Today in the midst of a veritable tidal wave of white-collar crime -- which some Republicans fear could lead to a political undertow for their party next November -- the Securities and Exchange Commission, created by FDR to police the stock market, has been so passive that, as one local wise-guy cracked, "If the SEC had been in charge of D-Day, the German army would still be goose-stepping on the Champs Elysees."
But that has not prevented Big Business from becoming the Typhoid Mary of American politics. When the Gallup Poll recently asked Americans how much confidence they had in selected U.S. institutions, "a great deal, quite a lot, some or very little," Big Business tied for next to last with Wall Street, just ahead of HMOs.
Among those ahead of business in winning public confidence were TV news, newspapers, Congress, organized religion (which, too, has had a tough year) and even the conservatives' favorite punching bag, organized labor. A July 1 CNN/Gallup/USA Today survey indicated that by a 2-to-1 ratio, voters believe business has "too much influence over the decisions made by the Bush administration" and that 76 percent of voters believe business has "too much influence" or "excessive power" over Republicans in Congress.
This is not meant to suggest these same voters think Democrats are plaster saints and virtuously free of business's grasp. They do not. But when asked whether they thought Democrats or Republicans in Congress "are more interested in protecting the interests of ordinary Americans (or are they more interested in) protecting the interests of large corporations," those polled said congressional Democrats by a three-to-two margin were more interested in ordinary Americans, while by a lopsided 62 percent to 30 percent edge, people judged congressional Republicans to be more concerned with large corporations at the expense of average folks.
This puts Republicans in the minds of voters where they least want to be: in the company of the CEOs of criminal corporations conspicuous either for their arrogant greed or their greedy arrogance, or both.
Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., has won broad support for his bill to place sharp curbs on the consulting work accounting firms do for clients whose books they are auditing. The Enron, Global Crossing, Qwest, WorldCom and Xerox scandals (all coincidentally clients of Andersen accounting) have shattered lives, wrecked futures and depleted investor and public confidence.
Company accounts must be true, complete and accurate if confidence is ever to be restored. In the Congress, Republicans today constitute nearly all the opposition to Sarbanes' reforms.
What this means for the congressional elections next November must be obvious to both parties. The Democrats, who have shown all the ferocity of a tranquilized sheep, have been dealt the political equivalent of four aces. Their GOP opponents are widely perceived to be committed not to comforting the afflicted, but to comforting the already very comfortable. "Corporate responsibility" and tougher regulation of business is a loser political issue for Republicans. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney boasting of "getting tough" on business outlaws is about as believable as Bill Clinton insisting that he actually tried to enlist in the 82nd Airborne.
This is not about business-baiting or corporate-bashing for the Democrats. Their message is straightforward and unarguable: "It is time to go back to fundamentals and to do the right thing. Let's level the playing field for everybody. American values are about a lot more than narrow self-interest. The Republicans are just too close to, and too dependent upon, the very corporate interests that must now be brought to justice. Voters and ordinary citizens, without influential lobbyists on their payroll, need the Democrats to guarantee some checks and balances in Washington." That would extend to the fights over health care, prescription drugs, and the environment.
With budget surpluses "as far as the eye can see" having been banished in less than a year and a half by an arriving parade of budget deficits, here are six words you will not hear publicly uttered between now and Nov. 6 in behalf of any Republican in a competitive campaign: "We must privatize Social Security ... now." Events have combined to deal the Democrats an incredibly powerful political hand for 2002. How they play it will determine if the Democrats win back the U.S. House in November.
Mark Shields is a commentator on PBS' "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer" and on CNN's "Capital Gang."
Copyright 2002 by Creators Syndicate