DLC pulls its punches at corporate America

July 31, 2002|By Jules Witcover

NEW YORK -- Members of the Democratic Leadership Council, which fashions itself the pro-business, pro-growth arm of the party of Jefferson and Jackson, gave corporate America a pretty good going-over for its corruption and greed at their annual meeting here this week.

They joined the general assault on CEOs for the disclosures of various sorts of financial hanky-panky that sent the stock market in a spin and have created widespread apprehension among investors.

Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, traditionally a champion of businessmen, characterized some of them as "con artists and thieves" who, "to satisfy their personal greed," were busy "wringing the last dollar out of their cooked books."

But Mr. Lieberman and other Democrats went out of their way to emphasize that they did not intend to tar all CEOs with the same brush. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle told the DLC that "the vast majority" of business executives are responsible and "we don't want to see good businesses dragged down" in the condemnation of the others.

Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, chairman of the DLC, said that while there "are some bad actors out there" in corporate America, "we can't be against a whole class of people," and "engaging in class resentment" is not a good idea.

The attitude reflected a determination by DLC leaders to preserve the progress they have made in erasing the party's anti-business image over the 17 years of the organization, which sees itself as an "ideas factory" rather than a political organizing vehicle.

Since 1985, the DLC has worked diligently to steer the Democratic Party away from its New Deal identity as the party of the poor and otherwise disadvantaged, and toward a new persona as the defender and advancer of the middle class, which has prospered with the success of corporate America.

There's a practical reason for this effort. More than half of all Americans now invest in the stock market and are far removed from the era when the Democratic Party thrived on doles to lower-income citizens and workers surviving just above the poverty line.

These middle-class workers -- and investors -- are the targets of the DLC and its members, who call themselves New Democrats, and were important elements in the two elections of New Democrat Bill Clinton.

This concern of DLC leaders about preserving the party's partnership with business, which predictably is frowned upon by organized labor, dictates that critics of corporate greed not go so far as to resurrect echoes of the old class warfare common to earlier Democratic Party strategies.

One element of Mr. Clinton's comeback and re-election in 1996, according to Democratic pollster Mark Penn, was his ability to get the party to abandon class-warfare rhetoric and reach out to the middle class by saying what it would do for them, rather than simply beating up on the Republicans (which Mr. Clinton also did effectively, with Newt Gingrich as his pawn).

Going after corporate corruption and greed, however, is a particularly tempting exercise for Democrats because President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney both come out of the corporate world. They or their companies have been involved in stock dealings under the scrutiny of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

That fact makes it easy for Democrats, even in the absence of any wrongdoing by either of them, to tie them to what the Democrats like to call "the corporate culture," and thus to tap into the growing public outrage over corporate misbehavior, especially with investor money.

In the long run, though, the DLC leadership remains firmly convinced that the future of party is in cooperation, not constant conflict, with business. That's why it urges its members not to adopt a scattershot approach in going after what Mr. Bush might call the "evildoers" in the corporate towers.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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