Chris Christie is in trouble because everything his fan boys in the political press corps love about him turns out to be true.
I’m no fan of Matthews. Nothing personal. I’m no fan of any TV talking head shows mostly because I think all they do is stoke angers. I can’t bear to listen to Matthews’ yelling but more than his yelling what I find hard to take is that he’s a sentimentalist.
This actually makes me like him more than I do most of his colleagues who either go in for cheap cynicism or sophomoric ironies.
But Matthews seems to have gained his world view from Frank Capra’s movies and the paintings of Norman Rockwell, entirely missing the point that Capra and Rockwell were both saying Too bad people really aren’t like this, but it wouldn’t it be nice if they were? Listen to Matthews, even when he’s hopping mad, and you can’t miss it. He thinks we all live in Bedford Falls.
When I want to think life is like a Frank Capra movie or a Norman Rockwell painting I watch a Frank Capra movie or look at Norman Rockwell’s paintings.
I don’t buy books by Chris Matthews.
His Kennedy bio, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, was just another visit to Camelot. The sentimentality of this new dual portrait of Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan is breezily and fatuously announced in the title, which I know Matthews may not have chosen himself. Reagan never answered to “Gipper.” It was an advertising slogan cynical members of the Press Corps parroted to help peddle an image of Reagan as a wise in his folksy way, genial but tough when he had to be father-figure that nobody in Washington bought except, apparently, a young aide to Tip O’Neill named Chris Matthews.
The premise of Tip and the Gipper, that politics worked in the 1980s because O’Neill and Reagan could put aside partisan differences and hash out compromises for the good of the American people, doesn’t jibe at all with my memories of the time. Politics worked when O’Neill and other Democrats in the House and the Senate got together to keep Reagan from getting what he wanted and forced him into accepting things he didn’t want.
Here’s the odd thing though.
If I hadn’t already decided to give Tip and the Gipper the skip, Greenberg’s review wouldn’t have convinced me to. In fact, it might have made me want to read it.
There are things in it that strike me as being as basically wrong as calling Reagan the Gipper.
Starting with this:
The problems begin with the false symmetry Matthews sets up. He paints Reagan and O’Neill as mirror images: two “larger than life” “Irish-American” politicians, titans of their parties, standard-bearers for their worldviews. But O’Neill wasn’t “larger than life” (only large). Nor was he a notable spokesman for liberalism as Reagan was for conservatism — or as Barney Frank and Ted Kennedy were for liberalism. Even the most powerful House speakers haven’t rivaled the president in importance.
Greenberg should have tried out that paragraph in certain precincts around Boston.
Tip O’Neill didn’t appear on the national stage as Speaker of the House in 1981 any more than Reagan made his entrance in the 1980 Presidential election. O’Neill became a “titan” of his party as Democratic Majority Leader during Watergate. There’s really no defending the phrase “larger than life” but if any politician of the last third of the 20th Century could be accurately described as larger than life, and not just large, ha ha, it was O’Neill. And someone who’d be happy to tell you so is Barney Frank, who during the Reagan years wasn’t the “notable spokesman” for liberalism he would become. He was a very junior member of Congress whose influence, to the degree he had any, was due to his being the protégé of Tip O’Neill who was grooming him to become the first Jewish Speaker of the House. The reasons Frank never became Speaker are obvious but he almost didn’t last out the eighties as Congressman at all. He survived “coming out of the room” as O’Neill put it and the scandal that attended it because O’Neill protected him. There’s no being glad of Barney Frank without being glad of Tip O’Neill. When Reagan came to Washington, he wasn’t met by just some “old-style, steaks-and-cigars Boston Irish pol”, as Greenberg would have it. He was met by the Democratic politician who may have been most instrumental in running Richard Nixon out of town.
Greenberg gets to the central fallacy of Matthews’ book by pointing out that O’Neill and Reagan squared off against each other from the start, although I’m not sure that his one example is all that telling as evidence of O’Neill’s less than larger than life status or that he and Reagan didn’t spend Reagan’s Presidency in affable deal-making.
But on the key legislative issue of Reagan’s presidency — the 1981 fight over his budget, which slashed taxes on the rich — O’Neill simply got rolled. Spooked by the president’s popularity, which surged after he was shot by John Hinckley in March of that year, O’Neill failed to compete with Reagan in the new age of media politics. Worse, he also came up short in his supposed strong suit — riding herd on his caucus — as scores of Democrats, fearing the tax-cutting bandwagon, defected to back the Reagan bill. The consequences — skyrocketing budget deficits and debilitating inequality — have plagued us ever since.
Those tax cuts happened right at the beginning of Reagan’s first term when he was flush from his trouncing of Jimmy Carter and the economy was still a wreck from years of double-digit inflation, slow economic growth, and stubbornly high unemployment. It’s hard to oppose tax cuts under any circumstances, let alone those doleful ones.
(To be fair to Greenberg, who is a professor of history, journalism, and media studies and Rutgers University, the review reads like something that started out much longer and was haphazardly trimmed to fit by a hurried and distracted copyeditor with no real knowledge of the subject at hand.)
The real question is what happened over the course of the next seven years?
And basically what happened is what didn’t. Reagan wasn’t able to bring about the Reagan Revolution movement conservatives hoped for.
Not that he didn’t do damage.
It’s just that without Democratic opposition---obstructionism?---led by O’Neill the Reagan Years would have looked a lot like the George W. Bush years. Just as a for instance, Reagan wanted to go to war, at least by proxy, in Central America. He wanted to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and replace them with Right Wing militarists. That didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen not because Reagan and O’Neill put aside their differences. It didn’t happen because Reagan lost the political battle to O’Neill.
Central to understanding what was going on between Reagan and O’Neill is Iran-Contra, which is not a story of the happy triumph of bipartisanship.
Reagan and O’Neill did practice the art of self-interested hypocrisy. But that’s what it was on both their parts, hypocrisy. They pretended to get along despite their differences in order to maintain their sanity as much as anything else. But the differences mattered to them. They were both intensely partisan and both fighters by nature.
But there were other factors at work shaping their relationship, one of them being Reagan’s health, which was not good.
Reagan was genuinely of the Right. But he wasn’t as ideologically committed to Reaganism or Reaganomics as his disciples would have and as they are. He was pragmatic and he was something else. Old. His image as a man who somehow defied age was an image. His brave and cheerful response to the assassination attempt inspired affection and admiration among people who loathed his politics but really the wound took a lot out of him, physically and mentally. It aged him. He didn’t recover like a young man. It’s likely he never truly recovered. And then there was his Alzheimer’s. It’s clear now, and should have been then, that in his second term he was already drifting away.
Throughout almost the whole of Presidency, Reagan didn’t have the physical energy or mental focus necessary for a sustained ideological battle. What may have looked to the young Chris Matthews like a willingness on Reagan’s part to cut deals and make compromises may very well have been evidence that Reagan just didn’t have the stamina left to care.
O’Neill was on the way out the door himself, as it happened.
In other words, what Matthews is remembering as a golden time in American politics was in reality a tale of two old men wearing out in public.
Maybe I’m being sentimental.
Let me add this.
The reason sentimentality has to be guarded against is that it often also nostalgic. Nostalgia is pernicious because it causes us to see people and events out of time, that is, apart from the circumstances and conditions that made them what they were and as cut off from things they themselves caused in the present.
Even if Matthews was right about the relationship between Reagan and O’Neill, it has to be seen as a product of the political conditions of the time, and there’s no making it a model for our political moment without recreating those conditions and undoing the political history of the last twenty-five years.
Some things happened since the days Tip and the Gipper hoisted beers together and those things were brought about by things Ronald Reagan did.
Greenberg points out something that can’t be pointed out enough when talking about Ronald Reagan. Yes, the man could be genial. That warm chuckle and the twinkle in his eye were genuine signs of a sunny disposition and affable nature. But he had a mean streak.
And it infected his politics. It was there in his talk about Welfare Queens. It was there in his callous indifference to the AIDS crisis. It was there in his dismissal of all the small Midwestern farmers facing foreclosure and the ruin of their and their families’ and their communities’ lives as “the inefficient.”
And with a warm chuckle and a twinkle he sold that meanness to the nation. Government is the problem, he said, but the problem was that government, liberal government, was based on the idea that we’re all in this together.
Nonsense, the Gipper chuckled and twinkled, we don’t owe anything to each other, we’re all in for ourselves, and the object of government to the degree it has one is to keep out of the way of the selfish and greedy.
Reagan himself wasn’t able to enshrine that in legislation because Tip O’Neill wouldn’t stand for it.
It had to wait for the arrival on the national stage of another larger than life politician.
All Reagan’s heirs have had as their goal to out-Reagan Reagan in meanness.
But Newt got their first and paved the way for the rest of them.
As you could probably tell, the reason I resent Greenberg’s characterization of Tip O’Neill is that it’s a challenge to my own probably sentimental view the man. That view is the product of two things, his actually having been my Congressman for during the first four years of Reagan’s Presidency and my having read at a too impressionable age Jimmy Breslin’s How the Good Guys Finally Won: Notes From an Impeachment Summer, still to my mind one of the best books about Watergate, although sentimental as only Breslin can be.
