This campaign season, President Barack Obama has run across the country – often on the taxpayer’s dime – to rail against the privileged station of the wealthy. It is Obama and the Democrats who will cut down on the power of the elite and restore the egalitarian ideals of the country’s founding. This is why tax hikes on the wealthy are needed, and why the GOP's efforts to cut the corporate tax rate must be opposed.
Or so the claims go. In reality, the gap between what Obama and the Democrats say on the stump and what they do in office is greater than what separates the Pittsburgh Steelers from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Like ancient civilizations, both sides in our political debate have mythologies that explain who they are, where they came from, and what the other side is all about. The liberal myth centers on the concept of egalitarianism: The Democratic party is of the people, and the Republican party is of special interests.
This has been an enduring element of the Democratic catechism for centuries. In his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, William Jennings Bryan said, “The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.” In his 1948 Democratic nomination address, for instance, Harry Truman assailed the Republicans as “the party of special interest, and it always has been and always will be.” This rhetoric sounds familiar to our modern ears, as Democrats regularly repeat these nostrums on the stump.
Yet this myth conceals so much of the decidedly anti-egalitarian history of the Democratic party. After all, this is a party that traces its roots not only to Andrew Jackson’s fight for the common man, but also to many of the corrupt urban machines of the 19th century, not to mention the Jim Crow regime of the South. These inconvenient truths mean that Democratic attacks against Republican perfidy always rang a little false throughout history. As Bryan and Truman were railing against the GOP for being the party of privilege, both were happy to maintain the licenses enjoyed by the segregationist South. (Truman's hypocrisy on civil rights was especially noteworthy, as he worked hard behinds the scenes in the 1948 convention to kill a civil rights plank modeled after his own commission's proposals!)
Today, the old South is gone and the urban machines have all but disappeared, but Democratic leaders are still playing a double game – attacking the GOP as the party of special interests while happily cutting deals with any influence peddlers willing to deal back. And most recently, we have witnessed a plot twist in the long-running soap opera of Democratic hypocrisy. Nowadays, Democrats are working with interests long viewed as in the pockets of the GOP: big businesses, professional associations, and of course mega-banks.
For years Democrats have denounced the GOP for being in hock to the pharmaceutical industry, which is why the Republicans always blocked the reimportation of drugs from Canada. But have you noticed that Democrats do not talk about Canadian drugs anymore? That is because the White House cut a deal with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturer’s Association during the drafting of Obamacare, one that kept the reimportation ban alive.
Or take the Buffett Rule, a classic case of Democratic misdirection. The party is promoting this merely symbolic change to the tax code, one that will have no material effect on the deficit whatsoever, for the sake of “fairness.” But the party’s major pieces of legislation from the 2009-2010 congressional session were festooned with special goodies for the very wealthy whom the Buffett Rule is meant to tax. The most egregious example of this was the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, which ultimately enshrined “too big to fail.”
For the big bankers, dealing with the Democrats is a net win: Why not agree to slightly higher tax rates if the government is going to favor you over your competitors? It sure beats dealing with the irascible Tea Party, which is quite enthusiastic about cutting the big banks down to size. And anyway, if the Democrats were really serious about hiking taxes on the wealthy, why didn’t they do it when they had a filibuster-proof majority in Congress? Why wait until now, when there is no chance of passing anything like the Buffett Rule?
The reason: Democrats do not actually want to burden the wealthy, who are now regular contributors to their campaigns; they just want the issue to run against the Republicans.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. There are scores of smaller, seemingly quotidian deals that are too boring to make the news, but add up to an unavoidable conclusion: The Democratic party is at least as dependent upon and responsive to the needs of the privileged and wealthy as the Republican party. While Democrats preen about GOP favoritism in front of the cameras, they are ready, willing, and able to cut the very same deals behind closed doors.
Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.