by Jim Naureckas
Reviewing The Family, a history of the owners of the New York Times, veteran Times reporter John L. Hess (Extra!, 1–2/00) summarized the book’s account of how dynasty founder Adolph Ochs was able to purchase the paper in 1896:
How did Ochs, a virtual bankrupt from Chattanooga, persuade Wall Street to set him up with the moribund New York Times? Answer: The financiers were anxious to keep the paper alive as a Democratic voice against the populist Democratic candidate for president, William Jennings Bryan, who was stirring the masses with that speech about the Cross of Gold. Ochs bought a fine new suit, set up a fake bank account as reference, and persuaded J.P. Morgan and others to bankroll the purchase. His paper promptly pilloried Bryan, and Ochs marched with his staff in a businessmen’s parade against him.
It’s striking how more than a century later, the Times still plays the same role in Democratic politics—defending the party’s Big Money wing against populist encroachments. (See, e.g., FAIR.org, 7/29/13, 11/27/16, 6/23/17, 7/6/17.) But rarely has the paper’s pleading on behalf of elite interests in the Democratic Party been as frenetic as it has lately.
Last week, the paper published an op-ed by Douglas Schoen, “Why Democrats Need Wall Street” (10/18/17). Who is Douglas Schoen, you might ask? He’s billed by the Times as having been “a pollster and senior political adviser to President Bill Clinton from 1994 to 2000.” More relevantly to the current century, he’s a corporate PR consultant who works for the likes of Walmart, AT&T, Time Warner, Procter & Gamble and GlaxoSmithKline.
He has a side career as a commentator for mostly right-wing outlets like Fox News, Forbes and Newsmax, where his nominal relationship to the Democrats mostly serves to bolster his credibility when he attacks them—as in a series of columns he co-wrote in 2010–11 urging Barack Obama to step aside in favor of Hillary Clinton, only to declare in 2016 (The Hill, 10/31/16) that “I am not able, under the circumstances we are now facing, to vote for Secretary Clinton” (the circumstances being that “emails potentially pertinent to the Clinton probe had been found on Anthony Weiner’s computer”).
Nevertheless, with no warning label, the Times presented Schoen’s advice to Democratic Party:
If the party is going to have any chance of returning to its position of influence and appeal, Democrats need to work with Wall Street to push policies that create jobs, heal divisions and stimulate the American economy.
Aside from making the obvious point that Wall Street has a lot of money and will give the Democrats some if they make themselves useful, Schoen’s argument is dubious. “Despite what the Democratic left says, America is a center-right, pro-capitalist nation,” he declares, citing polling that 60 percent in the US still have a positive view of capitalism, with socialism viewed favorably by only 35 percent—as if only socialists want politicians to stand up to Wall Street. He ignores polls showing that up to 76 percent want the rich to pay higher taxes.
Schoen credits his one-time boss Bill Clinton with having “balanced the budget, acknowledged the limits of government” and “moving the party away from a reflexive anti–Wall Street posture.” Following that, he notes that “as the party has left behind that version of liberalism, it has also found its way to its weakest electoral position — nationally and at the state level — since the 1920s.”
Schoen prefaces this contrast with “memories in politics are short.” He must be counting on that, actually, because the point makes no sense if you remember that Clinton’s shift to the right also devastated the Democrats electorally—barely less of a disaster than the Obama era:
Presenting one of these eras as a golden age and the other as a time of torment is disingenuous, to say the least. But the bigger problem is the premise that Obama (and Hillary Clinton) represent a break from Bill Clinton’s Wall Street–friendly liberalism. Was it the failure to prosecute anyone for the massive fraud that brought down the US economy that demonstrated Obama’s hostility to Wall Street? Or his allowing a CitiGroup executive to vet his Cabinet picks? Perhaps it was when he swiftly pocketed a $400,000 honorarium from Cantor Fitzgerald upon leaving office.
But there’s a conspicuous up-is-down quality to Schoen’s plea for maintaining the Democratic Party’s ties to Wall Street. He even goes so far as to credit Bill Clinton with “adding wealth to the retirement accounts and other investment portfolios of millions of middle-class Americans” by signing the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999—better known as the repeal of Glass-Steagall, a deregulatory move that is justly blamed for setting the stage for the financial collapse of 2008 (In These Times, 10/9/15).
