Here's a new Zen riddle: What is the sound of money not talking?
Sure, it talks sometimes. We heard it loud and clear at the Republican Convention. But sometimes the sound of money in politics is the sound of silence. It's the sound of crooked bankers being let off the hook, of economies left at risk, of Social Security and Medicare being weakened, of growing inequity being ignored.
They're talking about the economy at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, which calls itself "the Wall Street of the South." But as of this writing (see update below), nobody's talked about stronger oversight of Wall Street and other corporations, and nobody's promised to defend Social Security and Medicare from benefit cuts.
Big-money interests want weak regulations and cuts to Social Security and Medicare. And they're a siren song to both parties -- not only for their campaign contributions, but for the lucrative world of para-political employment that awaits ex-pols if they don't step out of line. (Matt Stoller's been exploring that topic -- here, and here.)
If you're campaigning as a liberal and don't want to limit your career opportunities, sometimes the best course is silence.
Wednesday night Bill Clinton rallied the crowd for Barack Obama. But he didn't criticize the Wall Street interests that financed his political career and made him wealthy once he left office. It was Clinton who rebuked Obama for using anti-hedge fund rhetoric to attack Mitt Romney, saying Romney had "a sterling business career."
"I don't think that we ought to get into the position," said Clinton, "where we say 'This is bad work. This is good work.'"
But Bain-style predation is bad work. And deregulating Wall Street was bad policy. So was the idea of building an economy around financial speculation rather than jobs-based production.
Tuesday night another ex-president who governed as a "centrist," Jimmy Carter, was limited to a short video appearance. Clinton's star turn is based on his popularity, but Carter's selfless and courageous post-presidential career may also make ambitious politicians and staffers uncomfortable. Instead they can take heart from the post-political path to riches followed by Clinton and many of his senior aides.
It's no coincidence that Bill Clinton is also one of the most outspoken -- and most deceptively cynical -- sales reps for that elite piece of austerity hucksterism known as the "Simpson-Bowles" plan, which would cut Social Security and Medicare benefits while actually lowering tax rates for corporations and the ultra-wealthy (under the pretense of closing unnamed "loopholes" at an unspecified later date).
"Simpson-Bowles," and the propaganda efforts behind it, are also creatures of big money -- especially that of billionaire Pete Peterson, a former member of Richard Nixon's cabinet who has been coopting Democrats into his anti-government, anti-middle class agenda for decades. Peterson's had a long and close relationship with Bill Clinton, who appointed him to an "Entitlement and Tax Reform Commission" in 1994.
Peterson acolytes Alan Simpson (R-Wyoming) and Erskine Bowles (D-Morgan Stanley) were appointed to a "deficit commission" by President Obama. Following that commission's failure, they issued a personal proposal of cuts to Social Security and Medicare, fulfilling Peterson's long-held dream of eviscerating those programs. President Obama's been trying to cut that deal for years.
This year's Democratic platform equivocates on Social Security and Medicare, promising only to prevent Social Security from being privatized (which isn't on the table right now). "We reject approaches that insist that cutting benefits is the only answer," say the Democrats.
Yet, surprisingly, a couple of weeks ago Joe Biden changed the script by offering a "flat guarantee" that there will be no changes to Social Security in a second Obama administration. What have we heard about that so far this week?
Anybody who was truly concerned about the Federal government's long-term deficits would support this accurate observation in the 2008 Democratic platform: "The real long-run fiscal challenge is rooted in the rising spending on health care..." But our runaway health care costs are driven by for-profit corporations, whose abuses were only lightly addressed in the health reform bill. This 2008 statement was replaced this year with... silence.
With Nancy Pelosi's capitulation to the Simpson-Bowles austerity plan, Biden and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are the only two Democratic leaders in Washington who've said unequivocally that its benefits need not and should not be cut. What did we hear about Social Security in Sen. Reid's convention speech this week?
Headline: big banks defeated
In his speech to the convention, Sen. Reid said this: "Some said (Obama) couldn't take on the big banks that brought our economy to its knees. But President Obama made the tough and right call so taxpayers will never again be on the hook for Wall Street's risky bets." Reid's rhetoric echoed the party's 2012 platform, which reads "We put in place Wall Street reform with smarter, tougher, commonsense rules that will prevent a crisis like that from ever happening again."
But the Dodd/Frank bill was the product of a "negotiation" charade that was acted out between Senator (now lobbyist) Christopher Dodd and his GOP counterparts. Their backroom negotiations produced watered-down reform -- and still received no Republican votes. And yet, to hear them tell it, the Democrats took on the big banks and won. A lot of people will be surprised to hear that, especially when they find out that the victory was complete and no further work is needed.
No bankers have been tried for their crimes, despite massive evidence. They're still allowed to buy their freedom -- and the right to keep pillaging -- with other people's money. There's been nothing to show for the latest "this time we really mean it" round of announcements of a task force to investigate mortgage-related fraud. And, contrary to Sen. Reid's assertion, it's almost certain that there will be another crisis.
The Demorats' repeated use of the past tense -- "We put in place... made the right call... never again on the hook..." -- is the most discouraging sign of all. Like their speeches and their platform, it implies that no further reforms are needed. They seem to be telling us they have no intention of fighting for the additional reforms we so urgently need.
I think I liked the silence better.
And now for a word from our sponsor
Wednesday we learned that the party has moved the location of Thursday night's events, so the president won't be accepting the nomination in Bank of America Stadium as planned. He and his party won't enter an arena whose entrance is a shrine to one of our largest and most crooked too-big-to-fail banks.
Bank of America: whose bankers committed massive forgery and other crimes to foreclose on American families. Whose CEO was its top lawyer when it committed widespread fraud that led to billion-dollar fines and settlements. Which would have gone bankrupt if not for the taxpayer, and yet has paid out huge bonuses (despite the Democrats' 2008 pledge to "ban executive bonuses for bankrupt companies) -- and where, despite the fraud and criminality, not a single banker has been indicted.
Enter through those doors? Politically, at least, it wasn't worth the price of admission. It wouldn't have been wise to have the president and his party coming together under the words "Bank of America," even if those words were looking down on the politicians and their party the way that Bank of America and its kind have always done:
(UPDATE: It's always a thrill to see the political master at his best. But, as predicted, President Clinton promoted Simpson Bowles and never suggested we might need more Wall Street regulation. Several pundits predicted that he would do a mea culpa on repealing Glass-Steagall; we didn't expect that. Elizabeth Warren's speech was terrific, too, but she was in no position to call for additional Wall Street regulation and did not do so.)
This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.
HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the corrupting influence of money on our politics August 29th and September 5th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.