I just spoke by phone to GOP presidential candidate Buddy Roemer, the former Louisiana governor elected in 1987 as a reformer heading what was then called the “Roemer Revolution.” He was driving himself to a TV interview in New Hampshire when I reached him by cell. I was intrigued by his statement earlier today in support of the Occupy Wall Street protests. In the press release, Roemer said:
Wall Street grew to be a source of capital for growing companies. It has become something else: A facilitator for greed and for the selling of American jobs. Enough already.
Could Buddy Roemer, a one-term Louisiana governor and a 67-year-old Baton Rouge banker, be a real conservative populist? I caught him shortly after reading his tweet upbraiding Herman Cain’s criticism of the Occupy Wall Street protesters as “un-American.” Roemer told me that Cain had unfairly insulted “young men and women who are protesting business as usual. And business as usual has gotten us eaten alive with crony capitalism.
“How do we choose our president now? By who can raise the most money from a few people,” he continued. “That’s un-American. I expected more from Herman Cain. I thought he was clearly off base by taking this approach. I challenge him on making that sort of statement, and coming down against these young people. I think it’s wrong.”
I asked Roemer why conservatives should be sympathetic with a protest movement that, so far, has been wholly an expression of the Left.
“I think conservatives believe in first principles. They believe that hard work should be rewarded. They believe that this country is great because it’s been generally free. And conservatives see that that’s disappearing. They see now that a big check can take the place of a big idea. They see now that the structure is not for the base, but is for the peak. It’s for the top one or two percent. They see Wall Street riddled with fraudulent documents. They see it riddled with the attitude of “let’s fire Americans and go overseas.” They see it riddled with things that have had and will have bad effects on this economy.”
“We have almost permanent unemployment,” he continued. “They say it’s nine percent, but the real unemployment rate is more like 16 percent. These are people there are no jobs for, or they have to work part time to try to make ends meet. It’s disturbing. the Wall Street protest is unshaped, unfocused, but there’s a lot of power in it. We need the courage to go back to conservative principles — that is, the reward of hard work, the sense of fair play, the belief in individual strength rather than government solutions. To me, the Wall Street protests reflect all these sorts of things.”
But what does Roemer, who was a Harvard-educated banker before he got into Louisiana politics, and has been a banker for the past 16 years, feel when he sees the drumming circles, the dreadlocks, and other theatrical aesthetic displays typical of the cultural left dominating the images from the protests. Isn’t that off-putting to the kind of conservatives he wishes to speak for, and speak to?
“It really doesn’t bother me at all,” he said. “I bet a lot of these young people have never voted, but should. I bet a lot never started a small business, but they should think about doing that. I bet a lot of these people haven’t formed their full beliefs. But let me tell you, I have a certain perspective on this. I heard the same objections to the civil rights movement from the business community, from those who had it made. They had the same objections then as they do to these young people.”
I mentioned to Roemer that it was striking to see a professional banker taking on his own class like this, by siding with the Occupy Wall Street protesters. What kind of Republican banker turns on bankers?
“That’s not the banking I know,” he said. “Man, you’ve been doing business with the Wall Street banks. They don’t care about you. They didn’t build their banks on you. They built their banks on big people, on what turned out to be fraudulent securities trades. My bank is worth two-thirds of a billion dollars. It never lost money. It never got a bailout. It’s built on individual relationships. See, the Wall Street banks are too big to fail, so they’re free to do things that a good banker wouldn’t do. They don’t have time for relationships. They’re looking for the next deal. The culprit here is a Congress that under Bill Clinton in 1998 and 1999 deregulated the Wall Street banks. It’s been a disaster.”
The interview ended there because Roemer had to get off the phone to go on the air. He still had a lot to say. Maybe it’s time the media and the GOP base — which demonstrably doesn’t want Mitt Romney — started listening. We don’t often hear old white Southern Republican bankers talking like that. I wish we did.