As the Senate vote looms on President Obama's proposal to hold the big Wall Street Banks accountable, Republican members of the Senate are beginning to wake up to a fearful possibility:
That the Tea Party's populist pitchforks may be turned against Wall Street and Republican Senators who defend the big banks.
Turns out that recent polling has shown that Wall Street bankers are almost as unpopular with Tea Party types as President Obama.
A recent Bloomberg poll found that while self-identified Tea Party supporters generally oppose "big government" they are more than happy to look to government to rein in Wall Street. What's more, almost half said that the government should do something about executive bonuses.
In fact, the upcoming vote presents traditional Republican defenders of Wall Street with a serious political problem. It's not just swing voters who could be alienated by their defense of Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, CitiCorp and the like. Their votes could substantially diminish the enthusiasm of their base.
The President and Senate Democratic leadership plan to frame the debate on big bank accountability as a showdown between the interests of Main Street and those of Wall Street. Republicans will have a very tough time if they find themselves on the Wall Street side of that divide - since Wall Street bankers are about as popular right now as Jack the Ripper - especially among the Tea Party activists.
It was fairly easy to get Tea Party supporters whipped into a frenzy about health care reform. All the corporate end of the Republican Party had to do was raise the specter of government intruding into someone's personal relationship with their doctor. The health care bill did nothing to interfere with that relationship, but it was easy to stoke fear nonetheless since the issue involved something very personal - health care.
When it comes to Wall Street, a whole other frame takes over. Most Americans, including Tea Partiers, think - correctly-that recklessness of the big Wall Street banks cost seven million Americans their jobs. What's worse, they see the guys who caused the collapse stuffing their pockets with multi-million dollar bonuses. Not only wasn't this crowd punished for ruining our economy and stealing our jobs - they were rewarded. That strikes average Americans - including Tea Partiers - as an outrage.
But the Tea Party crowd is especially vulnerable to the politics of resentment. There are lots of alienated, angry people among the Tea Party faithful - many of whom have lost their jobs or had a hard time making a go of their businesses. The last thing they want to hear are guys in $2000 Italian suits from Goldman Sachs explaining why they have to pay out ten million dollar bonuses to a bunch of traders because the "market demands it." Tea Party supporters are much more prone to believe that there is a conspiracy between government and the banks to make the tiny elite on Wall Street very rich at everyone else's expense.
Tea Party activists don't much trust big institutions of any sort - big government or big banks. They think of themselves as victims -- of the bureaucrats in Washington as well as the big banks in New York.
According to the Bloomberg poll, "Tea Party supporters are likely to be older, white and male. Forty percent are age 55 and over….. just 22 percent are under the age of 35…. Many are Christian fundamentalists…"
Tea Party supporters are the type of people who see things in terms of right and wrong, black and white. The contradictions between their overall belief in smaller government and a desire to see government rein in Wall Street banks doesn't trouble them at all. When they see huge bonuses going to the same people who cost them and their neighbors their jobs, they think that is wrong -- period-- and they think that Government should do something about it. They feel the same way about government action to rein in banks as they do about government action to stop criminal behavior. To them, building a bigger government to hold Wall Street accountable does not appear to contradict their opposition to "big government" any more than building a bigger government to apprehend rapists and murderers.
All of this is why Democrats have such high political ground in the debate over holding the big banks accountable. Democrats and swing voters want action - and a large chuck of the Republican Party's activist base does too. And the intensity level - the affect - is very high as well. This Wall Street bank issue has the potential to stoke Democratic base turnout - and if Republicans play their cards wrong - it could depress excitement among many of their rank and file. Midterm elections are all about turnout, so the votes of Republicans on this issue may have powerful long-term political consequences.
Republican Senators need to start thinking twice about all those Wall Street lobbyists who shuttle in and out of their offices and write fat checks for their campaign funds.
The Wall Street bank issue has the same kind of power as a "wedge" issue dividing Republicans as choice and gay marriage had as "wedge" issues on the Democratic side a decade ago. But this time, the wedge is between the Republican activist base on the one hand, and the wealthy Wall Street elite that has always set the Republican Party's primary agenda on the other.
The bottom line is simple. Lining up with the Wall Street Banks this spring is going to be really bad politics for Republicans this fall.
Somebody once said the Democratic Party is a coalition of rich people who hate the Moral Majority and ordinary people who hate Mutual of Omaha -- and the Republican Party is a coalition of rich people who hate the AFL-CIO and ordinary people who hate the ACLU. The Wall Street Bank issue has the potential to drive a gaping chasm between the rich person and ordinary person wings of the Republican Party.
I, for one, think it's about time.
Robert Creamer's recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on Amazon.com.