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Democrats and Wall Street

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The Republicans in the Senate have thrown down the gauntlet: 44 Republican senators have signed a letter saying they won't confirm anyone -- anyone at all -- to be the director of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau unless the new agency is made toothless. It is this kind of way-over-the-top overreaching that has hurt Republican governors like Walker and Kasich so badly because of their attempt to wipe out public-sector unions, and has made the Ryan budget the most unpopular bill in front of Congress in years. When you are so clearly willing to do everything the Wall Street bankers could ever ask, you paint a very big target on your back.

Democrats should seize this opportunity and strike while the iron is hot, just as they did in standing up to Walker, Kasich, and Ryan. Being willing to stand tall and fight back against those unpopular right-wing policies, and the moneymen behind them like the Koch brothers, has already paid off enormously for Democrats. Just think how picking a fight with the most unpopular entity in America (now that Osama bin Laden is dead) -- the big banks on Wall Street -- could help them politically. The President should immediately announce he is appointing Elizabeth Warren as director of the CFPB, and when the next recess comes, immediately put her in as a recess appointment. There is no longer any reason not to, because the Republicans gave us our opening: if they are going to oppose anyone no matter how weak in that job, there is no reason to offer a compromise candidate. Obama should just give it to the person who would be the best director, which Elizabeth would clearly be. Having a big blow-up with Republicans, with us fighting for consumers and homeowners and them fighting for the banks, would be a great political fight to have.

I suspect at the end of the day, that will be the conclusion the Obama team comes to as well, although they are taking their own sweet time on this CFPB decision. And their options of who to appoint got narrowed a lot by that Senate GOP too. The White House already has had several feelers rejected by candidates who didn't want to be seen as taking the job Warren should have, which is a big factor in making Elizabeth's appointment more and more likely. The bottom line is that this letter probably just sealed the deal for her getting the job, so we can once again thank overreaching Republicans for helping get something good done.

Unfortunately, though, this rather obvious notion of picking fights with incredibly unpopular Wall Street bankers isn't a universally held Democratic strategy. Take a look at the dynamics on a couple of other fronts.

The first example is how the swipe-fee issue still has some Democrats being dumb in their politics. I got involved in this issue during last year's financial-reform battle, forming a rather unusual (okay, extremely unusual) alliance with retailers and merchants. Dick Durbin offered an amendment that would require the Federal Reserve to provide some regulation of debit card swipe fees so that the big banks who thoroughly dominate this market (Visa and MasterCard, which are subsidiaries of the big banks, represent more than 80 percent of the debit card market) couldn't just charge whatever outrageous swipe fees they wanted to every small businessperson and non-profit group that let customers use debit cards. The politics of this issue seemed easy to me: the Big Banks vs. Main Street Businesses and Consumers. And it was easy the first time around: when Durbin offered his amendment 63 Senators voted for it, including some Republicans. But the big banks have a ton of money, lobbyists, and muscle -- and they keep chipping away at this. They have convinced a lot of Democrats to go over to their side. An organization I chair, American Family Voices, recently came out with and ad that got some notice because it targeted some Democrats, including DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. But if Democrats took the side of small businesses and consumers, and left helping Wall Street bankers to Republicans, the politics of this issue would be a lot cleaner.

The second issue is the foreclosure fraud issue. The big banks have run roughshod over hard-pressed homeowners, abusing the foreclosure process to the point where they have had a series of court decisions go against them. The 50 attorneys general and multiple federal agencies have been negotiating with the big banks on this issue, but the Obama administration has been way too weak in helping underwater homeowners press for mortgage write-downs. The administration refused to issue a moratorium on foreclosures in spite of all the problems with the banks that were handling them, Treasury's HAMP program has been a disaster, and the administration's acting head of the critically important OCC regulatory agency has been completely in bed with Wall Street bankers on housing and many other issues. The Obama administration should be taking on the big banks on foreclosures, not coddling them.

I am a Democrat because our party has historically been on the side of middle-class workers, homeowners, consumers, and small businesses against wealthy special interests like Wall Street bankers. Politically and policywise, we should be clearly, cleanly, and strongly on the side of the former, and not confuse voters by straddling both sides of the issue. I will always be a Democrat because we are the only party that would ever appoint someone like Elizabeth Warren to office, or pass legislation like the CFPB and swipe-fee regulation, but when we waver on these kinds of things, we lose our way politically as well. It is time for Democrats to take a clear side for the middle class, and let the Republicans choke on having to be on Wall Street's side.

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