The Democrats gathering in Charlotte would love to cast themselves as the party of working people, or of struggling middle-class families, or of aggrieved and downtrodden Americans in every corner of the economy. In presidential politics, however, a more accurate designation would identify the Dems as the party of lawyers: with the re-nomination of Obama and Biden, all six available spots on the last three national tickets have gone to working attorneys.
Reaching all the way back to 1980, 14 of 18 Democratic nominations for president and vice president went to members of the bar. The domination of party leadership by the legal profession would have looked even more lopsided had Al Gore managed to complete his studies at Vanderbilt Law School before capturing (at age 28) the congressional seat once held by his lawyer father. Gore’s mother also worked as a powerful attorney, serving as managing partner of a major Washington firm after her husband, Al Gore Sr., lost a reelection bid to the U.S. Senate in 1970.
Through nine consecutive presidential elections, this means that only one Democratic nominee for president or vice president—peanut farmer and Navy officer Jimmy Carter—never attended law school, nor enjoyed deep familial connections to the legal profession.
Those familial connections have also extended to spouses of the Democratic nominees. Michelle Obama, who delivered a rapturously received address to the Charlotte convention, was of course a lavishly successful corporate attorney before she moved into the White House, as was the last Democratic First Lady, Hillary Clinton. Vice presidential nominee John Edwards met his wife, the late Elizabeth Edwards, in law school at North Carolina and during the early years of their marriage she enjoyed far more conspicuous success in her practice of law than he did.
Some observers might protest that the disproportionate involvement of attorneys in electoral politics hardly counts as novel in our time or unique to the Democratic Party, since many of the nation’s founding fathers—including Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton—worked proudly and prominently as lawyers.
But comparison of national tickets over the last 32 years highlights a striking difference between Democrats and Republicans. While the overwhelming majority of Democratic nominations (78 percent) went to attorneys, the GOP chose lawyers only three times—Bob Dole in 1996 and Dan Quayle for two vice presidential nods in ’88 and ‘92—for 18 spots on their national ticket. While Mitt Romney did earn a Harvard Law degree in 1975 (as part of an elite joint program when he simultaneously earned his MBA), and even passed the bar in Michigan, he never practiced law before beginning his business career with the Boston Consulting Group shortly after graduation.
Romney represents only the latest of nine Republican nominees since 1980 with backgrounds as CEOs. The first President Bush (with two nominations as vice president and two as president) worked successfully in the oil industry while his son, George W., also headed small oil companies before taking over the Texas Rangers baseball franchise. Dick Cheney won two nominations as vice president after his hugely lucrative service as CEO for the energy giant, Halliburton.
Considering the GOP’s proud self-image as the Party of Business, it’s not surprising that Republicans choose leaders with personal experience in the profit-driven world of the private sector. They also nominated a popular movie star and political activist (Ronald Reagan) with considerable history working for major Hollywood corporations, a former football star (Jack Kemp) who achieved national fame in the most profitable of professional sports, and a one-time sports broadcaster and small-town mayor (Sarah Palin) whose husband earned most of their money in the fishing and energy business in Alaska.
For more than 30 years, however, the GOP almost entirely avoided selecting attorneys for places on the national ticket, reflecting the fact that the Democratic world view connects far more closely to the values and priorities of the legal industrial complex.
Modern liberals tend to address every imaginable problem with legal solutions—new legislation, aggressive regulation, persistent lawsuits, and sweeping court decisions. The search for legal remedies for all public and even private dilemmas of course means an expansion of government, which in turn means more jobs for lawyers. When major legislation before Congress now routinely runs to thousands of impenetrable pages, only lawyers benefit: who else will ever write, read, analyze, and mitigate the impact of all the insanely complex new laws?
In this context, distinctive Democratic approaches to major issues begin to make practical sense for one of the party’s major interest groups. At one time, civil-liberties attorneys fought to prevent any official interference with intimate same-sex relationships but by moving on to governmental sponsorship of such unions, liberals helped to create a burgeoning business in gay family and divorce law.
On a similar note, the Democrats in Charlotte repeatedly cited the Lilly Ledbetter Act as a monumental achievement of the Obama administration in finally guaranteeing that the women of America would at long last receive equal pay for equal work. This claim undoubtedly confused anyone who recalled The Equal Pay Act of 1963, or Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which together made it explicitly illegal to “deny women equal pay for equal work; deny women transfers, promotions, or wage increases; manipulate job evaluations to relegate women’s pay; or intentionally segregate men and women into jobs according to their gender.” The Ledbetter Act offered no new rights for women but a rather a new opportunity for lawyers, expanding the time frame and circumstances for disgruntled employees to sue their employers for gender discrimination. Even if the legislation provided no notable improvement in the workplace status of women, it proved inevitably popular among the president’s enthusiastic colleagues in the legal community.
No wonder that lawyers have proven peerlessly generous in their financial support for Obama and the Democrats. As the Washington Post’s Capital Business Blog reported on July 12, “No other industry has bundled more money for Obama than lawyers … Lawyers and law firms have so far bundled $22.4 million for the president’s reelection bid—significantly more than the $14.5 million the next most generous industry, securities and investments, bundled for Obama. Of the 532 individuals bundling contributions for Obama, at least 128—nearly one in four—are lawyers, and many work at top law firms.”
The association with attorneys may benefit the Democrats in their fund-raising priorities, but the connection could simultaneously damage their vote-getting efforts. The most recent Gallup Poll on Honesty and Ethics in Professions (December 2011) showed 37 percent of Americans who rated lawyers as “very low” or “low” in terms of their integrity—a higher negative number than bankers, business executives, journalists, real estate agents, and even “advertising practitioners,” but not quite as bad as the miserable assessment of lobbyists and, worst of all, members of Congress. But Democrats can hardly take comfort in the fact that the American people hold lobbyists and Congress in even lower esteem than lawyers, especially since most lobbyists and a disproportionate number of legislators worked first as attorneys.
Any attempt by the Obama campaign to tar Republicans for their business connections should provoke an aggressive push-back concerning the domination of Democrats by the legal industry. Americans feel obviously divided in their attitudes toward business, appalled by its excesses but generally recognizing that job growth and economic recovery can only occur when corporations prosper. When it comes to lawyers, however, their predatory practices and endless litigation not only place a crippling burden on struggling enterprises and a faltering economy but make a direct contribution to the soaring costs of medical care and health insurance.
While liberals argue about how many jobs Mitt Romney created at Bain Capital, conservatives should demand evidence that the Obamas and Biden (or other leaders of that lawyer-ridden party) created any jobs at all in their profitable practice of law. The public may not instinctively embrace a wealthy capitalist like Romney but there’s no reason to assume that Americans can more comfortably rely on a major political party of the lawyers, by the lawyers, and for the lawyers.