There’s been lots of storm and controversy in the news in recent weeks. But a seemingly smaller thing has popped up in the last few days which isn’t as explosive on its face but seems pretty important nonetheless. President Obama has nominated a man named Antonio Weiss as Undersecretary of the Treasury for Domestic Policy.
Opposition has been mounting among Democrats. But it’s the reasons and the people that are significant. There’s no suggestion that there are any personal or professional or ethical problems with Weiss. He comes from the same cosmopolitan and progressive political and cultural background as most Democratic finance policy types (he even appears to be an underwriter of the Paris Review – a point that’s been focused on by both sides). He also supports the big elements of Democratic fiscal policy, specifically higher tax rates for the wealthiest Americans. He’s also a major Democratic donor.
The problem is that he’s from the Wall Street firm Lazard and has been involved in the sort of complex merger transactions – “companies buying and selling each other”, as Warren put it in a speech earlier this week – often aimed at limiting tax liabilities. There’s some dispute about how much he was involved in a particular deal – Burger King.
In other words, Weiss is an upstanding citizen. He supports Democratic tax policy and is a Democratic donor. All good. The problem is that he’s a creature of Wall Street and this particular part of it. And that is the problem. What’s significant is that that did not use to be a problem. It’s not too much to say that Weiss more or less fits the mold of numerous Democratic appointees under the Clinton and Obama administrations.
The other thing is who is opposing. Liberal groups, not terribly surprising. Elizabeth Warren not terribly surprising. Same with Bernie Sanders. But yesterday Jeanne Shaheen said she’s opposing too. And yesterday afternoon, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin (probably about the most conservative remaining member of the Democratic caucus, though from a state with populist leanings) said he’s opposing too.
Just how much Weiss was involved in this Burger King deal seems a bit beside the point to me in terms of evaluating the larger significance of the opposition to his nomination. The point is that he’s “of Wall Street.” And we can see from the opposition that the Democratic party – late in the Obama era, perhaps seeing itself move towards something more like an opposition party – is more clearly moving away from Wall Street, in a way it really has not in years.
I’m going to be watching very closely to see just what Democrats come out where. So far, our Daniel Strauss’s whip count has Sens Hatch (R) and Bennett (D) in favor and Warren, Durbin, Franken, Shaheen, Sanders and Manchin against.