It’s faded, but for a while there it was a fad among the wits and wags in the national press corps to compare the President to Mr Spock. I don’t know who started this. I blame Maureen Dowd but I can’t remember if it was her idea originally, or if she just liked it so much she did with it what she does with all her favorite witticisms and metaphors, beat it to death, or if I just like attributing all the flaws and follies of the press corps to her because she deserves it. Whatever and whoever, what was meant by it was that the President was cold, emotionless, unfeeling, and somehow not quite human, a slander on Spock as well as on Obama. But there is a way in which the President really is like Mr Spock.
He seems to expect logic to carry every argument and he’s baffled and annoyed when it turns out it doesn’t and he’s forced to re-explain things he believes he’s already made perfectly clear in more, well, human terms.
He’ll do it, and when he does, he does it well, but he doesn’t look like he enjoys it and he’s always a step or two behind in getting to the podium or in front of the cameras, so that even his most loyal supporters are often heard wondering afterwards, “Why couldn’t he have said that earlier?”
I think in his mind, he did, we just weren’t following the logic.
So here we are again with the President having to explain and sell the ACA …again.
Just once, I’d like it if the Administration got out in front and made the President’s case before the Republicans made their case and their toadies in the media started echoing it as the conventional wisdom.
Or maybe they could call on Bill Clinton, again. Make him the official Obamsplainer. He loves to explain things. And he’s brilliant at it.
Of course, back in his day, the press corps hated him for that.
Darn know-it-all. Who did he think he was that made him think he was so much smarter than us? The President?
Fortunately for the President, there are good people willing to explain things for him. Here’s Hank Aaron explaining the insurance cancellations.
Hat tip: Brad DeLong.
I didn’t write the post below to show how smart I am about Ted Cruz. Ok. Not just to show how smart I am about Ted Cruz. I meant it as a set up for this post.
Ted Cruz risked wrecking the economy to make himself a hero to the Right Wing yahoos who will play a big role in deciding who gets the Republican Presidential nomination in 2016. He’s in Iowa almost as much as he’s back home in Texas. He’s building a tremendous email list, lining up donors, and piling up the cash. He’s got Sarah Palin stumping for him, which we’d like to think is the kiss of death from a lipsticked pig, but the Right Wing yahoos still love her and fork over their dough at her slightest wink. In short, he’s running for President and his plan is to manipulate the rubes and demogogue his way to the nomination.
…to the D.C. Press Corps it’s the Clintons who are the monsters of ambition.
In the innermost sanctum of Clintonland, it is difficult to imagine that Hillary and Bill, two of the savviest politicians in the country, are not pinching themselves to make sure that it's all real. Perhaps they're dancing a jig together, or knocking back shots and howling at the moon out of sheer, giddy joy at their good luck. (OK, Hillary's not howling, but Bill might be.) Or maybe they are just quietly kvelling over the latest turn of events.
That little puppet show being passed off as analysis is by the National Journal’s Michael Hirsh, but it could be by any one of dozens of journalists and pundits who’ve had a grand time over the last twenty years writing about the Clintons as if they are the Sopranos, the Walter Whites, or the Drapers, characters in a soap opera produced specifically for the amusement of the savvy and sophisticated and over-educated for whom half the pleasure of following a TV show is listening to themselves talk about it.
Joe Klein started it with Primary Colors, his cleverly signing himself as Anonymous suggesting that his cartoon of a novel was really a work of inside journalism. Maureen Dowd has made it the centerpole of her career, setting the rules and the establishing the tropes that all the Clinton caricature artists have assiduously followed. These journalists and pundits have given themselves permission to present their fantasies as facts with the result that just about any piece of “reporting” about the Clinton is essentially a work of fiction.
And since the Clintons aren’t isolates and naturally appear in the news with other politicians and public figures the stories about those other politicians and public figures get turned into subplots in the ongoing, collectively written fiction about the Clintons.
I don’t know why this is. I don’t know how supposed newsmen and women justify to themselves treating their intellectual gamesplaying not only as if it’s news but as if it is the news. I have theories, I have stories I tell myself, but I don’t know because I don’t know any of them and when I want fiction I read novels and watch television. (Not the news or the Sunday bobblehead shows though.)
What I do know is that if Hillary Clinton becomes the next President of the United States it will be because she worked her way to the White House and if Ted Cruz becomes the next President of the United States it will be because he schemed and lied and recklessly demogogued his way there.
And if it’s the former the “news” will be that her vaulting ambition has finally been rewarded and if it’s the latter it will be that her ambition will finally have been thwarted.
Philip Bump at the Atlantic Wire thinks the whole shutdown and debt ceiling debacle that has sent the GOP reeling has been good for at least one Republican.
That’s the guy all the other Republicans in Congress supposedly hate now. But they don’t matter, because as Bump reports, four out of ten Republican voters still support the Tea Party and Tea Party Republicans Love Love Love Ted Cruz.
As we've noted, Cruz's anti-Obamacare crusade was a spectacular failure in the realm of national politics, but it has been a big success for Cruz among the heavily conservative Tea Partiers. He won the straw poll at the Value Voters Summit, and raised over $1 million in the third quarter. But the news gets better with this Pew poll…
…Among non-Tea Party Republicans, Cruz's net approval became negative. Among Tea Partiers it skyrocketed. And Tea Partiers are much more likely to be familiar with Cruz — meaning that a large percentage of the Republican base is aware of who he is and gained a more favorable view of him after the filibuster, etc. People likely to gain a negative view of him are less likely to know who he is. Win, win…
…Not only was Cruz the only Republican leader to see a gain among Tea Party Republicans, but both Boehner and McConnell saw declines that were much more drastic than Cruz's among non-Tea Party Republicans. In other words: The Republican leaders of each chamber's caucus took much more of a hit among members of the party than did Cruz.
The polling was conducted before the shutdown was resolved, of course. (As of writing, it still isn't resolved.) But anyone who thinks that Cruz will be chastened by his defeat is probably very much mistaken. On every metric that matters to a possible contender for the party's presidential nomination in 2016, Cruz is excelling.
All this adds up to is that Cruz is running for President and if you’re not taking that into account when judging what he’s been up to over the last few weeks you’re missing the big picture. Everything he’s done that has made him look like a fool to liberals and a selfish crazy man to establishment Republicans---Rep. Peter King of New York really hates the guy---has made him look like their kind of President to the Tea Party types who will have a big say in who gets the Republican nomination in 2016.
And the logical thing to conclude from this is that Cruz knows what’s he’s doing.
This is so obvious that you’d think someone would have noticed it weeks ago if not sooner.
Wait. Someone did.
Come 2016, everybody will have forgotten.
Everybody but the Right Wing zealots who make up the Republican base and control the party.
They’ll remember that Ted Cruz was their hero of the moment.
This is what I think is going on with Ted Cruz.
Ted Cruz is ambitious and cynical as well as smart.
He was smart enough to see before other Republicans and the geniuses in the political press corps that the odds were against our having a Republican President come 2013 and are still against it for 2017…
But he was smart enough to see something else.
He looked over the Republican bench, the people the media and the Party establishment have marked as potential nominees, the Jindals, the Rubios, the Ryans, Santorums, Walkers, Christies, and Rand Pauls and he saw that none of them are smart enough, reactionary enough, mean enough, angry enough, and hateful enough to rally the Right Wing faithful who will decide the early primaries and caucuses and so the nomination.
None of them are all that, but Ted Cruz could be…
It’s looking to me there’s a consensus growing among the punditry, left and right, that Ted Cruz made a fool of himself in one way or another this week, that he did himself harm by making the Party leadership mad at him, that he accidentally helped the President and the Democrats by admitting the Tea Party’s dearest cause, the repeal of Obamacare (which, by the way, is just another way of saying the humiliation of the President. One and the same to them) is a legislative impossibility as long as the Democrats control the Senate and a Democrat lives in the White House.
But the people who think Cruz is a fool aren’t voting in the Iowa Republican Caucuses. The Republican Party leadership is a gang of weaklings, quislings, bunglers, and clowns. And even if Cruz has somehow helped the Democrats and the President now, he has driven home the point to the faithful who will be voting in the Iowa Caucuses that what they’re voting to do is put a Republican in the White House who is one of them, a Republican who is as angry and mean and willfully destructive as they are but who is also as smart as a Democrat.
And that Republican would be…?
That’s from a post called Cruz Control, which was published on September 27, by…Lance Mannion.
There is no understanding the Radical Right—-the tea party types—-without understanding how driven they are by hatred of those others.
There’s no understanding them without understanding how afraid they are that those others will take over and do to them what they desperately want to do those others, which is make them disappear.
There’s no understanding what they’re doing without understanding that it’s being done to punish those others.
There’s no understanding them without understanding that they regard most of their fellow Americans as those others.
There’s no understanding what they’re doing without understanding that on top of all that a great many of them are just plain stupid about how the government works, how money works, and how the world works.
And there’s no understanding what’s happened to the Republican Party without understanding that party leaders and most Republicans in Congress do understand all this and yet are still surrendering to the Right Wingers.
So there’s no understanding what’s going on not just in Washington but in state capitals across the south and up and down the Midwest, with the not as strange as it may seem addition of Pennsylvania, without understanding that for all it matters there is no more Republican Party. There is only the Radical Tea Party-Fundamentalist Christian Right and it is out to destroy everything the rest of us, we others, hold dear about the United States.
