The faces of neo-liberalism, Part I: Robert Gibbs, Andrew Cuomo, and Rahm Emanuel

By Rima Regas

The rise of corporate Democrats has gone from a quiet but steady pace since 2010, to a very visible and in-your-face spectacle of late. The face of the party has changed, with some of the old guard gone, but many Democrats who were always at the right-most edge of the party playing more central roles in our parliamentary politics.

In Congress, especially over the past year, we’ve seen deals quietly made by certain Senate Democrats with the GOP, on the backs of the poor and unemployed. The economic agenda of the Democratic party, as a whole, has vanished, as has its vocal support for its blue collar constituencies.  While there are still a few progressives who stump for jobs, the unemployed, our safety net, education, and infrastructure, that talk isn’t backed by any particular legislative effort on the part of the leadership to, at the very least, give the appearance that it is trying to bring these issues back to the fore.

If you remember, when it became clear that voting to pass the budget bill in late December signified the end of unemployment benefits for 1.3 million long-term unemployed, California Senator Barbara Boxer went in front of the camera and said Democrats would fight to pass a separate UI extension bill in January. That, of course, never happened. Why, once they voted for the Ryan Budget, Democrats thought they would have other opportunities to reinstate unemployment benefits is puzzling. Surely, they knew that any leverage they might have had ended with the passage of the budget.

That same 2014 budget saw cuts to SNAP in addition to mandatory sequester cuts in October. That budget was voted on and passed with the help of House Democrats, as millions of working poor were left to eat even less. In a stock email response to me from Senator Dianne Feinstein answers voters questioning why she voted in favor of SNAP cuts. Here is how she justifies it:

“… While the Farm Bill does reduce funds for SNAP by $8.6 million, this cut is significantly less than the cuts contained in the bill passed by the House.  While I am disappointed the cuts are not reinvested in hunger-reduction programs, I hope the reforms in the bill will lead to long-term improvement of the program.  SNAP helps feed 4 million Californians, and I will continue to support funding for this vital program.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein

It goes without saying that “ours isn’t as bad as theirs” just isn’t good enough when we survey the scale and scope of hunger in our nation.

When the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement was at the top of the agenda, many in the leadership supported it for a long time. Speaker Pelosi, for a time, was non-committal about it. Then, as others in the Senate pulled back on their support, she curiously expressed doubts about her previous skepticism on the TPP. It took a huge grassroots campaign effort to finally ensure that there were not enough votes to pass it. Months later, we find out, thanks to Lee Fang at the Republic Report, that the top negotiators earned huge bonuses from the big banks for their effort in the TPP negotiations.

Moving away from national politics and looking at individual blue states we see Andrew Cuomo, who is running for reelection on a platform of unfulfilled promises, amid very vocal accusations of corporatism. A striking example of Cuomo and the progressive wing clashing came when Mayor de Blasio was working to get his pre-K initiative off and running. Cuomo stood out, far to the right of the new mayor.

Moving to the middle of the country, and examining the ascent of Obama administration alum Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, we see the rise of a more potent and aggressive version of neo-liberalism, as expressed in his acrimonious war against teachers over school closures and education reform on one front, and municipal employee unions over retiree pensions, on another front.

Now, to add salt to already sore wounds, we hear from Politico’s Stephanie Simon that Chicagoans and Obama administration alums Robert Gibbs and Ben LaBolt’s new venture consists of spearheading the attack on tenure and teacher unions.

Teachers unions are girding for a tough fight to defend tenure laws against a coming blitz of lawsuits — and an all-out public relations campaign led by former aides to President Barack Obama.

The Incite Agency, founded by former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and former Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt, will lead a national public relations drive to support a series of lawsuits aimed at challenging tenure, seniority and other job protections that teachers unions have defended ferociously. LaBolt and another former Obama aide, Jon Jones — the first digital strategist of the 2008 campaign — will take the lead in the public relations initiative.

The involvement of such high-profile Obama alumni highlights the sharp schism within the Democratic Party over education reform.

