Class warfare seems to have been the theme of Mitt Romney’s campaign speech last night. In Romney’s telling, President Obama is a kind of sectarian candidate, waging war on behalf of select constituencies who he has helped to loot the Treasury, and Romney is the candidate of the broader national interest. “I don't know if there's ever been a presidency that's been more attuned to the people that provided his party money,” he said, "which are the public sector unions, the private unions, the trial lawyers." Romney likewise assailed Obama for "attacking one American after the other" – referring, apparently, to Obama’s advocacy of higher taxes on the rich.
Begin with the corruption accusation. You don’t have to go far back in history to find a presidency that was obviously more attuned to the needs of the people who funded it. (Hint: it was the last president before Obama.) But a comparison with Bush is probably too easy. So let’s set the bar lower for Romney. Is the Obama administration generally carrying water for its funders, if not to the same degree as Bush?
Romney mentioned two constituencies pulling the strings: unions and trial lawyers. As it happens, the same day Romney assailed Obama as a union lackey, the head of the AFL-CIO gave an interview blasting Obama for having advanced a free trade agreement. Bad lackey!
This isn’t just a case of unfortunate timing for Romney, either. Off the top of my head, I can think of a couple other very high profile fights between Obama and the unions. There was his successful effort to limit the tax deduction for high cost health insurance plans, which enraged unions (whose members tend to have them.) There was (and is) his ongoing struggle to promote teacher accountability and charter schools in the face of union resistance.
On trial lawyers, Obama tried to make a deal with Republicans to include medical malpractice reform in the health care bill in return for their support. He also upset trial lawyers by denouncing frivolous lawsuits in a State of the Union address. If there’s any particular action Obama has taken to benefit trial lawyers, I am not aware of it.
I don’t think this is a reflection of Obama’s personal character in particular. All donations have the potential to corrupt, but the Democratic Party draws from a diverse economic base. It relies upon business support, but also needs the support of unions and environmentalists, forcing the party to tread carefully between the two. The Republican economic base is economically monolithic. With all the donor pressure pushing in the same direction, the agenda that comes out tends to heavily dovetail with its funders, who have come to expect that they can get what they want.
George Romney heavily courted unions and struck a balance in his policies between labor and business. But that kind of Republican is long gone.
The contrast between the disposition toward unions of George Romney and his son also sheds some light on Romney’s horror at Obama’s alleged singling out of the rich for abuse. Obama’s verbal denunciations apparently consist of a single time, speaking off-the-cuff in an interview, when he was pressed on his support for bailouts and referred to the people his administration had aided as “fat cats.” Since that point, Obama has heeded the exquisite sensitivities of the CEO class, couching his support for more progressive taxation in the gentlest terms, and always praising the wonderful contributions of entrepreneurs. One might note that the individual Obama has cited in support of his campaign to raise taxes on millionaires is somewhat famously rich. Meanwhile, Romney has been lashing out at union “stooges” and “bosses,” wearing his hostility on his sleeve:
"I've taken on union bosses before," the former Massachusetts governor said in Grand Rapids on Wednesday. "I'm happy to take them on again."
He has squarely blamed unions for the nation's economic troubles.
"Labor has asked for too much and business people have exceeded their demands only to see the business ultimately fail," he told the Ames Tribune's economic board in December. "That's what happened to GM and Chrysler. The demands of labor unions over time killed those businesses and made America become less competitive."
Imagine if Obama talked about business the way Romney talks about labor. You can’t, can you? That’s because we have one party fully identified with the business agenda and adopting a hostile and even eliminationist position toward unions, while the other party carefully tries to wend a balance between the two. The amazing thing is that the candidate from the former party is accusing the candidate from the latter of waging war on behalf of his favored class.