John Boehner holds the nation hostage because the Tea Party holds him hostage. The problem with modern Republicans is not fanaticism in the few but cowardice in the many, who let their fellows live in virtual secession from laws they disagree with. ---from Back Door Secession at the New York Review of Books blog.
From the notebooks. October 3, 2013.
The New York Times’ Bill Keller thinks what’s happening in Congress is that the Republicans are “finally having their 60s” and he compares Ted Cruz’s fake filibuster to Abby Hoffman trying to levitate the Pentagon. To which driftglass points out:
For the historically and analogically-impaired, let me risk stating the blindingly obvious by reminding everyone that nobody ever handed the SDS a global economy to use as their personal pinata.
Nobody ever came within a skajillion miles of electing Abby Hoffman to anything, much less a position of real power within the Worlds Greatest Deliberative Body.
The Republicans will be happy to keep the government shut down until they feel that the Democratic voters, in their minds the only beneficiaries of federal spending, are sufficiently punished for the sin of being Them.
Always keep in mind, Republicans have themselves or at least have their most faithful voters convinced that all government spending that doesn’t buy bombs or bullets is a combination of theft and bribery (See Romney, Mitt. Gifts.) or a form of charity that is morally corrupting. Better to do without food, medical care, and heat in your home in winter, than to accept a government “handout” and show yourself up as a spiritual as well as material failure and risk becoming one of Them, the lazy and dependent Others.
Needing to believe that their suffering is their ticket to heaven, they’re willing to live with bad schools, crumbling roads, collapsing bridges, and sick and hungry children or, more usually, desperate to pretend not to know all the ways government not only makes their lives better but possible so that they can feel slighted, victimized, and virtuous.
Notice I’m saying the Republicans. Not the Tea Party. The establishment press corps continues to blame the crazies in the House when they’re not blaming the Democrats and the President for refusing to compromise, a word they like to use as shorthand for “surrender on every important point.” The assumption is still that the true grown-ups are the Republican “moderates” who will somehow find us a way out of this mess, if only the President will let himself be guided by them.
Where are these grown-ups and how many of them are there? There only needs to be seventeen who will vote with House Democrats to pass a clean CR without any nonsense about Obamacare or gratuitous insults to women and re-open the doors of government offices and lift the gates at the national parks and put nearly a million people back to work.
Right now, as best as anyone can figure, there are about twenty of them.
At least, there are twenty sensible enough and brave enough that they’re ready to do the right and smart thing.
This is heartening, right?
But here’s the thing.
There are 232 Republicans in the House.
And only forty-nine are members of the Tea Party caucus.
Forty-nine crazies and twenty brave grown-ups.
Who are those 161 other people?
The Washington Post has an interview with Paul Stebbins, Executive Chairman of World Fuel Services, who is infuriated and appalled by House Republicans’ recklessness and seeming ignorance about how the world works.
I don’t know much about Stebbins. At first glance he appears to be an ideal businessman, intelligent, socially responsible, a good corporate neighbor type, someone likely to see all the employees of his company as human beings and not just resources to be exploited and then disposed of when played out, the type of philanthropically-minded rich person who pack the halls at the Clinton Global Initiative looking to fund schools in Haiti and small business-enterprises in Africa.
At second glance, he appears to be a run of the mill oligarch whose concern about the debt is self-interested. If business leaders like him don’t step in, the debt might get settled by an increase in corporate taxes. He’s willing to accept nominal reform of the tax code in exchange for major cuts in entitlements, a “reasonable” position that makes sure the poor and the sick foot more of the bill than the rich and entitled.
A third glance would probably show something else, but I’m not really interested in Stebbins himself here, only in something he said in the interview.
“Look, I had the chairman of the Energy and Commerce committee, Fred Upton, tell me that he got into an argument with one of these young guys on his committee about the defunding of Affordable Care Act. Well the argument was 'look, Energy and Commerce had 50 hearings on that bill. Like it or not, it passed. The president signed it. The Supreme Court upheld it. So you don't get to pick a bill you don't like and link it to the entire financial well being of the United States.; Well the response is, 'I didn't come here to govern.' Well what did you come here for? What did you come here for? To burn it to the ground?”
Repeating myself here, but, yes, they did come to burn it to the ground.
The federal government is the enemy because it is run by the enemy---liberals---for the benefit of the enemy---Them! You know, those Others!
Their object isn’t to govern but to stop the enemy from governing, to take the controls away from those who are intent on doing the nation---“Us”---harm. They aren’t there to play politics. They aren’t politicians. No way. They’re taking control the way any decent person not a pilot would try to wrestle control of a plane away from the terrorists hijacking it. That idiot Congressman’s comparison between himself and his colleagues and the passengers aboard United 93 was adolescent and tasteless but not totally inapt. Smartypants liberals smugly pointing out that the plane crashed are missing the point. Crashing the plane saved the probable target, the White House, and God knows how many people who’d have been in the neighborhood that morning. The Tea Party nuts are willing to crash the plane to save the country.
(Of course, the comparison reveals itself to be ridiculous when you hear the nuts blustering that they don’t expect to pay any price for crashing the plane. They’re convinced the nation will cheer them as heroes without their having to be martyrs at the same time. Self-sacrifice isn’t part of their plan, only self-aggrandizement.)
But like I said there are only forty-nine Tea Partiers and the last time the House voted on a bill funding the government for at least a little while more, it included both the assault on Obamacare and women’s health and rights, and all but two Republicans voted for it.
Neither of those two was Fred Upton.
Because he’s a Republican.
The Republican Party is divided into three factions: The Religious Right, the Tea Party Right, and the Corporatist Right. There’s lots of crossover based on shared beliefs that they are the only true and truly deserving Americans, the real owners of the place, that there are privileges that come with ownership, and that there’s a great mob of Others, a Them, trying to take the country from them and deny them their privileges.
The corporatists just define Them a little more broadly.
By Them, the Religious Right and the Tea Party Right mean those who don’t look like “us”, who don’t talk like “us”, who don’t believe exactly what “we” believe. The corporatists mean everybody who isn’t rich, which includes most members of the Religious Right and the Tea Party Right who haven’t caught on that many of their fellow Republicans regard them as Them.
The corporatists believe the country exists for the care and feeding of millionaires and it belongs to those with the money to buy it up in pieces as they need it. You own only whatever pieces you’ve got the dough for. You’re entitled only to what you can pay for out of pocket. The corporatists hate Obamacare maybe more than Tea Party types. Exasperated liberals keep pointing out that Obamacare is based on a Republican design. They forget it violates the corporatist Republican principle that nobody gets to have what they don’t have the cash to buy and that includes good schools, safe neighborhoods, security in old age, and health care.
These are the people who read Atlas Shrugged as if it’s a Right Wing Wealth of Nations or Das Kapital. These are the Club For Growth types, the Gliberatians, the genuflecters at the shrine of Milton Friedman and kissers of Grover Norquist’s ring. They are the ones who insist that tax cuts pay for always and automatically pay for themselves, that the government doesn't create jobs, that regulating business and the financial industry is worse than counterproductive because the market regulates itself, that selfishness is the basis of all virtue, that greed is good. In the Washington Post interview, Stebbins laments the naiveté of the business community when it comes to understanding how Washington works but then he naively (I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt) buys into the Both Sides are to Blame nonsense the craven Media uses to absolve Republicans of blame and fault whenever they are to blame and at fault:
We have a higher duty of care to engage this issue. It is grossly reckless to watch the long term business trajectory of the U.S. to be at such risk. And we are part of the pathology that got us here. We've all had our K Street lobbyists who are part of the problem. You've got the classic narrative: Progressives say, 'fat cat CEOs want to throw grandma into the snow, and all their special tax interests.' And then you've got the Club for Growth that thinks we sold them out.
But the corporatists do want to throw grandma into the snow, some people’s grandmas at any rate, the grandmas who didn’t have the sense to get rich while the getting rich was good and who now rely on Social Security to keep roofs over their heads and Medicare to keep or make them well. The corporatists love Paul Ryan’s Survival of the Richest budget which, no matter how Ryan’s fans in the Media try to spin it, is a plan to eliminate Medicare and Social Security and just about every other social welfare program not in order to balance the budget but to reduce taxes on the rich to as near to zero as possible.
Republicans like Fred Upton can blame the Tea Party firebrands for the mess they’ve put us in, but if you vote with the firebrands you are as good as one of them, and while there are some Republicans who are voting with them because they’re afraid of them or of their influence on conservative voters back home, there are plenty who are voting with them because, although they deplore their manners, agree with their aims: cutting government spending to the bone, ending Obamacare, humiliating the President, and putting Them back in their place.
If and when the House passes a clean CR, it may be with the votes of a majority of Republicans, but it won’t be because they are all sane and sensible grown-ups doing the sane and sensible thing. It will be because the corporatists among them have been persuaded that shutting down the government will damage their re-election chances and hurt the bottom lines of their corporate paymasters.
The Tea Party hasn’t been getting its way despite the majority of House Republicans.
It’s been getting its way because their way is also the way of a majority of House Republicans.
And it’s not just in the House.
The reason there will be a clean CR for those twenty sane, sensible, and brave House Republicans to vote for is that fifty-four Democratic and Independent Senators sent them back one.
All forty-four Republican Senators on hand voted against it.
