Let's have a frank talk about an uncomfortable subject: Progressives need to raise campaign money in order to get elected and stay in office. Sometimes that money has to come from places that progressives aren't comfortable talking about. This gritty reality has too often led to the conclusion that the Left needs to bow down to Wall Street in order to succeed.
It's a Washington truism. But is it true?
Progressives in Washington have been lectured in a condescending tone countless times: You crazy hippies don't understand how hard it is to raise money and succeed in politics nowadays. Consider the House Financial Services Committee. It costs a lot to run for Congress, so it's expected that members of a committee like this one will stay friendly with the businesses they regulate. How else can they raise the cash they need for re-election? Members on both sides of the aisle are able to draw in hundreds of thousands of dollars by staying bank-friendly, even in an off-election year.
It may not look pretty, insiders will tell you, but that's how the game is played. So guess which Committee member raked in the most campaign contributions in 2009?
That would be the same Alan Grayson who has infuriated bankers with his aggressive stance, the same Alan Grayson who has pushed to "unmask the Fed" and insisted that Ben Bernanke "come clean" about which institutions received bailout money, the same Alan Grayson who said the voting on his bill to tax bonuses for bailout recipients will show which Republicans are "on the take."
Grayson's aggressive, in-your-face style makes a lot of other Democrats uncomfortable. In the gentleman-and-ladies-don't-perspire-they-glow world of Washington, he's not afraid to show some sweat. But this is more about substance than style. Grayson's been able to leverage a populist, anti-corporate style into a campaign money machine that outstrips that of his Wall Street-compliant colleagues. Is there a model there for other progressives?
Some will say the Grayson phenomenon can't be replicated. He's become a magnet for progressive fundraising, drawing cash from all over the country. If there were a hundred Alan Graysons, each wouldn't be able to draw as much in contributions. Now that the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling has completely unshackled the political buying power of the corporate dollar, they'll say, Democrats can't win without bank-friendly policies. But is that true?
Consider this: However much liberals want those Wall Street dollars, they'll never be able to do it on policy alone. Right-wingers will always win on that score. But it's important to remember that Wall Street campaign money isn't brave money. It's hedge-your-bet money. The reason Democrats got so much last year is because Wall Street knew they were going to win. So think of the progressive fundraising stance toward Wall Street as embodying four simple principles:
1. Banker contributions will go where the winners are.
2. Popular sentiment is very anti-bank right now.
3. Politicians who want to rein in bankers' excesses will be popular.
4. Popular politicians will draw votes -- and bankers' money.
And bankers aren't the only ones with cash right now. When it comes to big campaign dollars, the Supreme Court ruling left one other player on the field: Unions. Progressives are going to find it hard to court banker bucks with pro-Wall Street policies and also get the union donations and grassroots support they'll need to keep winning elections.
And there's small business, too: While smaller companies can't contribute the sheer volume of dollars larger ones can, in total they represent a sizable chunk of change. A better-regulated Wall Street will mean more credit for these kinds of businesses, and that in turn could free up more campaign cash for those who push smarter banking policy.
Sen. Sherrod Brown understands the need for more credit to small businesses. As he said this week, ""What I hear now is consistently about credit. It's always about credit. (Businesses) tell me they have the capacity to grow, they tell me they have new customers and the old customers are coming back. They'd like to know what we're doing on the health bill, of course, but I don't think that's stopping companies from moving forward with what they need to do if they could get credit."
Sen. Brown has introduced a bill to use $30 billion in TARP repayments to free more loans to small businesses, and another one to raise taxes on bonuses paid by companies that received TARP funding.
Sherrod Brown is on to something. These proposals aren't just smart policy - they're smart politics. They could lead to increased voter support and new sources of campaign contributions. Those who oppose these measure could face a backlash from angry voters who wonder why they're not doing a better job stewarding taxpayer money, and why they're so "anti-business" that they won't help companies get back on their feet - which would lead to more hiring.
There is a way out for elected progressives - a way to do the right thing and enhance, not endanger, their chances of re-election. But it will take a little courage, and the willingness to step out of their comfort zones. Hopefully Rep. Grayson and Sen. Brown - two leaders with very different styles but similar strategies - will lead the way for others to follow.
Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer, is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. He blogs at:
Website: Eskow and Associates