Will bashing banks save Democrats?

Some strategists think a new anti-Wall Street populism from the White House could put the GOP on the defensive

By Mike Madden
Published January 22, 2010 11:14PM (EST)

The anti-Wall Street populism that the White House is trying to channel has some Democrats wondering if it can help keep their losses down in November's elections. And strangely enough, they're finding some evidence that it might work in... Massachusetts.

Yes, Republican Scott Brown won the Senate special election there handily on Tuesday night (in case you hadn't been paying attention). But some glass-half-full Democratic strategists think the margin would have been even worse if the conversation hadn't shifted, in the race's closing days, to the question of Wall Street vs. Main Street. President Obama unveiled a proposal last Wednesday to charge big banks fees to recoup the federal tax money that's helped prop them up. Later that day, Democratic candidate Martha Coakley came out in support of the fee, and Brown said he opposed it.

By Thursday -- with five days left in the campaign -- Brown had started engaging in a debate on the issue, calling the fee a tax and shrugging off the notion that he was siding with big business.

As soon as the issue hit the Massachusetts political radar screen, though, Brown started to show the first signs of weakness in the race in weeks. Internal Coakley tracking polls obtained by Salon show Brown's "very unfavorable" rating went up from 15 percent before the bank fee proposal came out, to 25 percent in Thursday night's survey. Earlier in the week, 30 percent of voters had said Brown was on the side of Wall Street, not Main Street; by Thursday, that was up to 40 percent. Public polling over the weekend showed Brown's negative ratings shot up in the final week of the campaign as well (though Coakley's, crucially, did the same thing).

That jibes with findings in an AFL-CIO-sponsored poll after the election, which the labor group said indicated the election was more of a working class revolt against the status quo than a partisan rejection of the White House's agenda. 61 percent of Massachusetts voters the unions polled said the government had helped Wall Street, compared to only 18 percent who said it had helped average working people.

"This is a very potent argument for us, it is a winning argument, it is one that Republicans are very susceptible to -- we just got to it too late in Massachusetts," said Eric Schultz, communications director at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. In New Hampshire, Rep. Paul Hodes, the Democratic candidate for Senate, pushed his three GOP opponents on the bank fee issue this week, after the Massachusetts election. Add in the new rules Obama has proposed to keep investment banks from getting "too big to fail," and which Republicans are likely to side with the banks in opposing, and might Democrats have found a way to push back? "It's a real concrete policy position and policy difference," Schultz said. "[And] it reinforces the larger narrative that we are pushing on Republicans right now, that they are on the side of big corporate interests and Wall Street."

There are some problems with this new hopeful theory, though. For one, even if Democrats are able to play up the GOP's support for big banks, the unemployment rate is still over 10 percent -- which has voters ready to punish everyone in politics. "There is a lot of anger at those big financial institutions," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "To the extent that Democrats are bringing them to heel and Republicans are defending them, we're in a better position and they're in a worse position. But a lot of this also has to do with the environment, and as long as the economy is in bad shape, it's going to be hard for us."

Besides that, there was so much flying around on TV in the closing days of the Massachusetts race that it's not entirely clear how much credit to give the Wall Street argument for any bumps on the road to Brown's victory. Ask GOP strategists, and they'll tell you: not much. "We tracked on Saturday and Sunday," said Neil Newhouse, Brown's pollster. "The numbers didn't move." Surveys for Brown's campaign asked voters open-ended questions about what they had seen that gave them a more, or less, favorable impression of the candidates, and why. Almost no one mentioned the banks. "I read every single one of those damn things, and it didn't show up," Newhouse said. "The bank thing came up a little bit as a positive for her, but never as a negative for us. Out of 500 verbatims I read over two days, it just wasn't there."

Still, if the White House can get some momentum going to bash banks like Goldman Sachs -- which on Thursday reported a profit of nearly $5 billion just in the last three months of 2009 -- that could get through to voters who are sick of watching their bills rise and paychecks fall, while Wall Street seems immune to the financial debacle the banks caused. And though Republicans say they'll paint the fees as a tax hike, it's not hard to imagine campaign commercials that replay, over and over again, the unanimous refusal of the House GOP to back new financial regulations.

Of course, thanks to the Supreme Court's insistence that corporations have the right to spend freely on politics, the whole thing may be moot anyway. The investment banks can just buy up all the TV time, and there won't be any room for Democrats or Republicans to drive their own messages. But it's something to keep an eye on as the election year goes on.

Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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