But Schoen wasn’t the only one using the New York Times to try to chase Democrats away from progressive ideas. There was also “Why ‘Medicare for All’ Will Sink the Democrats” by Steven Rattner (10/25/17), an investment banker who contributes regularly to the Times op-ed page despite having personally paid $16 million to settle charges that he took part in a kickback scheme involving New York state pension funds.
Rattner accuses Sen. Bernie Sanders of being “a senatorial pied piper for Democrats,” enticing the party “into positions that are both bad politics and dubious policy.” While it may seem like “sweeping progressive ideas — however unrealistic they may be — might capture the public imagination,” what you really want are “carefully constructed proposals of centrists”—what Rattner calls “people-centric initiatives like improving education, providing more training and retraining and increasing worker mobility.” This is the “better shoes for musical chairs players” platform—policies that don’t offer any benefits to the working class, but promise that some will have a chance to escape it (New York, 6/30/16).
Like Schoen, Rattner suffers from historical amnesia—or hopes you do. As evidence that Medicare for All is “an idea that has historically been a political graveyard,” he offers, “Remember Hillarycare?” I do—I remember that it was an idea cooked up by the biggest insurance companies to maintain for-profit health insurance, in explicit rejection of a single-payer system (Extra!, 1–2/94). As an example of how “the Sanders approach” of “sweeping progressive ideas — however unrealistic they may be” has historically failed, Rattner points to “Michael Dukakis in 1988″—despite Dukakis having been the Platonic ideal of “carefully constructed proposals of centrists” (Extra!, 9/92). (“This election is not about ideology,” the technocrat Dukakis told the 1988 Democratic convention, “it’s about competence.”)
Also like Schoen, Rattner provides a heavy dose of redbaiting, insisting:
Our model of democratic capitalism has stood us well for more than two centuries; now is not the time to embrace the kinds of ideas, often involving deep government economic intervention, that have often fallen short elsewhere, notably in much of Europe.
“In much of Europe” is a great phrase, evoking the Iron Curtain while at the same time insinuating that progressive Democrats threaten to emulate the nightmare of Scandinavia.
The Times‘ regular columnists have been beating the move-to-the-right drum at the Democrats lately as well. Putative liberal Frank Bruni (9/30/17) claims that the prospects of Democrats embracing single-payer healthcare and free public college tuition “make some GOP leaders’ hearts go pitter-patter,” presenting this potential shift as a reason “for Republicans not to tremble in the face of the pendulum’s potential swing” in the 2018 midterms.
“I think Democrats are making a huge, huge, huge mistake,” Bruni quotes one Republican leader, who presumably adds the two extra adjectives to emphasize just how bad it would be for his party if Democrats took his not-at-all disingenuous advice and failed to “move too far left.”
Speaking of disingenuous, one of the Times‘ bounty of #NeverTrump conservative columnists, Ross Douthat (10/21/17), suggested (after urging the Democrats to move right on social issues) that the party should “choose Bill-Clintonian economics over single-payer flirtations, to expand their recent gains among the culturally libertarian and fiscally conservative.”
Here’s the graph—one I’ve talked about before (FAIR.org, 6/20/17)—that explains why you don’t want to be taking advice from Ross Douthat on Democratic Party politics:
These are 2016 voters—blue dots represents Hillary Clinton voters, red dots Trump—plotted by how socially (up/down) and economically (right/left) progressive they are. Most Clinton voters (the blue lower left) were socially and economically progressive; most Trump voters (the red upper right) were conservative on both dimensions.
See the largely empty quarter, where there’s hardly any voters at all? That’s the “culturally libertarian and fiscally conservative” electorate for whom Douthat suggests Democrats should reject Medicare for All. Also, you should throw Brer Rabbit in the briar patch—he’d hate that.
In fact, elections are won and lost in the upper left corner—where you see a mix of Clinton and Trump voters. These are people with conservative cultural instincts but progressive economic sympathies. Republicans can’t reach them by playing down their conservative economic policies, because that would turn off their conservative base—but they can attract them by stressing their socially conservative values, as Trump successfully did in 2016, with his attacks on immigration, reproductive freedom and gun control. Contrariwise, Democrats can’t win them over by becoming more conservative on social issues, as that would alienate their base—but they can appeal to them by moving to the left on economic issues.
The political logic is obvious—which is why the New York Times feels compelled, over and over again, to deny it.