Speaking of the Clinton Global Initiative, I couldn’t make it this year because of my teaching schedule. But Tom Watson was there and wrote about in several posts for Forbes, starting with this one, Clinton Global Initiative: Philanthropy's High Stakes Trading Floor.
Forget Green Eggs and Ham.
Ted Cruz is smart.
Smart enough that if we had a Republican President he’d be in line for a Supreme Court nomination.
Cruz was valedictorian of his high school class. He graduated cum laude from Princeton, magna cum laude from Harvard Law. He was a primary editor of the Law Review, executive editor of the the Harvard Law and Policy Journal. He was Solicitor General of Texas. He has argued and won cases before the Supreme Court. He knows how things work. He knows he can’t defund Obamacare even if he reads Dr Suess’ entire oeuvre on the Senate floor. He knows that even if the government shuts down now or later over raising the debt ceiling, the shutdown won’t last long. He knows that, even so, it will cause damage to the country and to Republicans’ Congressional chances in 2014.
He knows and he doesn’t care.
Because he knows this.
Come 2016, everybody will have forgotten.
Everybody but the Right Wing zealots who make up the Republican base and control the party.
They’ll remember that Ted Cruz was their hero of the moment.
This is what I think is going on with Ted Cruz.
Ted Cruz is ambitious and cynical as well as smart.
He was smart enough to see before other Republicans and the geniuses in the political press corps that the odds were against our having a Republican President come 2013 and are still against it for 2017.
Which means the odds are against there being a Supreme Court Justice Ted Cruz any time soon.
But he was smart enough to see something else.
He looked over the Republican bench, the people the media and the Party establishment have marked as potential nominees, the Jindals, the Rubios, the Ryans, Santorums, Walkers, Christies, and Rand Pauls and he saw that none of them are smart enough, reactionary enough, mean enough, angry enough, and hateful enough to rally the Right Wing faithful who will decide the early primaries and caucuses and so the nomination.
None of them are all that, but Ted Cruz could be.
If there wasn’t going to be a Republican President to name Ted Cruz to the Supreme Court, there might yet be a Republican President named Ted Cruz.
That’s why he ran for Senate.
And that’s what he’s been up to since he became a Senator, showing the Radical Right that he’s smart enough, reactionary enough, mean enough, angry enough, and hateful enough to be their guy.
I’m not predicting anything. I’m not even concerned with 2016. I’m describing what I see going on right now.
The faithful want the government shut down. They're looking forward to the pain and trouble it'll cause. They like the idea that failing to raise the debt ceiling will produce chaos and panic on Wall Street. They don't believe they'll suffer themselves because they don't think they benefit from either a functioning federal government or healthy financial markets. Even if they do suffer, they don't care. They'll bear their suffering proudly.
The white, middle-aged, middle-class yahoos who make up the Right Wing base have shown they enjoy cutting off their own noses to spite their faces. They already believe they’re being screwed. They’re right. They just refuse to admit who's doing the screwing. They prefer to blame Them. And they’re willing to take another screwing as long as They aren’t getting any more of “our” money. Besides, another screwing just confirms them in their own sense of victimhood.
They’ve got themselves convinced that all spending by the federal government is either a form of theft---a system for giving “our” money to Them---or moral depredation---bribes for votes. They don’t get a dime back on the taxes they pay and even if they did, by gum, they don’t want any of that dirty money. What do you think we are, charity cases, like Them? We can get along on our own just fine.
It’s accurate and possibly consoling to point out they’re crazy and stupid. They are driven crazy by anger, hatred, and fear. They are made stupid by the same forces because they’d rather feel their anger and their hate and their fear than think.
They don’t see it that way, of course. They see themselves as heroes in a righteous war to take their country back. The operative word is the possessive pronoun. This is their country. They own it outright. The land was theirs before they belonged to the land, to pervert Frost. And they want to hold on to all of it. They feel it being stolen from them just because they feel themselves having to share it. Over the last two generations they’ve been forced to share it with more and more outsiders, invaders, interlopers, and thieves. With African Americans. With women. With gays. With immigrants with brown skin who speak Spanish and languages that sound Arab to them.
They hate and resent all of them and are on a mission to punish Them.
Them has begun to include the young.
This, ladies and gentlemen of the press, is your Tea Party.
They are not likeable but misguided regular folks. They aren’t a picturesque collection of goofballs, crackpots, and eccentrics. They are not conservative. They aren’t representative of average Americans. They aren’t a potential audience to be wooed, flattered, and coddled in the hope they can be exploited by your advertisers.
They are a right wing, reactionary, regionalist, rage-filled and racist movement to “take back”, which is to say, take over the country and if they can’t take over they’re willing to burn it all down for the sheer spiteful pleasure of watching it burn. If they can’t have it all to themselves, then none of Them will have it either.
Washington establishment journalists like Politico’s Roger Simon can kid themselves that they aren’t the real Republicans, that the real Republicans are the well-mannered, well-tailored, well-educated lobbyists and staffers who buy them lunch and invite them to parties and help find their children jobs and assure them that the grown-ups are really still in charge and no one of consequence in the GOP believes what the Tea Partiers believe or wants what the Tea Partiers want and soon, soon, very soon, the grown-ups will show their hand and things will get back to “normal”. And of course this would happen sooner if only the Democrats would play along, if only the President would “compromise” some more, because, as always, it’s somehow the Democrats’ fault.
And the grown-ups in the GOP, the few who are left, probably tell themselves the same thing, that sometime soon the craziness will blow over and they’ll be running he show again.
There are probably Democrats who buy into this too.
And we all know that time and demographics are against them. The country is skewing browner and younger and more liberal.
The problem is that as the country as a whole skews browner and younger and more liberal, the parts of it where the Right Wing is in charge are skewing whiter and older and more reactionary and in those places the crazies are making the most of the power they hold and will continue to hold for possibly another generation and that means they will continue to send their angry, hateful, and fearful representatives to Washington; meanwhile, the other parts of the country will send fewer and fewer “sane” Republicans there.
The Democrats’ best hope for regaining the majority in the House isn’t to defeat the likes of Louie Gohmert. That won’t happen. What is likely to happen is that my Congressman, Chris Gibson, a moderately-inclined Republican (He voted against the food stamp cuts, for example.) will be looking for a new job come January 2015.
The Tea Party---the Radical Right---is for all intents and purposes and for the foreseeable future the Republican Party.
It’s looking to me there’s a consensus growing among the pundrity, left and right, that Ted Cruz made a fool of himself in one way or another this week, that he did himself harm by making the Party leadership mad at him, that he accidentally helped the President and the Democrats by admitting the Tea Party’s dearest cause, the repeal of Obamacare (which, by the way, is just another way of saying the humiliation of the President. One and the same to them) is a legislative impossibility as long as the Democrats control the Senate and a Democrat lives in the White House.
But the people who think Cruz is a fool aren’t voting in the Iowa Republican Caucuses. The Republican Party leadership is a gang of weaklings, quislings, bunglers, and clowns. And even if Cruz has somehow helped the Democrats and the President now, he has driven home the point to the faithful who will be voting in the Iowa Caucuses that what they’re voting to do is put a Republican in the White House who is one of them, a Republican who is as angry and mean and willfully destructive as they are but who is also as smart as a Democrat.
And that Republican would be…?
It’s hard to understand what Right Wingers think because they don’t think. They feel. They're proud of this. The closest they come to a coherent thought is like the slowly dissolving memory of a dream after it’s woken you up and all you can really remember is the dread and terror it caused. Basically, their politics are driven by nightmares. So I can’t tell exactly what they’re afraid Obamacare will specifically do to take away their liberty and bring down the nation. Probably something to do with ending their Medicare and giving all their money to them. But guns and gay marriage might be involved. Maybe abortion too. It’s no wonder they’re confused, though. Everything they’ve been told about Obamacare by the corporate stooges who run the Republican Party and their Right Wing media shills has been a lie. And among the biggest lies they’ve been told are that Obamacare would be the President’s “Waterloo” and that it can be repealed, defunded, or otherwise made to disappear to the President’s humiliation.
The moment the Affordable Health Care Act became the law of the land, Mitch McConnell and his fellow corporate water carriers knew they had only two chances to undo it. The Supreme Court could declare it or some of its key provisions unconstitutional. The GOP would take back the White House and the Senate in 2012.
The Right Winger faithful should have been able to figure out the problem here. In order to pass a law---or unpass one---you need the votes of the majority in both Houses of Congress. Even if you get those, you need the President to sign the law into law. If that doesn’t happen, if it gets vetoed, you need a two-thirds majority in both Houses to over-ride the veto. This is Schoolhouse Rock stuff. But I guess the aging baby boomers who make up the majority of the Right Wing base these days are too old to have watched and remembering back to their high school civics class is too taxing for their age-withered brains.
Very simply, the votes were never there. Not on the Supreme Court bench. Not in Congress. Not in the White House where all it takes is a majority of one. Not in the country at large.
But so what? As long as the lie kept the yahoos riled up and running to the polls to vote for the GOP, the lies were good and useful.
Here’s the thing.
For almost two generations, the corporatists and their flunkeys in the Republican Party leadership have been stoking the yahoos’ angers and fears and resentments, keeping them riled up and running to the polls, secure in their belief they could keep the yahoos in line, taking their money, winning office with their votes, and enjoying the power and privilege the money and the votes gave them, without the yahoos ever catching on to the fact that they were being gulled and used.
