If left-labor-liberal progressives had the cohesion and muscle of their right-wing opposites, they would be articulating a simple-to-understand litmus test for the Democratic Party–no “Enron Democrats” on the presidential ticket in 2004. That precondition would eliminate a number of presidential wannabes now mentioned by the Washington media’s Great Mentioner. Scratch Senator Joe Lieberman. Forget the happy talk about Senate majority leader Tom Daschle’s running for the White House. And Senator Joe Biden can stop daydreaming. These men–and perhaps some other would-be candidates–do not pass the Enron smell test.
It is not that Enron Democrats got a lot of money themselves from the now-ruined energy company, but they are implicated in more significant ways. On various matters, they helped set the stage for the scandalous behavior of Enron and other highfliers now in disgrace. They defended the degraded accounting standards that hoodwinked investors. Or they promoted financial gimmicks and deregulatory measures that opened the way for grand malpractice. Or they formed thick alliances with the very banks, auditing firms and corporations that are now running for cover–sued, investigated or defrocked as New Economy marvels.
Enron Democrats are compromised by their own past behavior, which explains why the Democratic Party’s reaction to this spectacle is so muted. Much as in the S&L scandals of the late 1980s, an unspoken truce may emerge between the two parties–don’t throw mud at me or I’ll throw some back–since so many leading Democrats are implicated along with the Republicans. The hallmark of “Enron issues” is the ease with which Democrats desert the interests of their party’s core constituencies to serve the political needs of business and banking. Some doubtless do so as a matter of conviction; some doubtless are convinced by the money.
Apostasy is a safe vote for Democrats, at least on financial issues that are obscure and complicated. Rank-and-file voters cannot connect the dots in order to recognize the betrayal; Republicans cannot attack them for their pro-banker votes. And labor-liberal groups–the valiant people who actively oppose these business-banking “reforms” in the legislative arena–will not attack either. This is because the Democrats always offer a billboard agenda at election time–a few important “people issues” like healthcare, Social Security, the environment–to draw a sharp contrast with the wicked Republicans. Other complaints are silenced, especially less familiar ones. Disappointed activists, from organized labor to consumer, civil rights and women’s groups, swallow their anger and fall into line. Unlike the right, progressives feel too weak or scattered to propose their own litmus test, much less enforce it.
Enron Democrats understand this. They are masters at stroking their discontented constituencies while voting against them on bedrock economic issues. The Enron storm, among other revelations, illustrates the inconstancy of the Democratic Party or, as some say more simply, its loss of soul.
Labor and consumer lobbyists felt a chill in early March when Senate majority leader Tom Daschle announced his intention to get “a strong bankruptcy bill out of conference and on the President’s desk within four weeks, so the bill can be signed before we go home for the Easter recess.” Bankruptcy “reform” is of a different order from Enron fraud or loophole bookkeeping by Arthur Andersen, but it emanates from the same political sources and is, likewise, hideously one-sided in its impact on ordinary citizens. The legislation was written by major banks and the credit-card industry, wishing to tighten the screws on debt-soaked families. No one doubts this measure will make life even more miserable for the people maxed out on their credit cards and on the brink of Chapter 7. Daschle’s statement meant the Democratic leader thinks it is now safe to enact the bankers’ bill. Last year, a record 1,492,000 Americans filed for bankruptcy protection, but now the recession is over, isn’t it?