This position has never been completely uncontested. Indeed, as Mike Lux describes in his book, The Progressive Revolution, at the very birth of the (first) Clinton Administration, there were some who pressed the president to pursue campaign-finance reform before he tried health-care reform. That advice was rejected, and America got neither.
Instead the Democrats got rich. The Clinton Administration bent over backward to convince Wall Street that its populist rhetoric was just that -- rhetoric -- and that Democrats could bargain away sane financial regulations as quickly as Republicans. The result: a boom in Wall Street giving. And soon the same strategy was replicated across the big-money spectrum. Everyone understood there are things that Democrats had to say. But everyone who mattered understood that rhetoric notwithstanding, there were things that even Democrats would never do.
The consequence is a pattern of reform, or as we call it in the 21st century, "change," that is completely predictable. "Change" is stuff that either makes big money happy or that big money doesn't care to block. Welfare reform (how much do the poor give?), NAFTA (how much did the steel workers give, compared to the corporations supporting NAFTA?), or a "health-care reform" bill that passed only because of a $250 billion gift, as The New Republic estimated it, to big pharma and insurance companies.
This way of thinking about the "necessities" of modern political life is so obvious to mainstream Democrats that it follows the party whether it is in power or not. The Center for American Progress, for example, is the Democratic Party's most important Washington think tank. Its researchers have produced an incredible range of valuable work, mapping a progressive agenda for the party to follow. There is no better home for left-thinking policy wonks in D.C., and no more than a handful of institutions that have ever produced better left-leaning work.
Or at least, and possibly, depending upon whether it pays. For, as investigative journalists Ken Silverstein and Brooke Williams have documented in a series of recent articles, CAP's agenda is potentially vulnerable to a long list of undisclosed corporate funders. According to Silverstein, CAP staffers are "very clearly instructed to check with the think tank's development team before writing anything that might upset contributors." (CAP disputes Silverstein's portrayal.) In at least one case, CAP has acted as an undisclosed lobbyist for a corporate contributor. (Disclosure: Silverstein and Williams's work on think tanks has been funded in part by a research center I run.)
My point is not that these are bad people pushing bad policy. My point instead is just this: Democrats must recognize that we don't actually get very much from this bargain. Sure, we'll win some elections, including the presidency, and so a regular mix of not-right-leaning souls will have this democratic royalty bestowed upon them. But we won't get much actual policy. Or policy consistent with the principles of this party, if indeed there are any principles not yet auctioned off to big money.