Someone tell Michelle Rhee that Dan Malloy just isn’t that into her

Disgraced former DC schools chief Michelle Rhee is on a quixotic search to pretend she’s a Democrat in good standing, despite her pursuit of taking away workers’ rights and helping Republican governors bust teachers unions. In her Washington Post op-ed on how real Democrats support her education prioritization strategy, which reads like a Joe Lieberman op-ed arguing that real Democrats support endless war, Rhee offers up an example of how Democratic governors have worked with her on education issues.

Increasingly, those who staunchly side with unions at any cost appear to be in the minority, while more Democrats are saying we have to look at education differently. In Connecticut, Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) pushed through a law bringing more accountability into schools over early and strong union objections.

Gee Michelle, that sounds really impressive! Except, oh um, this statement from Malloy’s Senior Communications Adviser Roy Occhiogrosso:

“As much as the governor respects people’s rights to be a part of the education dialogue, Ms. Rhee has at times been a divisive figure. And the governor is determined to try and have this discussion about education reform in a way that’s not divisive.”

Governor Malloy actually worked with the teachers’ unions on education reform, not Rhee, who as you can see above, from whom he has publicly distanced himself.

There’s certainly a question about where the Democratic Party stands when it comes to supporting workers’ rights. There are certainly some elected officials like Rahm Emanuel, Andrew Cuomo and Arne Duncan who support Rhee’s brand of union busting. But there are also a lot of Democrats who still stand up for workers’ rights, including the rights of public teachers. For Rhee to say that the Democratic Party is squarely in her camp is an overstatement. But to say Dan Malloy is with her is an outright lie.

An accurate use of the word “cynicism” in politics

Matt Taibbi, in a highly enjoyable Q&A with the Village Voice about Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, makes the rare move of accurately using the word “cynicism” to describe its appearance in American politics:

I think a lot of what Occupy is is disappointed idealism. A lot of the people who thought, in Hunter terms, that Obama was the “Great Shark” who was going to come and right all the wrongs. And then they realized that he was very much, for all his good qualities, a conventional Democratic party politician, and all the negatives that that comes with. I think people were extremely disappointed, and that’s why they’re all out on the streets right now. There’s a tremendous cynicism embedded in mainstream American politics right now, where people who are in Washington and live on Capitol Hill really don’t think they have any obligation to be truly honest. They think that everything is a compromise. They’ve lost touch with what people actually want. And they really do want somebody who is idealistic.

This is an accurate description of why it is Barack Obama, not his left critics, who are cynical.

Those non-populist Democrats

Jonathan Martin of Politico asks:

What the hell ever happened to populism in the Democratic Party?

It was never there in the first place, at least not since the DLC grabbed control of the party in the 1980s. Bill Clinton was no populist. Al Gore was no populist. John Kerry was no populist (though at least he wasn’t a DLCer). Barack Obama has never been a populist and has explicitly positioned himself as independent of such passions.

Martin’s piece was surely conceived as a vehicle for hippie punching, but it is quite accurate in its descriptions of how far away the Democratic Party is from anything resembling populism. On the contrary, Martin notes that, “It is virtually impossible to be a successful national Democrat without relying heavily on business interests, including the financial industry, for campaign funds.” Martin finds support for this from numerous elected officials, as well as President Obama in his book, “The Audacity of Hope.”

“When I decided to run for the Senate, I found myself spending time with people of means,” wrote the then-senator. “As a rule, they were smart, interesting people, expecting nothing more than a hearing of their opinions in exchange for their checks. But they reflected, almost uniformly, the perspectives of their class. I became more like the wealthy donors I met, in the sense that I spent more time above the fray, outside the world of hardship of the people that I had entered public life to serve.”

Is there a fix to this? I think Howard Dean is right in terms of what it would take to move Democratic politicians who have become culturally and financially aligned with the 1% to reconsider populism.

The last Democrat to truly tap into mass anger — though about war, not economics — said the campaign finance system desperately needs fixing to rein in the power of business but fretted that only a crisis may prompt reform.

“It may even take another banking collapse before that gets fixed,” said Howard Dean, the 2004 presidential candidate and former Democratic National Committee chairman.

But Dean is wrong that the outcome of another financial collapse should be a restructuring of campaign finance laws. That’s putting the cart before the horse and is a functional non sequitor to the idea of another financial crisis. While another crisis would surely have been abetted by Wall Street lobbying and money in politics leading to relaxed regulation and law enforcement, the proximate response to such a crisis should be first focused on the financial crisis! Only after breaking up the Too Big To Fail banks and strictly re-regulating finance would campaign finance reform be possible.

Additionally, a return to populism won’t look like current elected officials like President Obama suddenly embracing the idea of holding their Wall Street pals accountable for doing unpleasant things like destroying the trillions in housing wealth. Instead a new crisis would have to usher in new politicians who fundamentally see value in holding financial elites accountable for their destructive behavior.

