Two years ago, we compared the opioid epidemic to the mortgage crisis that nearly cratered the global economy, noting how both were caused by corporate greed. Recent reporting in the Washington Post and other media outlets reveals an important difference between the two: unlike the regulators who were blithely ignorant of what was happening in the financial markets, officials at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) knew exactly how many opioid pills were being distributed in the U.S. and where they were going. They simply chose to do nothing about it even though DEA investigators and line attorneys were pushing to hold at least one major drug manufacturer responsible for fueling the deadly epidemic.
The Obama administration’s decision to let drug company CEOs and managers off the hook runs parallel with its refusal to prosecute the big bank and brokerage officials who ignited the mortgage crisis. This eagerness to place Wall Street above Main Street is the key to solving the mystery that has confounded pundits, pollsters, and prognosticators since November 8, 2016: why did so many blue-collar and working class voters abandon the Democratic Party and vote for Trump?
In our minds, it’s all about hypocrisy, broken promises, and dashed hopes.
Let’s be realistic. From opposing the Wagner Act, to imposing the Taft-Hartley Act, to proposing right-to-work laws, to firing striking air traffic controllers, to embracing free trade, to supporting anti-worker policies too numerous to mention in this space, Republicans have never hidden their disdain for working people and unions or their love for the rich and corporations. When a voter casts a ballot for a GOP candidate, they know what they’re going to get.
Conversely, since 1932, Democrats have positioned themselves as advocates for working men and women. For most of that time, they attempted to keep the promises they made. Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson, all proposed and implemented policies that strengthened workers’ rights and created the opportunity for more and more Americans to grab a piece of the American Dream.
And then came the “Man from Hope,” Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, AKA President “Hope and Change.”
When we looked back at all the times these two dashed the hopes of everyday Americans, we weren’t surprised that blue collar and working-class voters abandoned the Democratic Party. What’s surprising is that it took them so long to head for the door. By 2016, they were tired of being screwed over by Democratic presidents who promised one thing but delivered only repeated blows to the working class’s collective solar plexus. Trump’s ability to recognize and exploit that fatigue along with his opponent’s refusal to acknowledge that Clinton and Obama had made mistakes carried him to victory.
A quick trip down memory lane validates our thesis. During his 1992 campaign, Clinton vowed to reform America’s health care system and outlaw the use of permanent replacement workers during labor disputes. Those promises energized a labor movement that had been demoralized when Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers and was being crushed at the negotiating table by rapidly rising health care costs. Union members turned out in droves and fueled Clinton’s victories in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
How did he repay them? Not by reforming health care or banning the use of scabs. Instead, he passed and implemented NAFTA, put former Goldman Sachs co-chair Robert Rubin in charge of the economy, and fought tooth and nail to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act.
Anyone who doubts that these actions had any effect on the 2016 election should consider all the hundreds of thousands of blue-collar jobs that NAFTA erased across the Midwest. In the Mahoning Valley, it wiped out Delphi Packard, General Electric, RG Steel, and other firms. The people who worked for those companies and their families haven’t forgotten who fought for and signed the pact that erased thousands of good jobs–and they almost certainly took note of the fact that his spouse was the Democratic Party’s nominee in 2016.
NAFTA-based job cuts were still fresh wounds for many voters in 2016. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, thousands of workers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin lost their jobs due to foreign competition and thus qualified for Trade Adjustment Assistance programs between October 2015 and September 2016. They would have been particularly susceptible to Trump’s anti-NAFTA message in the run-up to the election.
The repeal of Glass-Steagall, which was enthusiastically supported by then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, set the stage for the mortgage crisis that cost millions of Americans, many of them working-class, their homes. Rubin saw no danger in deregulating the financial markets, only opportunity–for himself. He resigned his post at Treasury to accept a top job at Citigroup just days after the Clinton administration placed its stamp of approval on the repeal.
As some candidates in the most recent Democratic presidential debate had the temerity to point out, Barack Obama’s betrayals of the working class were every bit as egregious as Clinton’s – maybe even worse.
Those betrayals began with the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Cobbled together by Treasury Secretary and Robert Rubin acolyte Tim Geithner in the wake of the financial crisis, TARP funneled billions of dollars to banks and financial institutions but directed very little to middle- and working-class homeowners who were left holding shreds of what had been their piece of the American Dream.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) was another slap at working families. The drafting and negotiating process was dominated by private insurers and Big Pharma. Single-payer health care advocates weren’t just excluded from the deliberations, they were derided and chided. In the end, the ACA, which did feature some much-needed reforms, was a boon for health insurers and the pharmaceutical industry, which managed to stave off efforts to give the government the power to bargain drug prices. As a result, working-class families are still being squeezed by rising health care costs and skyrocketing prices for prescription drugs, including insulin.
The administration’s decision to support the Kline-Miller Multiemployer Pension Reform Act of 2014 (MPRA) enraged workers and retirees. The legislation gave the Treasury Department, the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, and the Labor Department the power to approve unilateral cuts in pension benefits. Throughout 2015 and 2016 thousands of retirees covered by the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund feared that their benefits would be reduced by thousands of dollars a month. While the cuts were shelved temporarily, retirees continued to harbor resentment toward the Democratic president who signed the bill.
Two more episodes that demonstrate his disdain for the working class: Obama’s support for the Trans Pacific Partnership, another trade agreement opposed by organized labor and his failure to insist that GM commit to retaining jobs in the U.S. in exchange for the bailout that kept the company out of bankruptcy.
View all these incidents from the perspective of a workers whose jobs have been shipped overseas, families who lost their homes because of corporate greed, the thousands of people who live in communities ravaged by the opioid epidemic, or retirees whose pensions are in jeopardy, and it’s really not hard to understand why so many working-class people voted for Trump in 2016. To riff on the old adage, Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me a couple dozen times and I’m voting for Trump.
In order to prevent a repeat of 2016, the Democratic presidential candidates must admit that Obama and Clinton took the party in the wrong direction, a case Matt Stoler made convincingly in the Washington Post in January of 2017. Unless they are willing to repudiate the policies that drove a wedge between the working class and the party, they won’t be able to undermine Trump’s core message to this critical constituency: that Democrats have abandoned them.
A clear break with the past combined with a credible economic message that convinces working men and women that they can once again trust the Democratic Party to fight for their interests is the path to victory in 2020.
Marc Dann and Leo Jennings III
Marc Dann served as Attorney General of the State of Ohio and now leads the Dann Law Firm, which specializes in protecting consumers from various forms of predatory financing. Leo Jennings III is a leading Northeast Ohio political consultant and media specialist.