The corporatists forgot something. This is still a democracy. Power belongs to the side with the most votes. And slowly but surely the yahoos began to realize they had the votes.
They began electing themselves to office from town and school boards on up to the United States Senate. They voted themselves control of local Republican Party Committees.
The corporatists thought of the yahoos the way they think of everybody who isn’t rich, as employees.
The yahoos thought of themselves as citizens.
There aren’t enough yahoos to take control of the country and there are never going to be, simply because most of them are old and their grandchildren aren’t listening to them.
But there’s enough of them to take over the Republican Party.
And they’ve pretty much done it.
In 2012, the GOP’s best chance for winning the White House was to run a relatively moderate technocrat. They had one all set to go. But he couldn’t get nominated as a relatively moderate technocrat. He could only get nominated by turning himself into the political griffin Mitt Romney turned himself into, a pathetic monster with the wings and head of a Right Wing eagle and the spineless torso of a well-tailored owner of a chain of car dealerships.
Now Mitch McConnell faces a serious challenge from a Right Winger representing the angry yahoos who believed him when he said Obamacare would be the President’s Waterloo and now blame him for not being the Duke of Wellington.
And John Boehner begs for help from Democrats to save his speakership.
I believe this is what’s meant by reaping the whirlwind.
The party of the Christian Right just refuses to read their bibles.
For more Schadenfreude plus a little terror:
Charles Pierce: John Boehner’s cry for help
Steve Benen: John Boehner, Speaker in name only.
Welcome to everybody coming over from Crooks & Liars. If you like what goes on around and you'd like to help keep things chuggling merrily along in Mannionville and you can swing it, please consider making a donation. It'd be much appreciated.
Revised again, Tuesday afternoon.
Revised Saturday morning on the advice of Ken Houghton.
Indiana Republican Congressman Luke Messer thinks “personal responsibility is pretty cool.”
He’s explaining why he’s going to vote to stick it to students and grads with heavy college loan burdens.
This is an expression of the “If you can’t pay for it out of pocket, you don’t get to have it” attitude that sounds like virtue, but it’s usually just a cover for “Don’t ask me to care about your problems” and “I got mine, you get yours.”
Basically it treats wanting good health care for your kids, a decent education, a secure retirement etc like expecting the government to buy you a sports car or send you on a trip to DisneyWorld.
The argument, as I understand it, is to graduates and current students facing decades of debt servitude, "You took out the loan, you need to be personally repsonsible for paying it off and not expect help the government to help you renege to even a small degree, and it doesn't matter if being personsally repsonsible means you don't get to buy a car, own a home, start a family, carry medical insurance, or, well, eat regularly. You should have thought of that when you decided to go to a college you really couldn't afford."
It's also saying to high school students looking ahead and wondering how they're going to pay for college and working parents wondering how they're going to earn enough to send their kids to school, "If you aren't prepared to accept the consequences, don't take out the loan. If you can't pay the tuition without the loan, find another school, go part time, or don't go at all! Give up any thought of improving your lot in life, accept you're one of life's losers, and get on with drudging your way to the grave or...do what I did! Work your way through."
And, again, this sounds like virtue talking, but it really boils down to, "Too bad for you. The country and the future belong to those who can pay the asking price whatever it is."
But at least Messer appears to have actually worked his way through college, unlike Paul Ryan who forgets his family is rich and thinks his little stint driving the Weinermobile makes him a working class hero.
Messer worked as a waiter and telemarketer to pay his way through school.
He has a claim on being a real self-made man, very much like the President. He just learned a different lesson from the experience.
The President learned he was lucky. Messer learned Luke Messer was a paragon of self-reliance.
The President learned people who work hard and do the right things can still need help.
Messer learned that if you need any help he didn’t need---or doesn’t remember having needed---it means you haven't worked as hard as he did, you didn't take personal responsibility, you're not pretty cool, so too bad for you.
By the way, it's one thing to be proud of what you accomplished. It's something else to know exactly what it was you did. Messer, who was born in 1969, graduated from Wabash College where the tuition is now about 34k a year. When he went there it was about 8k.
So tuition has quadrupled while the minimum wage has gone from $3.35 to $7.25.
Personal responsibility is cool if you can afford it.
I'm giving Messer the benefit of the doubt here. In his bio on Wikipedia and in a few of the few articles about him I can find online, the story is that Messer and his siblings were raised by their "single" mother who worked for forty years at Delta Faucet. None of the stories say what she did at Delta, though. She might have worked on the factory floor or she might have been in upper management.
And there's no mention of her having been widowed or deserted, which suggests that there's an ex-husband somewhere in the picture and none of the stories say what what he did for a living or how much he contributed to the family's finances. In short, it's possible that Messer is the child of two well-paid members of the middle class who were able to give their children a lot of help along the way.
There's a big difference between working your way through college and working while you're in college to help pay your way. A lot of "self-made" types tend to forget how much help they got as they made their way, and politicians of both parties, although it seems especially Republicans these days, like to exaggerate their humble beginnings. It's a wonder they're able to stop short of claiming to have been born in log cabins. Mitt Romney considers himself a self-made man and sometimes even sounds like he thinks he was a hardship case. Paul Ryan notoriously used the money he got from Social Security after his father died to help pay for his tuition, which makes his desire to cut the safety net to ribbons one of the more egregious cases of ladder kicking in recent memory. Lost in the shouting though is that the Ryan family was rich, thanks to generations of government contracts awarded to their construction business, and the family came to his mother's aid after her husband died and Ryan himself still gets money from the business.
Messer doesn't appear to be the same type of hypocrite. It's probable that he received some form of financial aid, some of it based on his mother's situation, which means a way Messer took personal responsibilty was by having a father who didn't---he was lucky in being unlucky---and he might even have taken out a low-interest loan or two. Still, I'm taking it at face value that for all intents and purposes he did work his way through college. (I consider eaning academic scholarships a way of working your way through school. Which is the only way I can how he might have gone on from Wasbash to work his way through law school.) To the point, though, he did it more than 20 years ago under very different circumstances than the son or daughter of a single mother trying to earn the 34 grand to go to Wabash by waiting tables and sitting through the night at a call center today. Another way Messer was so coolly personally responsible was by choosing to go to college in the late 1980s when tuition was a lot cheaper, states and schools were more generous with aid, and student loans had yet to become a tool by which banks could gouge huge sums of money out of young people taking the personal responsibility of trying to get a good education that would lead to good a job and a future of more responsibility as citizens, homeowners, and breadwinners for a family---responsibilities a lot of young people are unable to take on these days because of crushing debt.
Naturally, punishing the poor and the unfortunate for their own good is an attractive idea for Republicans. “Don’t ask me to care” might as well be the Party’s official motto. Republicans believe that government exists for no other reason than to protect and promote their wealth, status, and privilege, so the hell with the common welfare.
But it’s a tempting idea for Democrats too, because it’s an excuse for political cowardice. It’s hard to keep the welfare state going. It costs money. It creates bureaucracies that tend to do what bureaucracies always tend to do, strangle themselves with red tape. It’s politically unpopular in many parts of the country. And there’s no end in sight. The poor we continue always to have with us. People get old, get sick, lose their jobs, fall by the wayside. No one gets left behind! we promise proudly. But it’s exhausting and frustrating to keep having to stop and go back and pick up those who are falling behind, especially when it turns out that it in many cases—-although far from all, even very far from most—-it’s their own fault or at any rate partly their own fault that they haven’t kept up. What a relief then if it was true! That the best thing to do for them is to make them take care of themselves! That doing nothing is better than doing incomplete or incompetent good! That hard-heartedness is not just a greater virtue than charity, it is charitable!
Austerity is the temptation to believe that if we leave each other to sink or swim, we’re absolved from caring about those who sink as long as there’s someone who masters the breaststroke in one desperate flail.
“See,” we can say, “It worked out for the best!”
This is a sort of follow up to my post “Disability”.
Use it and you immediately give yourself the job of defining it and explaining why you think you have a mandate or why the other guy doesn’t have a mandate and then what you have a mandate to do or what the other guy doesn’t have a mandate to do.
But, second, and here’s my real point: It doesn’t matter that the President won ~51 percent of the popular vote to Mitt’s ~48 or that he won with a landslide in the electoral college. He has a mandate and he’d have had the same mandate if he’d won by a lot less or a lot more. Mandates don’t depend on the size of a victory. When you’re elected to office you automatically have a mandate to do what you said you were going to do during the campaign whether you won by one vote or three million.
This is one of the ground rules of our democratic republic. We all agree going in to an election of any kind that the winner gets the keys to the car until the next election.
So…the duly elected driver climbs behind the wheel and sets out for a destination he marked with an X at the end of a route he mapped out during the campaign with all the passengers (that’s us), knowing what’s ahead, agreeing to shut up and let the driver drive…unless and until we see the car’s headed for a ditch or into the path of an oncoming semi or we notice the driver’s got a lead foot and is burning too much gas or he’s crawling along with his blinker on although there’s no turn coming up or he isn’t actually headed where he’d promised to take us.
Basically, backseat driving is part of the agreement.