Losing for campaigning like a Democrat

Rick Perlstein has a very good article in Rolling Stone about the failures of the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election. I think there are a lot of overlapping dimensions to the loss and Perlstein lays out a number of them in the piece. One of the more important aspects, though, is the tendency for Democrats to embrace pro-corporation/anti-worker politicians and policies even when it’s obvious how unappealing to the public those are. The Clinton/Obama epoch has produced some truly horrible representations of what the alternative to the GOP looks like and it’s not shocking that many voters find this unappealing. People aren’t looking for civility and the quiet transfer of wealth to elites, they’re looking for people who will fight for their jobs and their futures.

Wisconsin Aftermath

I’ll be honest, after the labor-backed candidate for governor in Wisconsin lost the Democratic primary in a recall election that was happening because of an assault on workers’ rights and public sector unions, I paid significantly less attention to the race. And even before that, once the choice was made by labor unions and Democratic operatives to turn away from direct action and popular protest following the occupation of the capitol in Madison, and instead focus energy on Democratic electoral gains, I was turned off from this fight. Don’t get me wrong – I still wanted Walker to lose. Now I’m hoping that he gets indicted and soon.

But last night’s elections reveal a number of really big problems. Looking at the final results, with Walker winning by around 7%, there are incredibly disturbing numbers that pop out of the exit polling. 36% of union households voted for Walker.
17% of Obama supporters voted for Walker. Unions, despite being overwhelmingly Democratic, map fairly well onto the partisan divide and it isn’t shocking that over a third of union households voted for a Republican, though it is depressing. But Obama supporters voting for Walker? That’s pretty terrifying if you believe that Democrats support workers’ rights and labor should be allied with the Democratic Party.

Of course it also isn’t surprising that a President who hasn’t done anything to aid labor – no effort on Employee Free Choice, no meaningful effort to improve the NLRB or get good rules out of it – would attract people who vote for a union-busting Republican.

There’s a big problem when the biggest argument in an election is “Defeat the bad guy,” with no compelling vision for how the Democratic candidate is going to affect change. Even had Barrett won, he wouldn’t have been able to reverse Walker’s union-busting legislation, as the Republican still control the state Assembly. The only demonstrable gain that would have happened would have been a cessation of Walker’s union-busting agenda. Evidently that was not compelling enough for all Obama supporters or union households to vote for Barrett.

The volume of outside case also played a role in the outcome. Walker outspent Barrett by around 8:1 and there was tens of millions of dollars in outside spending benefiting Walker. That’s certainly a tough environment to win in, but I don’t think it was in itself determinative. The bad dynamics, the lack of a way for the election to change, the establishment candidate who wasn’t backed by labor, the fact that Barrett had lost to Walker less than two years ago…these all added to the reasoning for the loss. There will be many post-mortems today. I’m really sorry for the people of Wisconsin, especially those who worked for the last 18 months to stop Scott Walker. But perhaps trying to elect more Democrats wasn’t the answer needing to emerge from the occupation of the capitol in Madison.

Democratic Message Discipline

Democratic Party message discipline, as exemplified by defenses on Bain Capital and private equity.

President Bill Clinton

Cory Booker

Ed Rendell

Deval Patrick

Harold Ford Jr.

Let’s be clear. While these high level Democrats – most of whom are currently or have been in the past top-level surrogates for President Obama – are saying something different from the President’s re-election campaign, this is not an example of a lack of message discipline. Or rather, the lack of discipline is coming from the Obama campaign. These Democrats, as leading elected and former elected officials, know that private equity is a crucial piece of the funding infrastructure for the Democratic Party. These gentlemen will not bite the hand that feeds them. The Obama campaign is breaking with what is clearly the party’s orthodoxy on private equity and it isn’t even doing so that convincingly. But it has been enough to shake out the party stalwarts, even the Big Dog himself, to say that Obama is wrong and Bain is good and proper. It’s pretty sickening to watch.

The absence of a desire for strong regulators

Matt Stoller, writing at Naked Capitalism, has a really important observation about the two political parties and their shared lack of desire to have strong regulators looking at the banking sector.

The hearing was about District Court Judge Jed Rakoff’s refusal to sustain the Citigroup settlement with the SEC.  What was interesting about it, from a political standpoint, is that all three witnesses, including the witness brought in by the Democrats, opposed Rakoff’s move and supported the SEC’s position.  And one of the top Democrats on the committee, Carolyn Maloney, gave a long-winded opening statement in which she basically took the position that forcing an admission of wrongdoing was just too hard.  In other words, many high-level Democratic politicians, for all their gnashing of teeth about the need for regulation, aren’t being truthful.  They don’t want regulation, they want to be seen as wanting regulation.  And the Republicans, while they want to be seen as the party against regulation, are actually quite happy having regulators they can work with, regulators who protect the banks from state or local level action.

The argument over regulation or deregulation, in some sense, misses the point.  We need regulation, obviously.  But we also need strongly principled regulators.  And neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney has any appetite for that.

Stoller’s observation is important in that it crystallizes the sentiment of both parties being captured by Wall Street in an operationally specific way. And in Stoller’s telling, it’s hard to not come away with the impression that the Democrats are a good deal more cynical than the Republicans on the issue of regulation.