Why Did Howard Dean Pretend Unions and Wall Street Are Similar in Power and Influence?

Eli Massey


Howard Dean, former Vermont Governor, has long been considered a liberal stalwart. He opposed the Iraq war and has supported single-payer health care. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont also opposed the Iraq war and supports single-payer health care. So Dean’s endorsement of Secretary Hillary Clinton leaves some scratching their head: Clinton backed the Iraq war and her health care plan is not single-payer.

Last week Dean spoke with Andrea Mitchell and gave us some insight into his support for the former Secretary. Journalists have called for Hillary Clinton to release the transcript of her paid speeches to Goldman Sachs ($675,000 for three speeches). Howard Dean explains the double standard” he observed on the Democratic campaign trail surrounding this issue: 

Why does Hillary Clinton have to put up with a double standard? I don’t hear anybody asking Bernie Sanders for his transcripts for some speech he made with the labor union. And for Bernie, frankly, to say he doesn’t have a super PAC — Labor unions are super PACs. Now, they’re super PACs that Democrats like, so we don’t go after labor unions, but this is a double standard. I am tired of the attacks on Hillary Clinton’s integrity. I think they are unwarranted.

Beside the fact that unions are not super PACs,” the comparison goes astray for two reasons: Organized labor and Wall Street do not exercise power over the political process in the same way or to the same degree, and unions are run on the financial support of working class people through union dues.

Organized labor and Wall Street are not two sides of the same coin, each influencing politics in an equal and opposite manner. The amount spent by business groups seeking to influence the political process dwarfs that of organized labor. In 2013-14, for instance, labor PACs donated $59,879,660, not an insubstantial sum. However, business PACs donated nearly 6.5 times more. Further, unions are required to disclose information about political and lobbying efforts in ways that super PACs are not.

A much publicized study, coauthored by professors from Princeton University and Northwestern University, found economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” These economic elites and organized groups representing business interests” commandeer great political power — often to the point of smothering democracy, the study argues.

The absurdity of Dean’s position becomes clear when he notes a double standard” in requesting transcripts from Clinton’s speeches to Wall Street, but not from Sanders’ speeches to labor unions. Nobody believes Sanders deviated from his well-rehearsed screed railing against the 1%, least of all while addressing a labor union. In Clinton’s case, however, people who attended one of her speeches opined that she offered a message that the collected plutocrats found reassuring.”

This isn’t the first time Howard Dean has privileged his self-interest over his purported values, even during this campaign. Currently Dean serves as senior advisor at Dentons, a law practice. Dentons lobbies on behalf of pharmaceutical and for-profit health care interests, and Dean, despite his staunch denial, is a lobbyist in all but name. Why else would this advocate of single-payer health care, in light of his endorsement of Clinton, suggest trying to implement it [single-payer] would in fact undo people’s health care”?

Sanders’ record on this front isn’t spotless, however. A number of super PACs unaffiliated with the Sanders campaign, but supporters nonetheless, have raised money to help him. Sanders has denounced many of them, and in some cases specifically asked them to stop fundraising on his behalf. And while Sanders’ plan to rein in the excesses of Wall Street is the strongest among any presidential candidate who stands a chance of winning, it is far from sufficient.

Still, the fact that a Democratic Party power player like Howard Dean is engaging in such contorted intellectual acrobatics is a sure sign that Sanders’ anti-Wall Street message has touched a nerve in the Democratic Party.

Eli Massey is an independent journalist, editor, and researcher. His work has has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Current Affairs, Jacobin, Mondoweiss, and elsewhere. He previously was an intern at the Institute for Policy Studies where he worked on Middle East politics and an editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him at @EliJMassey
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