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When placed against the context of this week’s Supreme Court decision on Harris vs. Quinn, it seems that the effort to kill America’s unions, and workers’ ability to bargain, is well-underway. To quote Think Progress’ Ian Millhiser:

Harris v. Quinn, which is being argued Tuesday before the Supreme Court, presents the question of whether public sector unions may charge what are known as “agency fees” to non-union members who benefit from the fact that the union bargains on their behalf. By one estimate, unionization raises worker wages by about 12 percent, so the benefits that non-union members receive from having a union bargain on their behalf are significant.

For decades, public sector unions have operated under a simple bargain. Unions are subject to two restrictions — they may not require non-members to fund the union’s political activity, and they must bargain on behalf of every worker in a unionized shop, regardless of whether each individual worker belongs to the union. In other words, the union cannot encourage non-members to join by bargaining for higher wages or other benefits that only apply to union members. When a union secures a wage increase, the non-members benefit from the higher wages as well. Curated from

Putting these events together points to a potentially very dangerous turning point in the Democratic party. The faithful adherence voters have always associated to the most basic of labor policies by the Democratic party is fast becoming a thing of the past. While many speak of a “new populism,” the danger is in assuming that it exists outside of very specific pockets in the nation, places like New York City and Seattle.

Turning the conversation back to the national level, there is every indication that control of the Democratic party is currently firmly held by the neo-Liberal wing. At a time when polling suggests a shift to the left by the Democratic-voting public (including millenials), there is a disconnect between the party apparatus and its constituency. Pew Research recently released a comprehensive report, The Political Typology: Beyond Red vs. Blue. In the section that compares political typology groups, we see trends that point to a

The Pew Research Center’s Political Typology looks beyond “Red vs. Blue” in American politics, sorting voters into cohesive groups, based on their attitudes and values – not their partisan labels.



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This disconnect may well explain the voter disengagement we saw during the primaries and may bode ill for voter engagement in the November mid-term election. Republicans win mid-terms when Democrats stay home. That is a fact that has been proven time and again.

In her Politico piece,  Stephanie Simon opines about a schism within the Democratic party over education reform. In my opinion, that schism traverses more than that one issue and includes all the core social credos that have always distinguished Democrats from the other party. If the Democrats continue on this trajectory, with high profile Democrats working against traditional party interests and constituencies, one can only expect a deepening of voter distrust. The latest polling from Gallup  points to voter disillusionment and detachment, and a loss of faith in America’s institutions.  In “Voter Exasperation With Washington,” Charles Blow writes:

Congress doesn’t fare better. Confidence in the legislature is actually much lower. According to a Gallup poll released last week, confidence in Congress has dropped to a historic low with only 7 percent of respondents saying they have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the institution.

In fact, the Gallup poll, conducted early this month, found that less than a third of Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the Supreme Court, and various other institutions, including public schools, banks, the criminal justice system, organized labor and big business.

Absent bold and substantive steps  by the Progressive leadership to wrest back its share of Democratic power back, reassuring its voter bases that the party still has their interests at heart, the Democratic party stands to lose not only its majority in the Senate, but may well lose seats in the House of Representatives. Whether it is a side-effect of the radicalization of the GOP or some independent process,  the left has swung too far to the right for a growing number of its voters who do not have a third party to go to. While it is unlikely they will do as they have in the past, vote for the GOP, these voters will most likely stay home this time around, with the same disastrous results. There is no third choice.

At this point, it is too late for Progressives to go out on their own with the expectation they’ll make an impact on the 2014 election. However, there is time for them to influence the 2016 election. Progressive leaders are well-positioned, with high-visibility and name recognition among the voting public. In the interest of the longer term, it would behoove them to weigh the risks and benefits of forming a center-left of center third party, to better match the voter sentiment that has been building in the polls since at least 2010.

It would be a mistake for anyone to believe that the GOP-Tea Party war for the soul of that party is a phenomenon that is unique to it. It isn’t. The signs that a similar fight is about to begin on the left are beginning to show. It’s all in the timing and the best-organized side – not necessarily the best one – will come out the winner.

To be continued…

4 thoughts on “The faces of neo-liberalism, Part I: Robert Gibbs, Andrew Cuomo, and Rahm Emanuel”

  1. Rima, would you be in favor of a Tea Party-like group springing up on the Left? Is that what you’re saying?

    1. Thanks for leaving a comment.
      I am in favor of the growth of the Moral Mondays movement nationwide as a positive force for social change. The Tea Party is a negative for me.

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