Occupy Wall Street, Democrats, and Campaign Finance

This Politico story on Occupy Wall Street’s influence on the Democrats’ campaign donors is awfully interesting:

After the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent a recent email urging supporters to sign a petition backing the wave of Occupy Wall Street protests, phones at the party committee started ringing.

Banking executives personally called the offices of DCCC Chairman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and DCCC Finance Chairman Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) last week demanding answers, three financial services lobbyists told POLITICO…

The execs asked the lawmakers: “What are you doing? Do you even understand some of the things that they’ve called for?” said another lobbyist with financial services clients who is a former Democratic Senate aide.

Democrats’ friends on Wall Street have a message for them: you can’t have it both ways.

Here Politico’s insider-oriented approach, for once, helps shine a light on a broader truth: The Democratic Party has had it both ways for nearly two decades since the ascendance of Rubinomics turned Wall Street into a powerful constituency for both political parties. Not coincidentally, Bill Clinton’s installation of a Wall Street-friendly economic team also resulted in weakened Wall Street oversight, the actual prevention of oversight, and even an abandonment of it altogether in the case of Traveler’s merger with Citigroup (which would go on to pay Robert Rubin $115 million for doing… well, not much).

Of course, Occupy Wall Street didn’t introduce tension between Democrats and their financier patrons. The mild regulations introduced in the last year or two, along with Obama calling bankers “fat cats” that one time, did that. But if protests (and more critically, the popular opinion they’ve put words to) push Democrats left on financial issues, their tether to Wall Street donors will be stretched, perhaps to the breaking point. If Wall Street turns Big Oil—reliably, dominantly for one party—that would have big implications for regulation, future reforms, and for elections themselves, both in the actual positions of candidates and in their ability to advertise those positions.

Which makes a point about the soft corruption of our campaign-finance system, which allocates influence according to affluence. You see that here. Democrats are already seeing the consequences of angering Wall Street bankers, who comprise a teeny-tiny sliver of the electorate. That’s ultimately what the anti-banks protests are about, both directly and indirectly: The outsized power that a small group of moneymen have on the affairs of the country.

“You can’t have it both ways,” said one in-house financial services lobbyist. “It just makes it harder for people who are Democrats in New York, Boston, Chicago to on the one hand be demogagued and then be asked ‘Hey, you can get your picture with the president for $30,000.’ It doesn’t square.”

Indeed. And the folks down in Zuccotti Park don’t mind one little bit.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,