When I worked in the Clinton White House, I was always struck by how far off the conventional wisdom usually was in terms of how President Clinton's big speeches played with the public. For the State of the Union and other big speeches, there was almost an exact inverse reaction between the way the D.C. pundits reacted and how much voters liked it -- the more the D.C. guys hated the speech, the more the public usually liked it in the follow-up polling we were doing. It got to the point where I would cringe when one of the D.C. experts said they liked something Clinton did, because I feared what that would mean for our poll numbers.
I am seeing the same thing today in the Bain debate. When the beltway establishment attacks, I cheer. That is especially true having seen some focus group and polling data: when voters understand what kind of business Bain Capital is, and what Romney did when he was there, they hate it. Swing voters understand Bain to be vulture capitalism, as Newt Gingrich so accurately put it -- vulture capitalism at its worst. Cripple companies with debt, lay off workers and cut their wages and benefits, outsource jobs to countries like China, sell off valuable assets, and then use tax loopholes to walk away with millions. Bain made money even when the companies they bought went bankrupt -- sometimes because the companies went bankrupt. You explain to voters what Bain's business model was, and they find it appalling -- probably because it is.
In addition to D.C. types always tending to be out of touch with what real people believe, there is the bought off factor. Take the Democrats who are complaining the loudest. They are the exact Democrats you would expect to complain about this kind of strategy. Cory Booker is in office today because of the massive amounts of money he raised from Wall Street, including partners at Bain Capital itself.
Harold Ford, who has made Wall Street his home after raising millions from the financial industry in his political career, is the only Democratic candidate in a targeted Senate race to lose in 2006, and then went on to chair the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization that went down in flames shortly after he took over as chairman. After those two brilliant political endeavors, Ford announced that he might run against Kirsten Gillibrand for Senate in New York because he was so upset that Democrats were beating up so much on poor old Wall Street, but didn't do it when his polling shockingly told him that voters hated Wall Street.
Ed Rendell works for a firm with a bunch of Wall Street investors as clients. Dianne Feinstein's husband is in the financial industry, and Wall Street has been one of her main sources of political money. When I was working on financial reform issues over the last couple of years, Mark Warner was arguably Wall Street's biggest Democratic advocate on the Hill. These folks are all big time Wall Street Democrats, and their opposition to the Obama campaign's Bain message could not be more predictable.
Here's the deal about this election year: Democrats are going to have blow off these attitudes by their Wall Street gang if they are going to have a chance to win this election. The voters who will decide this election are mostly in two categories: Latinos, the young, and working-class unmarried women who all should be Democratic base voters but are too hard hit by this economy to care much about voting; and working-class white swing voters.These are exactly the kinds of voters who are in an ugly mood about this economy, and they remain deeply angry that the Wall Street execs who destroyed the economy were bailed out and then got big bonuses the very next year instead of going to jail or at least being fired. Although voters think both parties are in bed with the big bank special interests, they tend to blame Obama for most of this, especially those swing voters.
Telling the story of Bain Capital and talking to voters about how they made their money sets this election up perfectly for Obama -- as long as people (a) understand how Bain operated, and (b) have some evidence that Obama's values are the opposite of Bain Capital's values. Obama has to have credibility in being willing to call out and hold the big bankers accountable. Voters are getting a pretty good sense that Romney is Wall Street's friend, and I think they are going to be easy to convince that being Wall Street's friend doesn't help create jobs, since it didn't work for Romney in Massachusetts (46th in the country in job creation), and it didn't work for George W. Bush. But Obama has to keep the heat on Bain, and he has to show he is going to put the heat on Wall Street in general.
The Obama campaign needs to confidently ignore the whiny Wall Street Democrats. They have no credibility, and their political advice is poison. And the Obama administration needs to roll over the pro-Wall Streeters in their own midst by giving the financial fraud task force more resources and by squeezing the biggest banks with tough regulatory action.
Voters are in a foul mood. They are itching to blame someone for this ugly economy. A lot of people blame Bush quite a bit, but he has been gone too long and he is not on the ballot, so Obama can't rely on that. Ultimately, most of the blame will fall on either Obama or Wall Street -- and the Jamie Dimons and Bain Capitals of the world. Democrats better hope it is the latter.