But we also accept that there will bumps and detours. Bridges will turn out to have been washed out. Roads will turn out not lead where the GPS says they do. We’ll have to slow down for construction or the weather. Occasionally the car will break down and need to go into the shop. Side trips we’d hoped to make will have to be skipped or saved for another day.
It’s not going to be an easy ride.
It’d be a lot less easy if the driver has to stop and ask for permission at every turn from the people who didn’t want him as their driver.
But here’s the thing.
He sort of does.
Part of the agreement is that takes responsibility for all the passengers in the car. He respects their interests and concerns and takes them in consideration as he makes decisions about where to go next and how to get there.
He is, to paraphrase the current driver, the driver for all the people.
There’s something else.
Whatever a mandate is and however strong or weak one is, the President isn’t the only one who gets one.
Every candidate elected to Congress has their own mandate, including lunatics like Michele Bachmann, moral midgets like Paul Ryan, and clowns like Ted Cruz. And in many cases they’ve been given their mandates by the same people who gave one to President Obama, who carried Paul Ryan’s district handily, meaning many people up there voted to both repeal and save Obamacare, let the Bush tax cuts expire and make them permanent, protect women’s right to choose and ban abortion completely, and expand rights for gays and lesbians and take them all away.
So, this is the agreement. All the winners have mandates, no matter how much he or she won by, but that mandate is conditional and somewhat compromised from the beginning by the winners’ agreeing not to ignore the people who didn’t vote for them.
Nationwide, the President received almost 64 million votes.
That’s a lot of votes.
But Mitt Romney collected close to 60 million votes.
That’s also a lot of votes.
It would be wrong, not to mention destructive, to govern as if all those 58 and a half million people’s opinions, wishes, and interests didn’t matter.
It would also be very Republican.
The Republican Right has rejected the agreement.
As far as they’ve been concerned, going back before Clinton, to Kennedy and to Truman and FDR, the winner isn’t a winner when the winner is a Democrat, so no Democratic President has a mandate, ever. Meanwhile, Republicans always have a mandate even if they’ve won by only one vote, because no other votes count except their own.
What it gets down to is that Republicans believe in the tyranny of the majority and that they are always the majority.
Even when they aren’t.
Oh, that’s right, there was an election a couple weeks back, wasn’t there?
Our guy win?
Yeah, I crack myself up.
Naturally, Republicans have been casting around desperately for a reason for their loss, looking to blame anybody or anything but themselves and their message. They seem to be settling on Mitt himself. God forbid they consider that the President just out campaigned them or, gasp, that more people in the country just liked him better. Better instead to blame God Himself or, at any rate, an act of God.
Before he decided it was that the President bought voters off with “gifts,” Mitt liked this one best.
Sandy blunted his momentum. Which he did not have.
It boils down to his claiming it was unfair that the country got to see the President being the President so close to the election.
Of course the possibility that the President would have to be the President at some point during the campaign should have figured in Mitt Corp’s thinking and planning from the start. Apparently it didn’t, and probably because, since they never let themselves see the President as the President themselves, it didn’t occur to them that anybody else would ever see him as the President either even when he was busy being the President.
Scratch that. It wasn’t that they could never see the President as the President. It was when they did see him as the President, they saw him as a particular President who wasn’t Barack Obama.
But it was also the case that Mitt never saw the President as the President because he never saw himself as the President. I’ve said this before. He apparently never thought about what it means to be President.
He didn’t prepare.
Which is why he made a fool of himself over Bengazi.
And it’s why he was lucky people weren’t paying attention to him during Sandy. If they had been, they’d have seen him making a fool of himself again by not acting Presidential. His stunt collecting canned goods the Red Cross told him it did not want was a cheap gimmick that, if voters had noticed, made him look like a small time huckster trying to cash in on a tragedy.
Which is what he was.
Not. A. President.
This guy is a President.
The President being the President. Photo courtesy WhiteHouse.gov: “President Barack Obama listens to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood speak during a briefing on the response to Hurricane Sandy at FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C., Oct. 31, 2012. Pictured, from left, are Secretary LaHood; Energy Secretary Steven Chu; John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism; FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate; Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano; and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)”
The Democratic Presidential Ticket…for the moment. The Democratic nominee for President, George McGovern (right) and his Vice Presidential pick, Thomas Eagleton, at the 1972 convention. Less than three weeks later, McGovern would be looking for Eagleton’s replacement, a story told in Joshua M. Glasser’s sobering and cautionary The Eighteen-Day Running Mate: McGovern, Eagleton, and a Campaign in Crisis.
If you were voting in the New York Democratic Presidential primary in 1972, you didn’t vote for your preferred candidate. You voted for a slate of delegates from your Congressional district pledged to that candidate. That year Pop Mannion headed a slate of seven potential delegates pledged to George McGovern. The other slate on the ballot was headed by the boss of the Albany political machine, Dan O’Connell, and included six other stalwarts of the Democratic establishment, and they were all pledged to…Uncommitted.
Uncommitted won in a walk.
They never did commit. Not to McGovern, at any rate. At the Democratic convention, McGovern carried the New York delegation but not unanimously. In the end, if I’m remembering it right, seven New York delegates voted for Scoop Jackson.
Twelve years later, I’m in grad school in Iowa, and George McGovern is running for President again, mainly as a protest candidate trying to get his fellow Democrats to focus on issues dear to his heart, like hunger and poverty. He came to the University to speak and when he finished I chased after him because I wanted to tell him about Pop’s quixotic support for him back in ‘72.
I caught up with him in a stairwell, much to the bemusement of the two aides with him, and introduced myself. McGovern himself seemed a little wary. I guess he wasn’t used to people wanting to talk to him---his was a very lonely campaign that year---but he stopped and let me shake his hand and I started to tell him in a rush what I wanted to tell him, how Pop had been a fervent supporter and how his slate had been beaten by Uncommitted.
“Where was that?” McGovern asked.
“Albany, New York.”
He looked thoughtful for a second then said, “That was O’Connell and his people, right?”
I was taken aback. I didn’t expect him to even know about what went on in the politics of upstate New York, let alone remember it a dozen years later. But of course he remembered. And it wasn’t the sting of defeat still smarting that kept the memories fresh. It was that the consummate politician that he was remembered because as a consummate politician he knew that he always had to keep count.
It was also that those seven Uncommitteds represented one of McGovern’s several big problems in 1972. Old-school Democratic establishment types didn’t like or trust him. Not just because he was the candidate of “amnesty, abortion, and acid.” And ten points to anyone who knows the ironic source of that characterization. But because his reforms of the Party’s nominating process were muscling them out in favor of women and minorities and younger, more liberal Democrats of all sorts and conditions.
And that, as Joshua M Glasser lays out the story in The Eighteen-Day Running Mate: McGovern, Eagleton, and a Campaign in Crisis, helps explain how McGovern wound up with Thomas Eagleton as his running mate coming out of the convention and why it took as long as it did for McGovern to dump him after the news began to come out about Eagleton’s history of depression and the electroshock therapy he underwent to treat it, a decision McGovern turned out not to be too decent to make.
It was politics, plain and simple.
In the days after McGovern’s death on October 21, many of the news stories eulogizing him emphasized his great and undeniable decency to the point, though, of asserting that he may have been too decent for contemporary American politics.
As the son of another decent man who was also a consummate politician (and, never mind the loss in the primary, a mostly winning one), I object to that characterization. It implies that there is something fundamentally indecent about being a successful politician or that McGovern somehow managed to be successful in spite of himself or that he was not a successful politician. Obviously, in the fall 1972, he wasn’t. Before that? Even one campaign after that?
George McGovern, a liberal Democrat, got himself elected Congressman from the very Republican and conservative state of South Dakota. He did that by building the Democratic Party in South Dakota, practically from scratch and single-handed. He got himself re-elected by beating back a challenge from a popular former governor. He lost in is his first try for the Senate, but then won the seat in 1962. He got himself re-elected in 1968 and re-elected again in 1974, only two years after South Dakota, along with forty-nine other states, had rejected its native son for President in a landslide of historic magnitude. He lost his Senate seat in 1980, a casualty of the Reagan sweep, and except for that symbolic run for President in 1984, was done with running for political office for the many years of life he had left to him. But that’s still a lot of political success for someone too decent for politics, and the point is that the people of South Dakota not send him to Washington for two terms in the House of Representatives and three in the United States Senate because they thought he was a decent guy.
They thought he was a decent guy who would get the job done for them.
They expected that he would represent their interests and wishes and be a skilled enough politician to get legislation passed and money allocated that would advance those interests and realize those wishes. And McGovern was glad to represent them. But South Dakota was a farming and ranching state and identified itself, accordingly, as rural, small town, Western, and, befitting a state of independent businessmen---ranchers, farmers, and the owners of the businesses that served them---and Republicans, pro business and therefore anti-union. Unions were big city, Eastern, anti-business, Democratic, and corrupt and corrupting. To represent South Dakota, McGovern had to be strongly pro-agriculture, which was easy, and, not anti-union, at least not aggressively so, but not the friend of labor most establishment Democrats were at the time. He kept his distance from labor leaders and when he saw union interests conflicting with the interests of his constituents he voted for the latter and against the former.
Naturally, union leaders and their friends and allies among party establishment types like the Uncommitted slate from Albany did not look kindly on McGovern’s candidacy. But McGovern needed union support, union money, union workboots on the ground, union votes. And that’s how he came to pick Eagleton.
