Bankers in Charlotte, North Carolina, had prepared for the worst, bracing themselves for attacks from the Democratic Party’s convention stage and fencing in the entrances to guard their high-rise office towers against protests.
What they got was mostly muted complaints from the Time Warner Cable Arena’s podium and sparsely attended weekend demonstrations. In fact, perhaps the biggest news for Wall Street this week came when former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin stepped backward into the Ritz-Carlton Hotel pool during a convention party attended by industry insiders.
The relatively light verbal assault relieved the financial sector’s allies, who have spent much of the past four years attempting to breach the divide between the Obama administration and financial titans. When the president mentioned it in his speech last night, he limited his criticism to one line: ``we don't want bailouts for banks that break the rules.''
“I haven’t seen the rhetoric on the floor of the convention going after Wall Street,” said Representative Joe Crowley, whose House district includes part of New York’s financial district. “But that’s been done already, to some degree it’s beating a dead cat.”
President Bill Clinton didn’t utter the words “Wall Street” in his 48-minute address this week, instead focusing more broadly on the policies that led to the economic downturn. The industry also got a pass in the keynote speech by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, and it merited not so much as a whisper in First Lady Michelle Obama’s remarks.
“There’s not been a great deal of criticism,” said Tony Podesta, a Washington lobbyist who represents financial firms. “People were really offended by it, and so I think it’s reasonable to change the tone and talk about policy.”
A key convention goal was to soothe the middle class, and re-opening the war with Wall Street would have become a distraction, said party officials. With Republican nominee Mitt Romney hammering President Barack Obama as an enemy of capitalism, party leaders were particularly sensitive to any attacks that could come off as anti-business.
“Republicans like to say we’re pointing the finger at Wall Street. We’re not pointing the finger at anybody,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York. “What works best is not demonizing anybody, but telling the middle class how we are going to help.”
That’s not to say everyone stayed silent.
Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, a former Harvard Law School professor and architect of the consumer protection agency created by the financial regulation overhaul signed by Obama, said the industry “wrecked” the economy and “destroyed millions of jobs.”
Former House Ways and Means Chairman Barney Frank, a retiring Massachusetts Democrat who authored the law that carries his name, said he and Obama “demanded tough regulations to crack down on the Wall Street recklessness that got us into this mess. I was there with him, and we passed a law to end the practices that crashed the economy.”
In addition to the banking community, Bain Capital LLC, the private equity firm co-founded by Romney, made a cameo appearance on the convention stage, with brief speeches by workers who lost their jobs after the firm took over their companies.
Those attacks -- all but one given outside of the prime-time television viewing time -- were shrugged off by the handful of bankers and investors who attended the convention sessions.
“I’m not looking at it from the perspective of me and my business. What I’m looking at is the perspective of who’s making the best case for being president,” said Glenn Hutchins, a founder of Menlo Park, California-based private equity firm Silver Lake Financial Management Co. who supports Obama’s re-election.
It’s unclear whether the softer approach taken at the convention will loosen the wallets of Wall Street donors who backed the president four years ago and are sitting out the 2012 campaign -- or switching to Romney.
Employees in the securities and investment industry and their families have given twice as much to Romney as they have to Obama, a reversal from four years ago when they favored Obama over his Republican opponent.
“There’s some chafing,” Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy, whose state is home to a large number of financial services firms, said yesterday. “That’s just a reality.”
A relatively small group of top bankers and investors attended the convention, including Blackstone Group LP President Tony James, Orin Kramer of Boston Provident Partners LP and Roger Altman, chairman and founder of Evercore Partners Inc.
Priorities USA Action, the super political action committee supporting Obama, has few Wall Street donors, getting most of its biggest checks from Hollywood. Democrats are counting on Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to change that, pointing to his background in investment banking with then-Wasserstein, Perella & Co.
Emmanuel, a former House member whose top donors included Wall Street firms, recently stepped away from the official campaign to concentrate on wooing millionaires for the outside group run by former White House aides.
“He’s a Wall Street guy,” said Podesta. “So, when he calls, one of his talking points can be the rhetoric is not mainly coming from the president.”
Even the protesters in Charlotte anticipated politicians would stay away from anti-Wall Street rhetoric -- which is why they came to town, said Ben Carroll, one of the organizers.
“Many of us did not have high expectations that they’d address the real issues,” he said. “The conventions for both parties are so scripted. Why would they put pressure on the banks? Just look at who’s funding the conventions and the parties.”