Democrats Attack “Business,” “Trade”

Or so says The Wall Street Journal on page one

Wary Wall Street Journal watchers on the lookout for signs that Rupert Murdoch’s pro-corporate agenda will creep into the Journal’s news pages will find one in Saturday’s lead story” “Democrats’ Attacks On Business Heat Up.”

I don’t know whether Murdoch’s pro-big-business leanings are working on top editors’ heads, but I do find the story overplayed and not especially well handled.

First, it’s a mistake to conflate anti-corporate rhetoric with “attacks on business,” as the headline does. Attacking the largest business actors is not to attack business. Small business makes up half of non-farm Gross Domestic Product; Who in their right mind attacks business, anyway?
Democrats are really attacking big corporations, which sounds a lot different because it is a lot different.

Second, the Journal calls their rhetoric “antitrade,” when it’s really anti-Nafta.

…Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have ratcheted up their antitrade, anticorporate rhetoric.


Wisconsin offers a test for the antitrade rhetoric…

It is actually possible to be both pro-trade and against some aspects or even all of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a treaty the size of a phone book. Who in the world is “antitrade”? The same people who are attacking “business.” Nobody.

Why not say “anti-Nafta,” if you have to simplify?

And how hot is the rhetoric anyway?

Clinton is certainly quoted as saying anticorporate things:

On Friday, Mrs. Clinton began airing a TV spot in Wisconsin in which she says, “The oil companies, the drug companies, have had seven years of a president who stands up for them…. It’s time we had a president who stands up for all of you.”

Not particularly radical, but at least it can be fairly described as anticorporate.

Obama, on the other hand, is quoted as offering scathing criticism of Nafta, but that’s not the same as criticizing corporations, as the Journal says he has. Some may wish Obama would engage in anticorporate rhetoric, and some may fear it, but the Journal offers no evidence that he actually has.

Indeed, at times it seems the reporters had to scrounge to find evidence that, as the story says, the Democrats “have ratcheted up their antitrade, anticorporate rhetoric.”

Here’s a quote from Obama:

”That’s why we need a president who will listen to Main Street, not just Wall Street, a president who will stand with workers not just when it’s easy, but when it’s hard,” he said.

That’s not especially radical or for that matter even anti-Wall Street.

Or, and here’s one from Clinton:

In Cincinnati Friday, Mrs. Clinton described herself as the “candidate of, from and for the middle class of America” to a roundtable of voters in Cincinnati.

How is that even anti-corporate?

While we’re at it, I think the Journal and other media outlets should think twice before assigning the name “populist” to candidates holding views to the left-of-center, that is to say, favoring stronger regulation of the financial services industry, for instance, or rewriting the Nafta.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), one undecided superdelegate, won election in 2006 with a populist message and said he is pleased that the presidential candidates are now following suit. “They were both a bit slow to get there, but they both have genuine beliefs about the middle class and working families and they’re going exactly in the right direction,” he said.

Yes, populism is a catchall term that can mean “the people” versus “the elites,” but it has no real definition, it’s by no means a phenomenon found only on the left, and it’s loaded with negative associations including, it’s fair to say, “unsophisticated” and even “anti-market.”

I don’t think Brown would describe his views as populist, and I don’t think they are. He’s an anti-Nafta liberal. That’s closer, in any case, than “populist.”

But, for the sake of argument, let’s concede the story’s premise that the Democrats’ rhetoric is anticorporate and has been heating up.

In that case, here’s another story idea. Given that we are in the midst of a full-blown financial panic, the second in less than a decade, I find it equally if not more newsworthy that the two remaining Republicans are calling for further de-regulation.
Now that’s news.

McCain is here quoted in the New York Times on February 5:

And, my friends, I have specific proposals to address our economic challenges. We will be coming out with more specific proposals, and they will be based not on big-government intervention, and not on raising your taxes, not on increasing government regulation but unleashing the forces of the free market and capitalism.

And Huckabee famously wants to put the Internal Revenue Service out of business, quoted recently by the Times.

We have been standing for small business owners who know that government has for way too long had its foot on their neck, with taxes that were too high, regulations that were too onerous…And our party once stood to make sure that we helped clear the way so that the free market system really worked. And we’re going do it again because one of these days when I get to be president — and it won’t be very long, about a year from now … I really do look forward to nailing the ‘going out of business’ sign on the front door of the IRS.

Talk about rhetoric heating up. Do we really want to unleash the lending industry, for instance?

In fact, though, neither Democrats denouncing corporate wrongdoing or Republicans warnings of the perils of big government is particularly new or surprising.

I think some sloppy thinking made its way into the Journal piece.

More broadly, the story choice—page one display of Democrats’ not-particularly-radical rhetoric—leads me to question whether top editors aren’t buying some tendentious assumptions about what is new, important and, apparently, alarming, in campaign rhetoric about the economy, and what is not.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.