In 1992, a 44-year-old attorney made the following remarkable assertion: "For goodness' sake, you can't be a lawyer if you don't represent banks."
The attorney was Hillary Clinton. She made the statement to journalists during her husband's first campaign for president. Her legal representation of a shady savings and loan bank while working at a top corporate law firm in Arkansas (and her firm's relations with then-governor Bill Clinton) had erupted briefly into a campaign controversy.
Mainstream pundits rarely mentioned Hillary Clinton's extraordinary statement about lawyers and banks. Instead, they obsessed over and immortalized a remark she made minutes later – her feminist appeal: "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was pursue my profession."
Members of elite media didn't make an issue of Clinton's bank comment probably because it set off no alarm bells. It sounded right to them, non-controversial, almost a truism.
Having been an attorney briefly myself, my reaction upon hearing her comment was: "I know nearly a hundred lawyers, but not one represents a bank." My lawyer friends worked for unions, tenants, immigrants, indigent criminal defendants, civil liberties, civil rights, battered women, prisoners on death row, " (Which explains why I wasn't a great fit in corporate media.)
I've never forgotten Clinton's remark about representing banks because it tells us much about her worldview – both then and now that she's even more embedded in the corporate elite (and had Rupert Murdoch host one of her senate fundraising events).
More importantly, Clinton's comment speaks to the decline of the Democratic Party as a force that identifies with the broad public, those who often get stepped on by big banks and unbridled greed. Her remark is an apt credo for a party leadership that has spent the last quarter-century serving corporate power (through Wall Street deregulation, media deregulation, NAFTA-style trade pacts, etc.) as persistently as it spews out empty rhetoric about "the needs of working families."
Back then, it was a minor controversy that Hillary Clinton had represented a shifty S&L. Today's Democratic elite evince inextricable ties to far more powerful interests – Wall Street, big pharma, giant insurers and other pillars of the corporate one percent.
The problem is much broader than Hillary Clinton, extending to Team Obama that promised hope and change on the campaign trail, including a break from Clintonite insider coziness. Once in office, Obama chose:
- three successive White House chiefs of staff who'd made fortunes in the financial industry: Rahm Emanuel (amassed $16 million within a couple years of exiting the Clinton White House), William Daley (JPMorgan Chase) and Jacob Lew (Citigroup/now U.S. Treasury Secretary).
- Wall Streeters to dominate his economic team, including Clintonites like Larry Summers as chief economic advisor and Peter Orszag as budget director.
- Monsanto executives and lobbyists for influential food and agriculture posts.
- a corporate healthcare executive to preside over healthcare "reform," while allowing pharmaceutical lobbyists to obstruct cost controls.
- an industry-connected nuclear power and fracking enthusiast as Secretary of Energy.
- two successive chairs of the Federal Communications Commission who've largely served corporate interests, including former lobbyist Tom Wheeler now undermining Net Neutrality.
In 2007, candidate Obama had taken on Hillary Clinton with campaign rhetoric like "I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists in Washington that their days of setting the agenda are over." The day after his inauguration, he promised to "close the revolving door that lets lobbyists come into government freely."
Despite the long-forgotten oratory, Obama recently appointed superstar lobbyist Wheeler as his FCC chair, who promptly pushed a Net Neutrality proposal undercutting an open Internet.
Wheeler was top lobbyist for not one but two industries (cable TV and cell phone) regulated by the FCC – "the only person inducted into both the cable industry hall of fame and the telecom hall of fame," according to columnist Juan Gonzalez.
If you staff your administration with corporatists, many of those individuals will ultimately opt to exit the White House to make more money working directly for big business.
In the book "This Town" – an insider's account of the permanent members of The Club in D.C. who oversee the corporate state whether Democrats or Republicans hold power – journalist Mark Leibovich tracks Obama grads who moved to greener pastures. For example, Obama budget director Orszag predictably took a high-level job at Citigroup. Leibovich also mentions:
ANITA DUNN – a key 2008 campaign strategist and then White House Communications Director who assisted Michelle Obama's anti-obesity campaign. After exiting the White House, she became a consultant for food companies working "to block restrictions on commercials for sugary foods targeting children." Dunn went on to consult for TransCanada in its push for approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.
JAKE SIEWERT – he left his job as a top Treasury Department official to become head of global communications for Goldman Sachs, the bailed-out-firm central to the financial meltdown. (Before the Goldman job was announced, Politico had suggested Siewert might take the helm of the purportedly progressive Center for American Progress.)
GEOFF MORRELL – chief spokesperson for Defense Secretary Robert Gates under both George W. Bush and Obama. He left that job a year after the BP oil spill in the Gulf and became head of communications for BP America. As Leibovich writes: "Bloomberg News would later report that BP's Pentagon contracts more than doubled in the two years after it caused the biggest spill in U.S. history."
Two realizations must be faced.
First: Whether Republicans or corporate Democrats control the White House, economic elites largely control policy – and it's this corporate power and corruption that threatens the economic and environmental future of our country and planet.
Second: Despite gains on issues like gay rights and pot legalization, the trend since the 1980s has been economic/environmental decline alongside the solidification of corporate power and economic inequality – a long-term downward trend that has persisted through the Bill Clinton and Obama years, though at a slower rate than with the GOP in the White House.
The only way to reverse this dangerous trend is to tell the truth about and challenge corporate Democrats – including Clintonites and Obamaites – whenever and wherever feasible.
As much as I'd like to see a woman president (I have two daughters), a good place for that challenge to happen would be through a progressive candidate taking on Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries, if she runs. That challenger might be a Bernie Sanders or someone else.
Without that battle and many others, the corporatization of the Democratic Party and our government will continue to threaten all our futures.
As candidate Obama said in 2008: "The greatest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result."
Today, trying the same old Democratic players is a risk we cannot afford.