CRONY CAPITALISM: Wisconsin Democrats and especially Mary Burke have to get out in front on this now, or else. | WisCommunity

CRONY CAPITALISM: Wisconsin Democrats and especially Mary Burke have to get out in front on this now, or else.

Where do Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), many Democratic Party leaders and voters, the entire "occupy" movement and a fast-growing base of political conservatives find almost unanimous ground? There's really only one issue right now that defines such cross-partisan political agreement: crony capitalism.

A new poll by Pew Reserach Center for the People and the Press finds that 62% of Americans think the nation's economic system unfairly favors the powerful, and that 78% agree with the statement that too much power is concentrated in too few companies.

According to the Pew survey, those agreeing with the above positions are no longer primarily composed of progressives, Democratic voters and Warren supporters. Also in agreement: 69% of young, conservative-leaning voters along with 48% of the most conservative voters. [See URL below to read the survey results in more detail]

Reporting on this trend, a Washington Post dispatch said that given her outspoken support for strongly regulating the financial industry, student-loan reform, and other issues, Sen. Warren may look like an outlier within Congress, but "the Pew survey suggests that the vast majority of Americans are at least open to her underlying premise."

The message to Democrats based on all of this should be quite clear: At all costs, push hard against corrosive corporate influence and unfairness in our economy and in our elections, humanizing the problem wherever possible. Otherwise, almost everyone on the political right except for "business Republicans" will flank you, take away the issue and eat your lunch.

Wisconsin Democrats and the Burke campaign seem to have decided that the major issue in this fall's statewide elections will be jobs and the economy. Fair enough. But, so far, the more specific, background issue of crony capitalism -- upon which Scott Walker is clearly vulnerable -- has not emerged with the same force. 

Walker is not only vulnerable because of his policies, which have been highly profitable for businesses in general and corporations in particular, at the expense of most everyone else. He's vulnerable because corporate influence clearly has driven much of his political agenda. He's raised record tens of millions in out-of-state campaign money from corporations and special-interest conservative groups backed, for instance, by the billionaire Koch brothers.

Democratic strategists may find it uncomfortable in a high-spending election to risk upsetting their party's well-heeled backers in the business and financial community in order to head in the above direction. Biting that hand that feeds you is any politician's toughest challenge. Making the task even harder is that Burke, a millionaire, reportedly has upset some national Democratic strategists by her refusal -- unlike millionaires Herb Kohl or Ron Johnson -- to mostly or fully fund her own campaign. Thus, in order to keep up with Walker's tens of millions of dollars in direct and indirect business support, the Burke campaign may have to depend, like Walker, on the national business community and its super PACs to help level the playing field.

If so, that's a very good reason why Burke should make corporate influence an issue. Walker won't mind being cynical in attacking her reliance on business support, so why not get out on front on that issue and take it away from him? Absent a highly successful people's crusade and a massive grass-roots campaign -- which, by the way, aren't out of the question -- she'll need to depend on some of that somewhat unwholesome corporate and third-party support.

That's the way Republicans and the Supreme Court's conservative majority like it. Democrats historically are the party of campaign finance regulation, but the system has now devolved into a terribly permissive norm, and politicians like Walker are taking advantage. Democrats should play up this bad state of affairs that has skewed our elections, and pledge to do everything they can to reform the system if elected. Fundamentally, that's what now should define the difference between the two major parties. Crony capitalism is a big part of the issue, and a growing body of voters is ready to hear solutions.

As corollary, Burke can also focus on how Walker in his elected career has worked hard to corporatize, privatize, politicize and centralize Milwaukee County government, municipal governments across the state, and state government itself, at the cost of efficiency and transparency. Such focus would be especially resonant coming from Burke, who has high-end experience running a successful business and a large state agency. Some things the private sector can do best, but other things should be left to the public sector. Much of the shrinking of state government has been accomplished by outsourcing its duties to often more shadowy and more expensive private contractors -- some of whom clearly are poliitical cronies.

Regardless of what the Democrats decide to say and do about all this, it's unlikely Walker for his own part would be able if even willing to go on any kind of rant at all about crony capitalism when -- and we don't need John Doe investigations to know this -- his entire political strategy is built upon taking advantage of that very cronyism. Wisconsin under Walker purportedly is "open for business," but the reality is that the state increasingly has been closed not only to significant job creation but also in many aspects to ordinary citizens. Those closures include the prime symbol of our government, the state Capitol building, which was all but off limits for a time to public voices: free speech and red-carpet access for secret campaign behemoths, but curtailed speech and reduced autonomy for individual Wisconsin citizens and local communities. The contrasts are quite stark, and fit right into the cronyism narrative.

Bear in mind that while he cannot with any degree of believability campaign against corporate cronyism, Walker very likely will continue to run on a fake, rebranded version of that argument. He'll no doubt continue as he has in the past to paint public servants including school teachers, janitors, professors, prison guards and other government civil servants and their labor unions as well-heeled, underperforming, Democratic cronies. Still, in the Burke-Walker contest, state Democrats will have the field to themselves when it comes to talking about real crony capitalism.

True, the issue might resonant better in national elections for Congress and the presidency. Nevertheless, it would be foolish of Wisconsin Democrats to let themselves be hemmed in by a conservative end-around. For one thing, the gubneratorial, state legislative and judicial races clearly have been skewed by crony capitalism. For another, beyond the Pew findings is growing anecdotal evidence painting a complementary picture of business leaders who think the system has gone askew -- just ask billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who has more and more peer support for the idea that wealth distribution is way out of whack.

Arguably, hearing Mary Burke raise those concerns might further sway some of those already swaying conservative voters. Walker and company already are demonizing Burke for her background in business and state government, but that's precisely why she needs to play offense on this issue, rather than defense.

So, where do liberals and conservatives still disagree on economics? According to the Pew survey: "Views of government aid to the poor are much more polarized along partisan lines than attitudes about the fairness of the economic system. Groups on the right overwhelmingly believe government aid to the poor does more harm than good, while those on the left say it has a positive impact." The study continues:

Wide majorities of Steadfast Conservatives (86%) and Business Conservatives (77%) say poor people have it easy; they are joined in this view by 81% of the Republican-leaning Young Outsiders. By contrast, 86% of Solid Liberals think the poor have hard lives and that benefits don’t go far enough to help them live decently; 71% of Hard-Pressed Skeptics agree. Smaller majorities of the Faith and Family Left (62%) and the Next Generation Left (54%) also say this.

There is a similar pattern in opinions about why a person is poor: Overall, 50% say it is more often because of circumstances beyond an individual’s control; 39% think a lack of effort is more to blame. Majorities of Steadfast Conservatives (61%), Business Conservatives (58%) and Young Outsiders (56%) say a lack of effort is more often to blame for why a person is poor... . However, majorities of two typology groups – Hard-Pressed Skeptics and Solid Liberals – reject the American ideal that hard work is all it takes to succeed.

Conscientious Democrats will not let those persistently negative attitudes deter them from discussing the real and growing effects of poverty and upward wealth redistribution. Indeed, as more and more middle-class voters lose ground economically, laying out the issue and saying what you'll do to fix it is going to become the default requirement for successful campaigners.

And in doing that, Democrats should be tough on their own party, not just on Republicans.

Building an early coalition on this fast-moving issue is not only vital, but also will very much be a case of lead, follow or get out of the way. Democrats should get started now, before Republicans gain further unwarranted traction by continuing to project the faults of their own misguided economic policies onto the loyal opposition.


June 29, 2014 - 3:23pm