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By Timothy Noah
Jon Corzine’s testimony before the House agriculture committee may mark the definitive end to the Democratic party’s love affair with Wall Street.
Once upon a time, Wall Street bankers were Republicans. Not terribly ideological, they preferred whenever possible a minimum of taxation, regulation, and government in general, but they didn’t make a fetish of it. As the GOP moved right starting in the mid-1960s the east coast Republican establishment began to crumble, and by the late 1980s it was mostly gone. These silk stocking conservatives had been driven out of the Republican party by a social agenda that frightened them, a budget deficit that threatened their livelihoods, and a base that increasingly viewed moderates as RINOs (“Republicans In Name Only”).
By the early 1990s Wall Street was ready to go Democratic. In his new book, Back To Work, former President Bill Clinton writes,
“For every person on Wall Street who resembles the character Michael Douglas played in the Wall Street movies, there are many others who give lots of money every year to increase educational and economic opportunities for poor kids and inner-city entrepreneurs.
“Most of these people are grateful for their success and know that because of current economic circumstances, they’re in the best position to contribute to solving our long-term debt problem and to making the investments necessary to restore our economic vitality. Many of them supported me when I raised their taxes in 1993, because I didn’t attack them for their success. I simply asked them, as the primary beneficiaries of the 1980s growth and tax cuts, to help us balance our budget and invest in our future by creating more jobs and higher incomes for other people.”
In crafting his first budget bill, Clinton was mindful of the bond market to such a degree that James Carville famously complained, “I used to think that if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the President or the Pope or as a .400 basball hitter. But now I would like to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody.”
The Wall Street-Democratic Party love affair came out of the shadows and into the sunlight when Robert Rubin, former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs, became Treasury secretary. The economy was booming, the budget deficit was disappearing, and all was right with the world. The romance deepened through most of the aughts, so much so that in 2010 Rich Lowry of National Review complained, “the Democratic majority was bought and paid for by Wall Street and corporate money.” In 2008 the finance sector actually gave more to the Democrats than to the Republicans, something that hadn’t happened since 1990.
It all started to come apart in the late aughts as Democrats realized that Rubin’s distaste for financial regulation (and that of his deputy and successor, Larry Summers, which was more pronounced) had contributed to the 2008 financial meltdown, in part because Rubin and Summers had outmaneuvered Brooksley Born, chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, when she wanted to regulate derivatives. Summers (who wasn’t from Wall Street but was a Rubin acolyte) became director of the National Economic Council during President Barack Obama’s first two years in office and the economy floundered. That deepened the alienation between Democrats and Wall Street.
Passage of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law drove the lovebirds further apart as Wall Street enlisted Republican goons first to weaken the bill (and succeeded in many instances) and then to neuter it by pressuring federal agencies to write regulations that created as little accountability as possible.