Big business switches sides

April 11, 2008

Corporate America is decidedly nonpartisan when it comes to protecting its interests.

"BUSINESS DONORS Bypass McCain" read the headline in the April 2 Wall Street Journal.

Considering that the Republican Party is generally considered to be the main big business party in the U.S. political system, this would be news by itself. But the difference between the amount of money Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have collected from business compared to McCain's take is truly "startling," former Republican National Committee counsel Jan Baran told the Journal. "It's very foreboding for Republicans."

According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, seven major industries that have traditionally given most of their money to Republicans--from military contractors to finance--have opened up the floodgates for Democrats.

Through February, McCain had racked up $13.1 million from these industries, compared to $27.1 million to Clinton and $22.5 million to Obama. And this is separate from the money Clinton and Obama have raised from business sectors, like Hollywood, that traditionally support Democrats.

All this means that whoever the Democratic nominee is--and at this point, it looks like it will be Obama--will take a huge fundraising and business endorsement advantage into the November election against McCain. All told, the 2008 election is likely to have the highest level of business support for the Democrats against the Republicans since the 1964 election, when business deserted Republican candidate Barry Goldwater en masse.

With big business support comes not only money, but other trappings of the establishment seal of approval, including favorable press coverage and the backing of leading generals, bankers and corporate CEOs.

The media pundits continue to parse every little campaign maneuver today for what it portends in November, but this shift of business to the Democrats is the most important indicator that the next president is likely to be a Democrat.

This may seem strange, particularly because Obama and Clinton have used a lot of populist rhetoric--beating up on health insurance companies, predatory lenders and price-gouging oil companies--in their campaigns.

But business doesn't invest millions in political candidates without believing that it will get something in return. And it recognizes that political candidates say a lot that they won't act on in order to get votes.

Thus, the Clinton campaign pounded Obama for criticizing the North American Free Trade Agreement while his chief economic adviser was telling Canadian officials to ignore the anti-NAFTA rhetoric. But over the weekend, Clinton's top adviser, Mark Penn, resigned after revelations that he was lobbying for a free trade pact with Colombia that his candidate opposes!

What about Obama's talk of building a movement to change politics in Washington? Judging from the millions pouring into Obama's coffers from the management of major Wall Street firms, big business isn't worried. Doug Henwood, editor of Left Business Observer, put it this way:

Big capital would have no problem with an Obama presidency. Top hedge fund honcho Paul Tudor Jones threw a fundraiser for him at his Greenwich house last spring. 'The whole of Greenwich is backing Obama,' one source said of the posh headquarters of the hedge fund industry.

They like him because they're socially liberal, up to a point, and probably eager for a little less war, and think he's the man to do their work. They're also confident he wouldn't undertake any renovations to the distribution of wealth. You could say the same about Clinton--but you know those hedge fund guys. They like a contrary bet.

ALL THINGS being equal, big business prefers Republicans, whose generally open pro-business stances aren't usually balanced against appeals to labor or the poor.

But business is decidedly nonpartisan when it comes to protecting its interests. In June 2006--five months before the election that turned control of Congress over to the Democrats--the Wall Street Journal reported: "Some big companies are boosting their share of campaign contributions to Democrats this year, a sign that executives may be starting to hedge their political bets after a decade of supporting congressional Republicans."

Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer, who became House Majority Leader when the Democrats won Congress, announced that he would start a fundraising operation that The Hill magazine dubbed "Hoyer's K-Street Project"--after the strong-arm program a Republican predecessor, Tom Delay, created to enforce loyalty among corporate lobbyists.

Hoyer appointed his top legislative adviser, who doubled as his liaison to corporations and lobbyists, to run the operation. And, The Hill noted, Hoyer "has sought to make himself the first contact for K Street and that he would continue holding regular meetings with their lobbyists."

On K Street itself, the end of the Republican era meant new job opportunities for Democrats. With business anticipating that the 2008 presidential election would produce a Democratic Congress and White House, its lobbies are in the hunt for Democratic talent. "It's a bull market for Democrats, especially those who have worked for the Congressional leadership," a lobbyist told the New York Times recently.

Even the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, whose executive director is former Republican (and one-time Democrat) Rep. Billy Tauzin, hired several Democratic lobbyists, so that its roster was balanced between the parties.

All this activity assures that no matter which party is officially in power, big business's interests will be attended to. A conservative military analyst, giving his assessment of the 2008 presidential election, bluntly admitted: "Defense contractors have not only begun to prepare for the next administration. They have begun to shape it. They've met with Hillary Clinton and other candidates."

For industry bosses, this is the beauty of the two-party system. If one party falls out of favor with the voters, there's always the other one--with predictable policies--waiting in the wings.

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