McGovern’s ideal running mate was Ted Kennedy. Polls showed that McGovern’s best odds in the general election were with Kennedy on the ticket. But Kennedy turned him down, repeatedly. Glasser doesn’t go deeply into Kennedy’s reasons. He relays what Kennedy told McGovern: He’d promised the family that as the last surviving brother he would stay out of Presidential politics. And he points out that it was only three years after Chappaquiddick, which was probably a big reason Kennedy chose not to run for President himself. But it’s also likely that Kennedy had sized up McGovern’s chances against Nixon and decided to keep himself untainted by being part of a losing team for his own eventual run in ‘76 or ‘80. McGovern had others in mind, he barely knew Eagleton, despite having served with him in the Senate for three years. But the others turned him down too, and so did the obvious choices among McGovern’s top rivals for the nomination, Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie. Meanwhile, his staff was looking around for someone who could appeal to the same constituencies as Kennedy. Someone pro-labor and someone labor was pro in return. Someone young. Someone Catholic.
The was the junior senator from Missouri. Tom Eagleton.
And…Eagleton was a product of the St Louis Democratic machine.
He wasn’t well-known outside Missouri, but Party bosses inside the state could vouch for him to Party bosses in other states.
Among the more interesting sections of The Eighteen-day Running Mate are the ones devoted to Eagleton’s swift rise in Missouri politics through a mixture of hard work, talent, family connections, and the skill and the willingness to play the game without becoming beholden to the wrong the people. Eagleton was every bit the politician as McGovern. He may not have been quite as decent a guy.
But before getting into anything else: The Eighteen-Day Running Mate is a cautionary tale for anyone nostalgic for the days when conventions decided who’d be the Parties’ nominees. McGovern arrived in Miami in ‘72 well ahead of his rivals (who included, besides Humphrey and Muskie, Scoop Jackson and George Wallace. That was also the year Shirley Chisholm ran.) in the delegate count but still short of the number he needed to win the nomination. McGovern and his staff had to work desperately hard to to round up the extra votes and just as hard to keep ones they had in hand from straying. Deals had to me made and unmade. Promises were exchanged, favors called in. Without having any of the obvious and popular favorites to offer, the Vice-Presidential pick became part of the wheeling and dealing, which made it difficult for McGovern’s people to identify and settle on a candidate. With the first roll call vote looming, they were scrambling and when Eagleton was finally offered the spot and accepted, they were left with very little time to vett him. In the end, they may have done even less due diligence than John McCain did when choosing Sarah Palin. “Vetting” amounted to little more than Frank Mankiewicz, McGovern’s political director, calling up Eagleton at his hotel in Miami and asking a few perfunctory questions that Eagleton later distilled as, “Any skeletons in your closet?” and more or less taking Eagleton’s word for it when he said there weren’t.
Eagleton wasn’t lying. Not in his own mind, at any rate. He just did not believe his having suffered from what he considered separate and isolated bouts of depression—as though depression was like the flu and something he was susceptible to---in the past but not anymore---as far as he was concerned, he was cured---and having been treated with intensive electro-shock therapy as skeletons. He believed it was nobody’s business but his own.
Eagleton was rushed to the nomination pretty much on his own say-so that he was fit for the job.
The Eighteen-Day Running Mate is not an insider account of the 1972 Presidential campaign in the vein of Game Change or Theodore White’s The Making of the President series. It’s a straight-forward, sober---and sobering---history of how a particular set of professional politicians tried to do their jobs during a period of crisis for them, not a gossipy account of how the game is played. There is no gossip. What could have been treated as gossip is only included because in this case the personal is inseparable from the political. And the most personal was the source of the political problem: the state of Tom Eagleton’s mental health.
People in 1972 knew that Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill both suffered from serious depression. But would they have judged that Eagleton deserved the same understanding and benefit of the doubt as a Lincoln or a Churchill? Put that way, it doesn’t seem likely, does it? And it didn’t seem likely to McGovern’s advisors. But what was more worrisome than the depression itself and the possibility that it might recur if Vice-President Eagleton became President Eagleton was how it had been treated.
Electroshock did not have the best public image.
It was barbaric.
It was the tool of mad scientists and torturers.
It was a method of last resort used only on the craziest of crazy people.
It didn’t work.
So it was thought people thought.
Which was ironic because electroshock therapy represented a more advanced or at least advancing view of mental illness, which was to see it as an illness with definite physical symptoms if not causes that could be treated medically. In the East, where Freud reigned supreme, mental illnesses---defined mainly as neuroses of various sorts---were assumed to be mental and their causes were assumed to be traumas to the psyche that had to be revealed by probing into a patient’s subconscious and unconscious under the guidance of a therapist who helped the patient talk his or her way around mental blocks and defenses to the root of the problem and, it was to be hoped, that would allow the patient to get control of the neurotic symptoms if not actually result in a cure. Talk therapy was fashionable. Anybody who was anybody saw a shrink, including, for a time when he was Vice President, Richard Nixon, a fact that wasn’t generally known but wasn’t exactly a state secret either. But it was more than a fashion. It was the method.
Contrary ideas had to go west, then, for a hearing. And many of the doctors and neuroscientists willing to listen were gathered in the teaching hospitals of the Midwest, like the ones where Eagleton sought help. His doctors didn’t see electroshock as an extreme measure. They saw it as an effective alternative to to the psychotropic drugs available at the time, of which there were few that worked and all of them had debilitating side effects. His doctors would have advised electroshock in almost the same way they’d have advised an operation to remove a tumor. Eagleton would have had good reason to think that having had electroshock was nothing to be ashamed of (which isn’t to say he didn’t worry about what voters might think. He kept not only his treatment but his episodes of depression secret from voters back home.) and good reason to think it had worked, that he was cured. In the several years between his last treatment and McGovern’s offering him a place on the ticket, he hadn’t suffered any more episodes.
He had good reason to think that because it was behind him it had no bearing on whether or not he was qualified to be Vice President of the United States.
He didn’t have good reason to think everybody else agreed with him, and he knew it, and although he didn’t feel he was lying to Mankiewicz when he said their were no skeletons rattling in his closet, good Catholic boy that he was, he must have known it was a Jesuit’s truth. He may not have been lying, but he was being deceptive, and when it came out, as it did in a hurry, McGovern had good reason for feeling he’d been deceived.
Glasser manages to be detailed and informative on the perceptions of mental illness and its treatment in the 1950s, ‘60s, and early ‘70s without losing his narrative thread. The Eighteen-Day Running Mate is ultimately a dual political biography and portrait of two basically decent and well-intentioned but ambitious and determined men not being seen at their best. Glasser works hard at remaining objective---truly objective, not political journalist “Astronomers say the earth revolves around the sun, though some disagree objective.” He reports what as far as he's been able to determine actually happened, while withholding judgment...until judgment is called for.
Eagleton comes off as the more flawed and less admirable man, vain, dissembling (with himself as much as with anyone else), self-absorbed, selfish, and often immature. He seems to have had a habit of presenting himself in speeches as if he was talking about some other Tom Eagleton, a plucky, put-upon kid brother to himself he loved and admired and felt sorry for.
But Glasser seems more forgiving of Eagleton's flaws than of McGovern's, perhaps because he recognizes that McGovern was the better man and, as people are inclined to do with better men and women, expects more of him.
McGovern, as Glasser sees him, could be vain and self-deceptive in his own right. He was a decent man, but his problem wasn't that he was too decent for politics. His problem was that he was too proud of his reputation for decency for his own political good. He would hold off making a pragmatic political decision until he'd persuaded himself that it was the morally correct decision and he didn't blame himself for mistakes and failures if he could find a way to blame someone else for letting him down by not doing the decent thing as he saw it. He was compassionate and sympathetic towards Eagleton. His daughter Terry suffered from severe depression and, Glasser suggests, McGovern felt that giving up on Eagleton would be like giving up on Terry, something he would never do. He knew right away he needed to cut Eagleton loose and he had good grounds to do it. However Eagleton had convinced himself that he hadn't technically lied to Mankiewicz, he had in fact been deliberately deceptive.
But McGovern put it off in the hope that Eagleton would make the decision for him by doing the decent thing and withdrawing from the ticket. When Eagleton didn't and even began maneuvering to make it impossible foe McGovern to get rid of him, McGovern grew angry and resentful, but he still delayed in no small part in order to protect his image and his self-regard. When Eagleton finally got the push, instead of getting credit for patience and understanding, McGovern had created the impression that he was weak, indecisive, ultimately untrustworthy, and most damaging of all, exactly what cynics suspected, a posturing and self-serving hypocrite.
All these years later, it's probably impossible to know how much of an effect those eighteen days had on voters' perceptions of McGovern and on the election. Polling wasn't what it was to become and contemporary political reporting is unreliable because, as Timothy Crouse would soon reveal in The Boys on the Bus, the political press corps was well on its way to becoming what it is now, if it wasn't always what it is now, cynical, trivia-minded, horserace obsessed, easily distracted and bored, self-referential, convinced that what they gossiped about over lunch was what the American people were thinking about and caring about, and just plain not all that smart when it came to covering the issues at stake in a Presidential election. My own very unreliable recollection is that McGovern wasn't hurt as much by the fiasco with Eagleton as by the pathetic farce that followed as McGovern went begging for a credible replacement and was turned down by all and sundry until the Kennedys took pity on him and gave him Sargent Shriver.
