Democrats' war on corporate greed: Mostly bluster
The leading presidential candidates likes to excoriate big business, but with one exception, none of the them would govern with frothing animosity toward corporate America.
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Fortune) -- The Democratic presidential candidates had a brief moment of disagreement about U.S. business policy during Thursday's debate in Iowa - the last before that state officially kicks off the race by caucusing Jan. 3.
In the middle of a ferocious multi-candidate condemnation of recent free trade agreements, Hillary Clinton urged her opponents to "look at the entire context here. You have winners and losers from trade, right here in Iowa, people who are gaining because we're exporting, and people...who have lost their jobs."
It was an easy-to-miss distinction between Clinton and her opponents. Because otherwise, all the candidates were in agreement: Corporate America, and its global reach, is bad for America. Listening to this 90-minute "debate" - it felt more like a sharing of familiar talking points, just like the Republican version Wednesday - you would think that Big Business posed a greater threat to American citizens than Al Qaeda (which, by the way, killed 34 people at the United Nations and government offices in Algeria this week.)
Search the debate transcript for the word "terrorist" and you'll come up empty-handed. Search for terms related to "corporate greed" and you'll hit a gold mine.
"We're having trouble growing and strengthening the middle class because corporate power and greed have literally taken over the government, and we need a president who's willing to take these powers on," declared former North Carolina Senator John Edwards.
With the exception of Edwards, it's unlikely that the leading Democratic candidates would govern with that level of frothing animosity toward business leaders.
Sure, all the Democrats want to raise taxes on investors, the wealthy, and corporations. But Illinois Senator Barack Obama's mantra, repeated at every campaign stop, is his desire to unite, not divide, the country. And Clinton has repeatedly said that she learned her lesson from her healthcare debacle of the early 1990s, and as president would include everyone affected - including business leaders - in designing and implementing reforms.
Moreover, Clinton and Obama both have deep ties with supporters and contributors in corporate America - Clinton, especially, because of her tenure as New York's senator (see "Business loves Hillary").
But the primary campaign - aimed at a core of Democratic voters that trends more to the left than the full party - has brought out a symphony of simplistic war-cries against business.
Edwards, in particular, has hit on an effective formula with populist-minded Iowans: While the two frontrunners, Obama and Clinton, stab-wound each other, Edwards catches attention by dropping a bomb on corporate America. On Thursday, a focus group of Iowa voters holding dial-meters and organized by Fox News (where I am a contributor) showed a mediocre response when Clinton talked about controlling healthcare costs, but off-the-chart support when Edwards let loose against corporate interests.
"I've been fighting these people my entire life," declared the former trial lawyer. "Some people argue that we're going to sit at a table with these people and they're going to voluntarily give their power away. I think it is a complete fantasy. It will never happen....We have an epic battle in front of us."
Clinton and Obama are more nuanced. Clinton talks of "raising taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals." Obama uses the term "special interests" and corporate "tax scams" rather than "corporate greed," and he advertised his speech in Detroit earlier this year telling automakers he would force them to pursue more environmentally-friendly technology.
Still, Thursday's game of one-upmanship on corporate-bashing led to some disingenuous moments. Clinton said she wants "smart pro-American trade." Then she added, "I'm going to go to the international community and get the kind of enforceable agreements and standards on labor and environment that we have been seeking as Democrats."
Actually, those standards "that we have been seeking as Democrats" were agreed to by the Bush administration last May. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson stood at a late night press conference to announce them -and the same standards have since been inserted in trade deals now pending before Congress.