Buddy Roemer: America 2011 = Louisiana 1987
In your “What Would Make Thomas Tucker Happy Today?” moment, Conor Friedersdorf interviews longshot GOP presidential candidate Buddy Roemer. If you read nothing else all day — I’m quite serious — read this entire interview. I’m not going to excerpt from the ending, but it’s the kind of thing you read and say: I hadn’t quite thought of it that way, but dammit, he’s right. Conor, I wish you would write a book about the thing you and Roemer talk about at the end of the interview.
Here are some excerpts from Conor’s interview:
What motivated you to run for president? And to put money in politics at the center of your campaign?
The answer is Louisiana.
I grew up in a state where winks and nods were the way you did business in politics — where people were delivered to the polls in buses and paid money to vote. Where leading politicians bragged about how much money they made in office. Where what you knew was not nearly as important as who you knew. My definition of corruption growing up was Louisiana politics, where the privileged few did not have access to power. I ran for Congress thinking that I I loved the state, but I wanted to get as far away from it as possible. So I went to Washington. I ran for Congress.
But I wasn’t in the corruption cycle that Louisiana had become. It got so bad, Conor, that the unemployment rate went to 12.8 percent. In the late 1980s we had the highest unemployment rate in America. So I ran for governor with little chance to win. I think I was in sixth place of six candidates. A couple of Congressmen ran. Bob Livingston. Billy Tauzin. Those are famous names in Washington. Edwin Edwards ran. Jim Brown ran. Speedy Long ran, the former Congressman. And me.
I was in last place, but my issue was cleaning up the politics.
I was a passionate Roemer supporter when he was governor, but the unfortunate thing is that the system defeated him. He was forced out of the general election in 1991 when Edwin Edwards and David Duke outpolled him in the open primary. Which, if you think about it, is not a bad way to frame our politics today: authentic reform impulses quashed by both a corrupt status quo and supporters and a debased populism built on hate of the Other.
Anyway, Roemer says that the whole country today has become what Louisiana was in 1987. He says that working in the private sector as a banker these past two decades has made the nature of the corruption of our politics clear to him (N.B., Roemer was once a U.S. Congressman as well):
Why? What specifically has persuaded you?
Talking over the years with Congressmen, and with John McCain, a candidate for president. I volunteered with John, and I traveled the country with him four years ago. Off and on, for four or five months. And just their stories about how they spend their time. Their stories about the burdens of having to raise large sums of money just to protect yourself. And then, finally, in this process of re-engagement, I’m a banker. I went to college and studied economics. Then I went to a business school. And majored in banking and finance. And I’m pretty good at what I do.
In five years I’ve built a bank that is two-thirds or three-quarters of a billion dollars in size. Very profitable. Clean. Didn’t foreclose on a single mortgage. Didn’t put a single small business under, I’m really proud of that, of the way we honored a long tradition of banking. But I watched banking reform. And I guess that was the straw that broke my reluctant back. I watched banking reform where too big to fail did not disappear. Where Glass-Steagall was not reintroduced. I had gone to Washington in 1998 and 1999 to testify against the elimination of the Franklin Roosevelt Glass-Steagall bill that separated investment banks from banks. I thought they would become too big. Too greedy. Too risk-taking. And I said in 1999 that it will lead to an economic collapse.
I was laughed at.
Then I saw bank reform after the collapse didn’t contain Glass-Steagall. It didn’t eliminate too big to fail. It didn’t increase capital ratios for banks. And then within a month of signing the bill President Obama went to Wall Street, had a fundraiser at $35,800 a ticket sponsored by Goldman Sachs. Well you know, I’m not a Rhodes Scholar. I’m not a rocket scientist. I’m a proud and practical man.
But I call it corruption.
Read the whole thing — especially the discussion near the end. If I were the editor of The Atlantic, I would assign Conor Friedersdorf this subject as an election year cover story.