Wall Street Democrats' wake-up call: Why center-right policies make for horrible politics

What Rhode Island Democrat Gina Raimondo's surprisingly close race says about the folly of neoliberalism

Published November 3, 2014 7:36PM (EST)

Gina Raimondo    (AP/Steven Senne)
Gina Raimondo (AP/Steven Senne)

Over the weekend, the New York Times took note of Rhode Island's surprisingly competitive gubernatorial race, in which Democratic nominee Gina Raimondo, the state treasurer, barely leads Republican candidate Allan Fung, the mayor of Cranston, in the polls. Raimondo finds herself in a close contest in large part, the Times observes, because of the unpopularity of her radical restructuring of the state's pension system as treasurer. While the right-wing Wall Street Journal editorial page and Raimondo's financial industry backers applauded her pension "reforms," she earned the enmity of public employees when she slashed their guaranteed retirement income and redirected pension investments toward the hedge fund industry, never bothering to consult with public employee unions in the process. Raimondo's vulnerability heading into tomorrow's election underscores the political pitfalls for Democrats of pursuing policies that please plutocrats and other Very Serious People at the expense of the common good.

First, however, it's important to note that "reforms" like Raimondo's aren't simply wrongheaded from a political perspective. The center-right economic agenda is also terrible policy. In Rhode Island, the hedge funds who benefited from Raimondo's pension overhaul haven't delivered better returns for the state pension fund, and undermining workers' retirement security poses substantial economic risks. Other pet causes of the center-right -- like savage cuts in the social insurance programs Medicare and Social Security -- are similarly counterproductive, damaging seniors' purchasing power and restricting their financial flexibility. That's before you even get into the morality of asking low- and middle-income Americans to bear the brunt of the elite's austerity mania.

So we know that the center-right's economic agenda is bad policy. But Democratic centrists insist that it makes for smart politics; you don't want to open yourself up to attacks that you're a dirty pinko liberal, after all. Never mind that economic populist proposals score exceedingly well in the polls. Never mind what's happening in Rhode Island, where 58 percent of Democratic voters opposed Raimondo in September's gubernatorial primary and a Republican may well ascend to the governorship thanks in large part to anger with her pension overhaul.

“She’s playing with our livelihoods in a way that’s not kosher,” one public employee told the Times, speaking at a house party for Fung.

Fung isn't exactly a reliable ally of the public employee groups whom Raimondo spurned. As Cranston's mayor, Fung has implemented his own pension overhaul, for instance. But -- opportunistically or not -- Fung is promising public employees that he'll hear them out as governor, and has walked back anti-union comments he made earlier in the campaign.

“The unions are there, and under my administration they’ll always have a seat across the table,” Fung told the Wall Street Journal last week.

What's happening in Rhode Island is hardly unique. Republicans elsewhere are hammering Democratic incumbents over their support for changes to Social Security and Medicare. Democrats on the receiving end of such attacks include North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan, Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, California Rep. Scott Peters, Georgia Rep. John Barrow, and Arizona Rep. Ron Barber. In Barber's district, the Arizona GOP distributed a flier last week that asked, “What makes Ron Barber so scary?” The answer? "His vote for the terrifying Paul Ryan budget.” The flier described the plan Barber voted for -- which was actually a compromise proposal offered by Ryan and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, not Ryan's original, more conservative budget proposal -- as a “bone-chilling” proposal to "cut vital assistance programs.”

The Republicans running against Democrats like Raimondo and Barber won't be champions of economic populism, and in some cases would likely pursue even more draconian cuts. But their attacks serve as a useful reminder that laudatory editorials from the Wall Street Journal don't win elections. Abandoning core principles and essential programs can help lose them, however.

By Luke Brinker

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