Jun 24, 2012 5:04 PM GMT
Its dominant interest groups have done to Obama what they did to Carter.
In the wake of Gov. Scott Walker's victory in the Wisconsin recall election, Democrats are blaming their loss on Republican-friendly super PACs and the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United. The thinking goes that moneyed interests far outspent the Democrats, bought the election, and undermined democracy.
This analysis is misguided. Liberal Democrats who fancy themselves reformers should take a long, hard look at their own party before pointing fingers at the Supreme Court. When they do, they might see it has fallen far from its lofty claims to be the "party of the people."
The first progressive Democrats hated the role of narrow interests in their own party. At the turn of the last century, early liberal leaders such as William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson were embarrassed by Tammany Hall, the amoral political machine that ran New York City. Both tried unsuccessfully to break the back of the "Tiger," as Tammany was known.
President Franklin Roosevelt would succeed decades later by working behind the scenes to install Fiorello La Guardia (a Republican who supported the New Deal) as mayor in 1934. Yet even while he was destroying Tammany Hall, FDR imported its political methodology to Washington, D.C. His New Deal used federal regulatory power and money to fight the Great Depression, but also to build a permanent Democratic majority.
The president made sure that supportive urban machines got enormous sums for patronage jobs and programs, and poured cash into the segregationist South via agricultural support payments while excluding tenant farmers from Social Security for a time and dragging his feet on civil rights. And of course, he created a variety of special privileges including monopolistic bargaining rights for organized labor. The federal government long had a relatively modest "spoils system," but the New Deal took matters to an entirely different level.
Roosevelt's successors continued to pay off existing clients while bringing new ones into the mix. By the 1970s the party added the environmentalist left, the feminist movement, government unions, trial lawyers and others to its coalition. By the 1990s, big business, long considered to be a client of the GOP, also purchased a major stake. All of these groups joined the Democratic Party because of special privileges they received from it, and in exchange they provided cash for campaign ads, volunteers for get-out-the-vote efforts, and support to members of Congress through lobbying networks.
For a long while, Democrats managed to balance the needs of their clients with the public interest, much like FDR had done during the New Deal. Eventually there were just too many special interests to do both. The party was like a juggler who added one too many balls to the routine, only to see them all come crashing down.
The unceasing demands of the clients ultimately destroyed the Carter administration, as organized labor and the civil-rights lobby opposed and thwarted every effort to reform government spending and control inflation. It nearly did the same to Bill Clinton, attempting to stymie the North American Free Trade Agreement and load up various reform proposals with pork that alienated moderate voters. Ironically, the administration was saved by the 1994 midterms, which swept the Democratic congressional majorities and their clients out of power, paving the way for Mr. Clinton to sign welfare reform in 1996.
Unlike Presidents Carter and Clinton, President Obama has not even tried to check the special interests that now dominate his party. There is no better example than ObamaCare, in particular the deal the president cut with the pharmaceutical lobby. Democrats had railed for years about how the drug manufacturers bent the 2002 Medicare prescription drug program toward their own ends, by using their clout to keep the government from negotiating lower drug prices and to maintain a ban on reimporting their drugs from Canada. On the stump, they promised to cut the drug makers down to size by allowing cheaper Canadian drugs to be reimported into the U.S.
But during the 2008 campaign, the pharmaceutical industry contributed some $8 million to Democratic candidates, nearly twice what it had donated to them in 2004, and gave more than $1 million to Mr. Obama alone. In 2009 it spent almost $200 million to lobby Congress and the White House for a special carve-out on the health-care bill. It worked: The legislation did not lift the reimportation ban, and Democrats nowadays no longer talk about it.