"Wall Street shifting toward Republicans," blared a front-page headline in The Washington Post last week. "Commercial banks and high-flying investment firms have shifted their political contributions toward Republicans in recent months amid harsh rhetoric from Democrats about fat bank profits, generous bonuses and stingy lending policies on Wall Street," the Post announced, making it sound as if the sinister forces of corporate reaction were punishing the brave reformer in the White House. After all, Barack "Teddy Roosevelt" Obama assailed Wall Street bonuses for "fat cats" and has promised tax increases for the wealthy, in the name of spreading the wealth.
Except there's one datum, mentioned but not explored in the article that doesn't quite fit this story line: Wall Street is still giving more money to the Democrats. "The wealthy securities and investment industry ... went from giving 2 to 1 to Democrats at the start of 2009 to providing almost half of its donations to Republicans by the end of the year," the Post reports.
Almost half. That's another way of saying that the allegedly vindictive Wall Street fat cats are still giving more than half of their political donations to Democrats, also known as the party in power.
It turns out that's what most big businesses and fat cats do: back the winner. And that's probably the best explanation for why the Republicans are getting more money from Wall Street these days. Everyone agrees that the GOP is poised to make huge gains in the House and Senate, conceivably taking one or both chambers. Scott Brown's victory in the Massachusetts Senate race also took away the Democrats' supermajority. As several lobbyists have explained to me, just as a matter of political math, the Republicans matter now. When Senate Democrats had all the power, lobbyists had to give more money to Democrats. Now that the equation has tilted back toward the center, giving has become more evenhanded.
No doubt, with populist prairie fires raging across the political landscape, the White House hardly regrets being cast as the enemy of "special interests" and beady-eyed bankers who look like Mr. Monopoly. But the truth of the matter is a bit different.
It's worth remembering that Obama was the preferred candidate of Wall Street, and the industry gave to Democrats by a 2-1 margin at the beginning of last year. The top business donor to Democrats in 2008 was Goldman Sachs, and nearly 75 cents out of every dollar of Goldman's political donations from 2006 to 2008 went to Democrats. Few can gainsay the investment, given how well Goldman Sachs has done under the Obama administration.
It's not just Wall Street. Obama led in fundraising from most big business sectors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Aside from the desire to back the winner, and the cultural liberalness of East and West Coast plutocrats, why did Obama get so much support from precisely the constituency he demonizes?
Because it was good business. A host of big corporations bet that the much-vaunted Obama era would materialize. For instance, nearly 30 major corporations and environmental groups invested in Obama's promise to force the American economy into a new cap-and-trade system via the United States Climate Action Partnership (CAP).
Whatever the benefits of such a scheme for the economy and environment as a whole, these corporations, led by General Electric, were looking simply to cash in on government policies. GE, which makes many wind, solar and nuclear doodads that would be profitable under "cap-and-trade," was poised to make billions if Obama succeeded in seizing control of the "carbon economy." GE is still protecting its bet, but after the failure in Copenhagen, the "climategate" scandals and perhaps most significantly, that implosion of Obama's new progressive era, several heavyweights -- Caterpillar, BP and ConocoPhillips -- have pulled out of CAP, with rumors that more will follow. There are similar rumblings of discontent within the ranks of PhRMA, the trade association for the pharmaceutical industry, which had cut an $80 billion deal with the White House last year for its support of ObamaCare, only to see the whole thing unravel.
The lesson here is fairly simple: Big business is not "right wing," it's vampiric. It will pursue any opportunity to make a big profit at little risk. Getting in bed with politicians is increasingly the safest investment for these "crony capitalists." But only if the politicians can actually deliver. The political failures of the Obama White House have translated into business failures for firms more eager to make money off taxpayers instead of consumers.
That's good news. The bad news will be if the Republicans once again opt to be the cheap dates of big business. For years, the GOP defended big business in the spirit of free enterprise while businesses never showed much interest in the principle themselves. Now that their bet on the Democrats has crapped out, it'd be nice if they stopped trying to game the system and focused instead on satisfying the consumer.