The "Populists" Are Right About Wall Street

How has a popular Democratic president with a convincing electoral mandate failed to translate the opportunities of recent events into the "change" for which voters clamored? What kind of miscalculation allowed his administration to stir up such a wave of populist fury in such a short time?

The short answer, of course, is AIG. Why did the Treasury Department allow the payout of many millions in bonuses to executives of the unit that sank the company? Every answer the president's brain trust offered made them look more feckless, at the very moment they were rolling out a bank plan designed to spare stakeholders of our troubled financial institutions the haircut they so richly deserve.

This lapse of common sense arises from a deeper problem: the reflexive contempt for populism that is felt by the dominant faction of the Democratic Party -- the faction that regards itself as the responsible guardian of financial civilization, and that thinks of populism as crackpot economics and senseless proletarian rage.

I was reminded of the party's long-simmering debate over populism a little while ago when I read an essay by Al From, the founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), announcing his retirement as that group's "CEO" and recounting his many successes over the years in building a "political brand." A short while later I read in Roll Call an account of Mr. From's career as "one of the 20th century's most successful political entrepreneurs," a man whose adventures in shifting the Democratic Party to the right formed a neat analogy to Mr. From's father's accomplishments in the suburban garage-building biz.

In Washington, where the need to treat government like a business is a no-brainer, thinking about politics in this way -- as though it were a matter of branding, entrepreneurship and CEOs -- is thought to be highly advanced stuff.

But I don't agree. Surely we have learned the hazards of turning business models loose on the state, after all our experiences with the "MBA president" and his "market-based" government, all the "K Street Projects" and "superlobbyists" of the last 20 years, all the regulatory agencies that understood the regulated as their "customers," all the bailouts engineered by friends of the bailed-out, all the faith placed in "voluntary compliance" on the grounds that business would naturally self-regulate.

Still, none can doubt the DLC's success at pushing "third way" humbug in elite Democratic circles. Many of the rhetorical gestures we associate with centrism -- for example, the habit of dismissing liberal policies as "industrial age" relics -- got their start in Mr. From's shop.

The theme that matters most these days, though, is the DLC's war with populism, a term that is supposed to summarize everything that is wrong with class-based discontent. Not only is populism mulishly wrong-headed, according to the DLC, but it is a sure-fire electoral loser -- a whiff of populism, the group once concluded, is what cost Al Gore the 2000 election.

The group's attacks on populism resonate in D.C., I suspect, because the commentariat has always thought "populism" to be faintly ridiculous, a thing of mobs and pitchforks and windbag leaders more demagogue than CEO. (For an illustration of what I mean, look at the cover of the latest issue of Newsweek.)

This way of thinking has not served the Obama administration well in recent weeks. Think of Larry Summers repeating, on program after program, his outrage with the AIG bonuses, but then immediately moving, as you would with a naughty child, into a discussion of the rule of law -- which I guess is what you call the years of de facto de-supervision that allowed this disaster.

One of these days it may dawn on our leaders that the public, in this case, is right; that this time the mountebanks and charlatans are not the populists but the responsible-looking CEOs who ran the country's financial institutions into the ground -- and who the administration apparently wants to leave in charge of many of those institutions. The public outrage about performance bonuses isn't just mindless resentment; it is directed at exactly the instruments that steered the economy into the ditch and the executives who built the system -- and who will demand to do business the old way as long as they have breath to bellow.

What's more, it is only thanks to populist members of Congress that we know our bailout of AIG sluiced billions to foreign banks, and it's only thanks to public outrage that the administration feels any pressure at all to exert a firmer hand on the institutions it has rescued from bankruptcy.

There are many, I am sure, who wish that this whole bailout business could be settled as an affair between political entrepreneurs and the interests that fund them, as in days of yore. But I hope President Obama has a better strategy than that planned for the time when his Treasury Department has to ask Congress for another helping of TARP.

Thomas Frank's column, The Tilting Yard, appears every Wednesday at

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