By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor
Sometimes it’s easier and far more effective to just begin with a quote:
“Corporations are not people. People have hearts, they have kids, they get jobs, they get sick, they cry, they dance. They live, they love, and they die. And that matters…because we don't run this country for corporations, we run it for people.”
No this wasn’t independent challenger Ralph Nader speaking in a loose, unguarded moment in 2000 or 2004. No, this isn’t a dusty old quote from labor leftist Walter Reuther in the 1930s or presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972, nor did I pry it from one of my thousand books on contemporary political history.
Those were the earnest words of Elizabeth Warren at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte in front of thousands of Democratic delegates and visitors. Warren is a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts and challenger to incumbent Republican Scott Brown. The next day, emails and press packets from liberal and progressive organizations proudly touted Warren’s words as an eloquent and potent indictment of Republican economic thinking and of the capitalist business model in general.
In an email from the progressive political action group Move On sent to millions of inboxes, Daniel Mintz said “Elizabeth has a way of putting into words exactly what we, as progressives, believe in.”
There’s only one problem: that little paragraph, wildly popular with the partisans in Charlotte, contains as hopelessly a muddled mishmash of Marxist-Leninist nonsense ever spouted before a large audience—including the millions watching on television—since the 1960s. Corporations are not people?
Aside from the little grammatical flourish in the last sentence, perhaps in fact the most revealing phrase—“because we don’t run this country for corporations, we run it for people”—Warren seeks to fuse populist anger at the recession with a hard left-of-center world view, at once anti-business and anti-profit.
So let’s start at the end: “Because we don’t run this country for corporations, we run it for people.” Who is that we that she refers to? And why suggest that at the core of the democratic processes there are heroes among the political classes required to run it? Such language tips her hand to the others watching closely at the card table. Despite her verbal attachments to a quiet populist rage, this is elitism, pure and simple. This is Warren’s way of saying that people are powerless—or at least incomplete, unwitting buffoons—and in need of careful shepherding by smart politicians (like her) to run things properly and fairly. The “we run it for the people” turn of words exposes Warren as a political apparatchik—eloquent and graceful though she is—hopelessly attached to an antiquated Marxist template of top-down governance. People can’t be trusted to run things for themselves; it takes savvy, smart people placed in powerful posts to protect the people against their own potential follies and misjudgments.
Now, let’s meander back to the beginning. “Corporations are not people,” she says with a straight face, and with no trace of irony, nor a hint of facetiousness. If this was intended as serious talk, and not a genteel version of Michael Moore, her words are pure anti-business street corner drivel, and the sort of rhetoric one associates with the legendary radicals of an age long past—John L. Lewis, Norman Thomas, Gus Hall and Angela Davis.
Of course corporations are people: they are made up of hundreds and in some cases thousands of individuals—people who have kids, people who get sick, people who dance. And if not for the success of those corporations—some large, many medium or small—there would be few jobs in cities like Charlotte, host town for the Democratic National Convention. Nor would there be new jobs in Tampa, nor in Boston, nor in Atlanta, nor in Denver, nor in any of the other cities or towns where businesses make their homes.
We can spend an hour dissecting Warren’s words. But the real point is larger. Warren was echoing the words of a substantial number of Democrats who spoke at the convention, orators who took up a sometimes stridently anti-business, anti-corporate position—a stance once thought to be largely secondary in the Party of Clinton, so-named for the man who returned electoral success for the Democratic Party. Of all of Bill Clinton’s achievements, his biggest legacy is that he was the first Democrat since the end of World War II to have won a second term in his own right.
As president, Clinton achieved this largely through a concerted effort to shed the Democratic Party of its framework of extreme leftist dogma—especially the sometimes stridently anti-business, anti-growth conversation which had driven the party of FDR and Lyndon Johnson into the margins during the Reagan-Bush-Quayle years. Clinton and other realists (Al Gore, Lloyd Bentsen and Sam Nunn) sought to move the party of Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern back toward the center. This was a Herculean task during the high-water years of Reagan’s popularity, as well as the early successes of George H.W. Bush, but Clinton found his opportunity in the wake of the elder Bush’s economic mishaps and broken tax pledge.
Once elected, Clinton saw that it was easier and smarter to forge working relationships with the corporate world in order to create the symbiosis between government and business required to bring about full employment and improving incomes. Economically, the early Clinton years dovetailed nicely with the last years of the Reagan Boom, punctuated only briefly by the (mild) Bush recession. This also allowed Clinton to shrewdly co-opt the best parts of the Reagan economy while leaving the Bush missteps behind.
Politically, this offered Clinton the best of all worlds—center-left adaptability on social issues, a healthy, growth-oriented relationship with business, and strategic gains in the electoral math (though it had the odd effect of pushing leftists and progressives into the margins, thus opening the door to the left-of-center challenge by Ralph Nader in 2000 and again in 2004; see, The Power to Reward Versus the Power to Punish, August 5, 2012).
In short, Clinton re-invented Reagan’s economic success story—only with even better results. Indeed, some political historians credit Clinton’s stewardship over the 1990s market growth and stability as the key reason for the ease of his re-election in 1996 when he was challenged by the one man most feared by Democrats in those days, Senator Bob Dole. Clinton’s political success was so substantial with the center that he was able to emerge largely undamaged by the scandal surrounding his affair with Monica Lewinsky and managed, incredibly, to make the GOP look like the ogres in the process. Only the hollow language and poor campaign strategy of the Al Gore-Joe Lieberman ticket in 2000 could have brought an end to the new electoral template established by Clinton.
So where did the centrist party of Bill Clinton go? In the current language of the campaign, Mitt Romney seeks to rightly keep the narrative focused on the economy, and will ask, as often as the venues permit, are you better off than you were four years ago? When it comes to job creation and business growth, the answer comes back no. This has pushed President Obama off his 2008 themes of conciliation, optimism and post-partisanship, and nudged him squarely into what Senator Marco Rubio has called “divide and conquer,” a process of hammering a wedge between the “rich” and the “poor,” even if those distinctions seem largely meaningless in an economy with such excruciatingly high levels of unemployment.
Bill Clinton was therefore a necessary set piece for the Democrats who gathered in Charlotte last week. His speech was the best of the whole convention, and proved that his natural talent for pure political skill makes him the only serious challenger to Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan among 20th Century presidents and presidential contenders. But, more importantly, Clinton was there to help mitigate the danger inherent in a Democratic Party pulling up one of most crucial centrist stakes—that of a healthy interaction between the interests of business and the function of government.
In that dual dynamic, despite what Elizabeth Warren thinks, government should play the supporting role.
In the meantime the distractions for Romney continue unabated. Romney’s missteps and pratfalls seem so frequent (in truth, they have been largely overstated and amplified by media sharks who sense blood in the waters), that even some Republicans are running in the opposite direction. This is unfortunate for the millions of Americans who may still seek a coherent venue in which to make an informed decision before November arrives.
The two parties and their two candidates do in fact offer a real choice, despite the sometimes empty phrases and the silly sideshow antics. And at the moment the economy ought to be that singular issue. For indeed, businesses are people…people with jobs, people with paychecks, people with a return to stability in their lives.