Jeff Cohen is a media critic and lecturer, founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, where he is an associate professor of journalism. Cohen founded the media watch group FAIR in 1986.
transcriptPAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Ithaca, New York, and joining us again is Jeff Cohen. He's the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, and he was the founder of the media watchdog FAIR. Thanks for joining us again.JEFF COHEN, FOUNDING DIRECTOR OF PARK CENTER, FOUNDER OF FAIR: Great to be with you.JAY: In the first part we talked a bit about Massachusetts and what a swing voter is, but we wound up really talking about the corporatization of the Democratic Party. And also, I guess, maybe we shouldjust before we deal with that, let's talk a bit about the very conscious plan where to take the Republican Party, 'cause the Republican Party used to be this kind of also broad alliance of different political forces, and it's gotten narrower and narrower.COHEN: A lot of people know that there was a memo written by Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer lawyer, to the US Chamber of Commerce in 1971 in reaction to the new left, saying that big business has got to fight for itself: we've got to do messaging; we've got to deal with liberals and leftists in academia; we have to challenge the media. And that Powell memo set off a series of fundraising by big corporate forces and big donors. They set up their think tanks; they set up the Heritage Foundation; they mobilized the Christian right.JAY: Also in response to, I guess, partly what you're calling new left, but the antiwar movement. The politics was very in flux.COHEN: Oh, yeah. And, understandably, this corporate lawyer, who became a US Supreme Court justice after the memo was writtenbut the memo didn't surface until he was already on the Court, or he may never have been confirmedthey had real reason to be upset. And he's writing it to Chamber of Commerce, saying the business class has got to stand up for business and fight these forces of, you know, new left, anticorporate.JAY: Sometimes referred to as the forces of anarchy, I think.COHEN: Yeah, right. And what's interesting is that that memo to the US Chamber of Commercewe look at the Scott Brown victory, where he takes Ted Kennedy's seat, and everyone knows that the US Chamber of Commerce was a big player in getting Scott Brown elected as a populist. Alright. So, largely their goal was how do we take a mainstream party, the Republican Party, and turn it into an agency of the corporate right. And they did that over a period of decades. What's not talked about as much is that there was a parallel movement that started in the 1980s, which was to take the other major party, the historic party of the people, the Democratic Party, and turn it more toward the corporate right. And what happened in the 1980sand it was in fear of these same forceslabor unions, new left, antiwar, environmentalist, feminist. There was this sense that the Democratic Party was too allied with these movements, these social movements that were representing millions of people, so the Democratic Leadership Council was set up. It was set up, funded by oil companies, pharmaceutical companies, tobacco companies, some of the biggest companies in the country. It was largely a corporate front inside the Democratic Party to fight the movements in the Democratic Party and move the leadership of the party toward corporate prerogatives. Who were the leaders of it? Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman. These were three of the big figures, and, of course, they were the presidential and vice presidential candidates in '92, '96, and 2000. So it was, frankly, a very successful movement. Well, let's update the Democratic Leadership Council. In 2000. And they set up a few other groups, think tanks, that would push what was their agenda, so-called free trade, deficit reduction, budget balancing, and taking on the teachers unions, school vouchers. So now let's move to 2006, and a new group is formed as part of this constellation of moving the Democratic Party to the corporate right, and it's a group called the Alexander Hamilton Project of the Brookings Institution. And the director of it is Robert Rubin, who had been the Treasury Secretary for Clinton, had been at Goldman Sachs and, later, Citigroup. Roger Altman had been US Treasury Department under Clinton. And there's an amazing thing. And this group is set up for budget deficit, international trade, taking on the teachers union, and they had their founding meeting in April 2006. And only one US senator shows up to speak at this founding meeting, and that's a very new senator, Barack Obama from Illinois, who's only been in Washington a little over a year. So for a lot of us who were tracking Obama in 2007, of course he got a lot of $25 and $50 donations from people that really wanted change they could believe in, but in 2007, way before he was a front-runner, he was out-fundraising all the other candidates from Wall Street. And it was something I've never quite been able to figure out. There were two presidential