lost vote – especially those votes lost to low turnout – as an opportunity. What’s more, not every battle will be lost. Progressives nearly defeated this deal in the House. Next time, perhaps they will. Either way, they are hopefully now a force to be reckoned with.

Their party lost this year because too many of its members are seen as ciphers in suits – or pantsuits – with no will to fight for the American majority. “Not as bad as those guys” is not a rallying cry that will get voters to the polls or volunteers into the field.

Too many Democrats seem to have preferred the paths of co-option or preemptive surrender to those of challenge and confrontation. As a result, their party is no longer widely seen as the party that will challenge corporate interests on behalf of the beleaguered majority.

This could be, as the old line goes, the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Poor and middle-class Americans need champions who can be seen fighting for them on a daily basis. Democrats need an agenda that will win them broader support and enthusiasm.

But this will only come to pass if more elected officials are willing to put up a brave fight before they lose – and to keep doing it until they win.

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