Leveraging hostility towards Wall Street

Of all the parts of the Republican agenda, the one that seems the most politically problematic is the plan to let Wall Street have free reign, effectively allowing the financial industry to do whatever it pleases, just three years after the industry nearly collapsed the global economy. It just doesn’t seem like a vote-getter.

Sure, far-right audiences tend to applaud when Republican presidential candidates attack Dodd-Frank, but how much public clamoring is there, really, for politicians who promise to serve as champions of hedge fund managers and the Wall Street elite? Which voters are supposed to respond well to candidates who boast, “Vote for me: banking lobbyists have my cell phone on speed dial”?

In the context of the presidential race, literally all of the Republican candidates — the ones invited to the debates, anyway — want to eliminate all of the safeguards approved in 2010, but this seems to pose an even more acute problem for Mitt Romney. He not only wants to lift any measure of accountability for the financial industry, he’s also from that industry — Romney got very wealthy heading up a vulture capitalist fund, which made money by breaking up companies and firing their American workers.

It appears these details have not eluded the attention of President Obama’s team.

President Obama and his team have decided to turn public anger at Wall Street into a central tenet of their reelection strategy.

The move comes as the Occupy Wall Street protests gain momentum across the country and as polls show deep public distrust of the nation’s major financial institutions.

And it sets up what strategists see as a potent line of attack against Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, a former investment executive whom Obama aides plan to portray as a wealthy Wall Street sympathizer.

In theory, it should be political suicide for any national candidate to run a platform that vows to go easy on Wall Street. The industry was wildly unpopular even before the OWS protests, and the demonstrations have only served to reinforce the anger that much of the American mainstream still has towards those who brought down the economy.

But when it comes to Republican presidential nominating contests, “federal regulations” are about as popular in GOP circles as gay Mexican abortion doctors, so every candidate, even Jon Huntsman, is vowing to eliminate the entirety of last year’s reform legislation, the most sweeping since the New Deal.

That puts the entire field on record: a vote for the Republican presidential ticket is a vote for fewer industry safeguards, and a return to the conditions that allowed the 2008 crash to happen in the first place. Add in Romney’s background at Bain Capital, the fact that Wall Street is delivering massive donations to Romney by the truckload, and astounding photographs like this one, and you have the makings of a “GOP = Wall Street” cycle in 2012.

By most measures, Romney is the strongest Republican candidate, but if voters are basing their decision in part on frustrations with Wall Street, a Romney nomination could very well be a gift to the Democratic Party.

To be sure, the Dems’ strategy is not without flaws. Plenty of OWS protesters have no use for Democratic candidates, including the president, who is seen by some on the left as overly cozy with the industry, even though Wall Street hates him intensely. Some have gone so far as to recommend giving up on voting, even if that means more power in the hands of those who’ll do more to help those they’re protesting against.

The opportunity, though, remains the same. The White House has already begun embracing economic populism more enthusiastically recently, and GOP vows to help protect Wall Street from those big bad Democrats and pesky safeguards only makes things easier for Obama’s team.

“We intend to make it one of the central elements of the campaign next year,” Obama senior adviser David Plouffe told the Washington Post. “One of the main elements of the contrast will be that the president passed Wall Street reform and our opponent and the other party want to repeal it…. I’m pretty confident 12 months from now, as people make the decision about who to go vote for, the gut check is going to be about, ‘Who would make decisions more about helping my life than Wall Street?'”

I’ve heard of far worse strategies.