candidates from the state of New York, Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton, and Obama was out-fundraising them from Wall Street early in '07. Now, Wall Street money and corporate money always goes to the front-runner. Obama was getting this money before he was the front-runner. So the missing piece to the puzzle is this clip where Obama is the only senator who shows up at the Alexander Hamilton Project.SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL): Thank you very much. I would love just to sit here with these folks and listen, because you've got on this panel and in this room some of the most innovative, thoughtful policymakers. I want to thank Bob and Roger and Peter for inviting me to be here today. I wish I could be here longer.COHEN: By the way, Alexander Hamilton in American history was, you know, leader of the Federalist Party, was seen as the elitist party. And the Democratic Party of Thomas Jefferson was founded as a party of the people that would challenge the elitism of Alexander Hamilton. And here you have all these Wall Street Democrats setting up this group, had Obama as their first speaker from the US Senate, and in the clip Obama says that he wants to thank Bob, Roger, and Peter. Bob is Robert Rubin. Roger is Roger Altman. These are Clinton Wall Street Democrats. And who's Peter? It's Peter Orszag, the first founding director of the Hamilton Project, who then becomes, later, Obama's head of Office of Management and Budget. So what you've had is the Democratic Party since the '80s, big corporate money going in there, trying to elevate these candidates, giving them money, giving them a lot of media protection. This is a Democrat who can get elected, who can appeal to those swing voters. And so we've had Clinton, Gore, Lieberman, and now Obama that are part of this. Now, Obama was never close to the Democratic Leadership Council, but it's interesting that a newer incarnation of Wall Street Democratic think tank, he's there at their founding meeting.JAY: So the progressive political movement or segment of the population should have known most of this. Now, they may not have known about the Hamilton Project, they may not have known some of the specific details, but if you listen to what candidate Obama said philosophicallyhe was asked about his foreign policy. He said, "I come from a tradition of American pragmatism." He would datethe lineage began with Truman. He would even include George Bush senior. On economics, on any serious interview, he talked like a center, center-right politician, but the progressives all kind of drank the Kool-Aid.COHEN: They heard the slogans, which was "change you could believe in". When there's thousands of people at a rally all holding up signs that say "change", you know, people sort of glommed on a message that they wanted to hear. The important thing that Obama said as soon as Hillary was out of the race. Remember when both Hillary and Obama were trying to present themselves as populists who are against NAFTA in Ohio? Which is a joke, 'cause they're both free traders. But as soon as Hillary was out of the race, what did Obama do? He runs to CNBC and says, "I'm a free-market guy. I believe in the market."OBAMA: I am a pro-growth, free-market guy. I love the market. I think it is the best invention to allocate resources.COHEN: Now, Obama's a smart man; he knows that in 2008, by 2008, there's not a free-market. I mean, a few companies have taken over basically every industry. And when somebody announces "I'm a free-market guy," it's a softer way of saying "I'm a corporate guy."Obama's smart enough not to say that. But I think what's happened was the left was so intent on getting the Clintonites out and defeating Hillary Clinton, which brought with it all the baggage of the Clintonites that the left had suffered through for eight years of what we consider DLC, Democratic Leadership Council governing, that there was this sense that while Obama's got some of these same connections, at least he's not a Clintonite and he's not in the DLC. And it turns out he's sort of a newer incarnation of the corporate Democrat. And what we've seen after one year is that while Bill Clinton, who's as slick as any candidate ever was in '92, or Obama, who's as slick as even the "slickster" (which is what they used to call Slick Willy, Bill Clinton) in 2008, you have to govern, ultimately. You can't get reelected, you can't even get your people to win the congressional elections two years later, unless you deliver for the swing voter. And it turns out that Obama is just so tied to these economic advisers that he brought from the Wall Street Democrats that he's just bungled away his first year. And the American public wanted change; they voted for change. He didn't deliver change, and now the Republicans, the faux Republicans, are posing as the populists who will deliver change.JAY: Okay. So in the next second of our interview, let's talk a bit about the historical struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party, assuming there is one, and where it might be going now. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Jeff Cohen.