The Washington Times

Why, conservatives sometimes ask, were the 1980s reviled as the “decade of greed” when the 1990s get off scot-free, notwithstanding the obvious excesses of the “New Economy”? To many, the answer is obvious: because Ronald Reagan was in the saddle in the 1980s and Bill Clinton has been president in the 1990s. The very people who railed against the “decade of greed” are Bill Clinton’s staunchest defenders; ergo, no problem. In fact, there are a number of left-wing Democrats, especially those around the lively American Prospect magazine, who are unhappy with Bill Clinton on “decade of greed” grounds. They think he has sold out the party’s traditional mission as guardian of the interests of the poor and dispossessed in favor of an unholy alliance with Wall Street.

Then there are those, such as Daniel Gross, author of “Bull Run: Wall Street, the Democrats, and the New Politics of Personal Finance” (Public Affairs), who see in the Democratic Party’s new infatuation with Wall Street a bold new era in the “democratization of money.”

What’s the difference between the 1980s “decade of greed” and the 1990s? The difference is that more people own stocks now.

Mr. Gross writes that “by 1996, being a responsible Democrat, and one interested in prosperity and opportunity for people at all levels in society, meant being concerned about the fate of the stock and bond markets. After all, between 1992 and 1996 alone, the number of households with mutual funds rose 42.6 percent, from 25.8 million to 36.8 million. In 1996, the Investment Company Institute estimated that 63 million Americans owned mutual fund shares.” Contrast this with the bad old 1980s: “It was easy to be critical of Wall Street back then because it was not representative of what politicians like to call the ‘real America.’ In the 1980s, stock investing was still restricted to a small minority of the population.” Concern about the stock market then was elitist and selfish. Now, however, a true party of the people has to make it top priority to protect the portfolios of American workers and peasants.

Mr. Gross notes the thundering denunciation of “moneyed interests” in the speeches of William Jennings Bryan a century ago, “a dogma to which the Democratic party held firm for nearly 100 years. By contrast, one of Mr. Clinton’s most enduring legacies may be his party’s accommodation to those same interests. Of course, the moneyed interests of the 1990s – the mass of individual investors – are far less sinister than their counterparts were in the age of the robber barons; it’s easier to sympathize with a taxi driver than with John D. Rockefeller.”

Not, to be sure, that legitimate concern for wealth stops at the level possessed by your average taxi driver: “In an odd time-delayed reaction, the Democratic Party became yuppified in the 1990s, a decade later than the rest of the country. It’s more hip to be a Democrat if you’re loaded than it was in the 1980s. And it’s more hip to be loaded if you’re a Democrat.”

Conservatives are going to find Mr. Gross’ analysis somewhat flabbergasting, I imagine. And in truth, much of the effort to distinguish the (good) 1990s from the (bad) 1980s is rather thin. Mr. Gross contrasts the dot-com eagerness to go public (good) with the leveraged buyout mania for taking companies private (bad). It strikes me that the range of human emotion in both cases, from the desire to create, to ambition, to greed, are exactly the same.

But Mr. Gross is onto two key points that need to be taken seriously. First is this fact about the vastly greater numbers of people who have a direct stake in the markets. Second is the Democrats’ new solicitude toward them. The latter is nonunanimous, incomplete, reluctant in many cases, and far from a permanently settled matter within the party. But it is real.

Democrats made serious inroads in the 1998 elections with voters in upper-income brackets. A lot of people, from dot-com zillionaires to taxi drivers with burgeoning 401(k)s, got richer on Bill Clinton’s watch and give him some credit for it. It’s not clear that Republicans will ever again more or less automatically command the allegiance of the better-off.

But let us disentangle Republican fortunes from conservative fortunes. We now have a debate in this country whose left pole – repeat, left pole – holds that we have to protect the interests of investors because there are now so many of them. If that’s where the left pole is, where can the right pole be?

There is a certain maddening quality to “Bull Run.” It’s rather like having one’s party crashed, then being thrown out of it by the party-crashers and denounced for providing the beer and pretzels in the first place. But this quality also provides some inadvertent pleasures. Mr. Gross offers a little vignette of the White House signing ceremony for the 1997 balanced budget legislation: “Had Ronald Reagan witnessed this event, he would have been understandably confused: a Democratic president signing into law a measure that included a capital-gains tax cut as Democratic congressional leaders looked on approvingly? For the previous decade and a half, capital gains had been that rare wedge issue that cut against the Republicans.”

No. Had Ronald Reagan witnessed the event, he would have been smiling.