But Glasser’s not all that concerned with questions along those lines, except in how they figured in the thinking of McGovern, Eagleton, and their advisors in the moment as they struggled to work their way through the mess they were in. In fact, the larger campaign and the issues at stake and what took place on the political and national and international scenes before the convention and after Eagleton's departure from the ticket are mostly left unexamined or only cursorily so.
As a result, Richard Nixon makes only a cameo appearance, Watergate gets barely a mention, the war in Vietnam is hardly discussed except as an issue that was important to McGovern personally and politically, and the cultural and political upheavals of the late '60s and early '70s that gave the impetus to McGovern's candidacy and were to a great measure its whole reason for being and which made it so alien and such a threat to Nixon’s Silent Majority---the anti-war movement and the rise of identity politics among women, African Americans, Hispanics, and gays---are kept offstage, sometimes reported on but never coming openly into view.
But this is because Glasser needs to keep his focus narrow to keep it sharp.
Glasser assumes his readers know, probably all too well, what else was going on around the very specific set of events that are his subject. The job he's given himself in The Eighteen-Day Running Mate is to tell a particular story that is interesting and dramatic in its own right apart from its place in a larger history of those or these times. Whatever lessons there are to draw from this, whatever connections there are to be made to events then or now Glaser leaves up to us.
In political science’s Department of How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin, students and scholars debate just how much influence a Presidential candidate’s choice of running mate have on the election.
I remember being glad and feeling…reassured when Bill Clinton picked Al Gore. To me, it said Clinton was serious about being President. It wasn’t just the economy, stupid. He was thinking about the national security and the environment and how to get get things done in Washington where Gore, although it’s hard to believe now, was highly regarded, something like the Democrats’ Paul Ryan, except he actually knew what he was saying. And I always considered Gore’s choice of a running mate a mistake. Joe Lieberman might have corralled the ticket some votes in Florida (not enough, as it turned out), but he was already a notorious quisling, having given aid and comfort to the Republicans during the Impeachment Crisis by being the only Democratic Senator to publicly condemn the President for his affair with Monica Lewinsky and he did it on the Senate floor. Gore, I thought, had picked Lieberman as a signal that he was his own man and had cut himself free from Bill Clinton, which, as far as I was concerned, meant he was cutting himself free from a major reason I was voting for him, to continue what Bill Clinton had started. John Kerry’s choice of John Edwards left me cold, but I was never much impressed by Edwards. That’s not 20-20 hindsight. Ask Pop Mannion. Once, when I was visiting the old homestead shortly after the Republican justices on the Supreme Court stole the 2000 election for George W. Bush, Pop and I were speculating on who the Democrats could run in 2004 who’d have a chance against Bush. Pop asked me what I thought about Edwards and I said he reminded me too much of a television evangelist. But when Kerry picked him, I figured the points in Edwards’ favor were that he was young, Southern, and working class and he was meant to balance out Kerry’s elitist, New England, not exactly hip anymore image. But when Barack Obama tapped Joe Biden I was genuinely perplexed. Here, though, is where I made my bloomer, and it was the same bloomer I made when thinking about the other VP choices. I thought the object was always and mainly to impress me in my ill-fitting guise as an average voter or, at least, an average Democratic voter.
It’s still a question how much Sarah Palin hurt John McCain in 2008. I think the prevailing wisdom is settling on the idea that the damage was actually more of the shooting himself in his own foot variety. By rushing to pick someone who turned out to be so obviously and frighteningly unfit for any political office, let alone the one that put her next in line for President, without any serious attempt to vett her, McCain showed himself up as rash, reckless, thoughtless, and so desperate to be President he was willing to foist this idiot and lunatic on the nation. But here’s the thing. That idea began to develop after McCain had already shown himself up as rash, reckless, thoughtless, and desperate when the economy collapsed in mid-September. When it became clear what a horror show Palin was---and thank you, Tina Fey, because the political press corps was smitten and took years to become truly unsmitten---it confirmed what people were concluding about McCain based on his own behavior. But for a few weeks after the Republican convention, Palin helped McCain by firing up the base and keeping attention off of him, until he called it back himself. And I believe she continued to be a help right up until the election because she kept the base from abandoning him.
This is the insight I gained from The Eighteen-Day Running Mate. In trying to figure out the effect of a candidate’s choice of running mate on the election, first look at which constituency or constituencies within the candidate’s own party the choice was made to win over. I’m not sure it’s been all sorted out in McCain’s choice of Palin. At the time, it was assumed by the Political Press Corps---and said by some inside the campaign---that the hope was that a woman on the ticket would appeal to women in general and disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters in particular. If that was the reason, then Palin was bad for McCain from the start, because women did not like her. If the idea was that her supposed maverickyness complemented and highlighted his reputation as a maverick, then that didn’t work out quite they way it was expected. But if she was there to whip up enthusiasm for the ticket among the Right Wing rank and file, then she definitely did her job.
When Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan, Democrats couldn’t contain their glee. They believed that Ryan’s reputation as a ruthless Social Darwinist intent on destroying Medicare and, eventually, Social Security---that is, that people knew and despised Ryan as, in Charles Pierce’s immortal words, a zombie-eyed granny-starver---would sink Mitt with just about any constituency you could name. But they forgot to name three within the Republican Party.
Christian Right. The Tea Party Right. And the Corporatist Right.
All three got Mitt’s message.
The general voting public probably takes note of the VP pick but then folds him or her into their image of the guy at the top of the ticket. For good, ill, or nil, he or she becomes part of the Presidential candidate’s identity. It’s just that Mitt Romney has turned out to be pretty adept at avoiding having an identity. He’s been more of his own logo for the brand of Super Save the Nation Oil (With All New Secret Ingredients) he’s selling. Most voters, I suspect, have forgotten Paul Ryan’s part of the mix.
But those three core constituencies hear Mitt’s real sales pitch loud and clear:
“Don’t worry about what I did back when I was governor of Massachusetts or things I had to say and have to say to appear moderate in order to fool the Lamestream Media. When I’m President, you will have my attention and my gratitude. I will owe you. And Paul Ryan will be there to make sure I pay you back.”
And that, the second part of it, with different and better intentions, is very similar to the message George McGovern meant to send to core Democratic constituencies with his choice of Thomas Eagleton:
“When I’m President, you will have my attention and my gratitude. I will owe you. And Tom Eagleton will be there to make sure I pay you back.”
As Glasser makes clear in The Eighteen-Day Running Mate, it was politics, pure and simple, and not decency, that dictated that message. The Eighteen-Day Running Mate is a riveting and enlightening account of how it happened that the message never had a chance to get delivered.
And, tragically, decency had little to do with that either.
The Eighteen-Day Running Mate: McGovern, Eagleton, and a Campaign in Crisis by Joshua M. Glasser, publshed by Yale University Press. Available in hardback and for kindle from Amazon.
Related Mannion Re-run: Richard Nixon as the object of their affection, my review of Thomas Mallon’s novel Watergate.
Chicago Mayor Big Bill Thompson, the central figure in Gary Krist’s sometimes rollicking, sometimes chilling, always informative chronicle of a very bad couple of weeks in the history of Chicago, City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster that Gave Birth to Modern Chicago, out and about in the city he ran for his own fun and profit, circa 1919.
Of all the words the people who hate President Obama use to call him an “other”, to avoid the word they really want to use but that they know ought to stick in their throats, to demonize and delegitimize and denigrate him, and to justify their contempt and their fury at a black man’s holding the office of President of their country---Kenyan, Socialist, Marxist, fascist, terrorist’s pal---the word they use least often is the one that actually had a measure of truth behind it.
Chicago.Not that they don’t use it. It just gets less emphasis because it doesn’t carry quite the same force of anger and vituperation. It doesn’t imply his otherness as much as those other words. There is a racist tinge to it. Chicago is a city and cities are where they live. But mainly cities are where Democrats live and vote, early and often and even after they’re dead. Cities are where Democrats run the show for their own personal gain. Cities are corrupt, city politicians are corrupt, and no city and no city’s politicians are more corrupt than Chicago.
That’s the rap on the Windy City, which supposedly got its nickname not from the winds blasting in from Lake Michigan but from the longwinded politicians fanning the town with their hot air, and it’s thanks to Mayor Richard J. Daley, the Boss, that this reputation was engraved on the living public’s imagination. Tying the word Chicago to Barack Obama is tying him to the Daley Machine, and that’s enough to give even good Democrats a pause or two. The President did learn the political trade in Chicago. The Daley Machine was broken by the time young Barry Obama arrived in town to take up work as a community organizer, and the truly relevant figure in his political biography is Harold Washington not Richard Daley, but he has close ties to the living Daleys, close enough to have made one, William, his chief of staff for a while, a blessedly short while. (See? What did I say about even good Democrats?) And then, of course, there’s Rahm.
So there are reasons Chicago ought to work as a smear against the President and you’d think the Right would hit with it harder. The problem is that it doesn’t otherize him to the degree they want to otherize him. In fact, just the opposite.
Chicago isn’t just the Daleys. It’s the Cubs. It’s the White Sox. It’s the Bears. It’s Michael Jordan! It’s deep dish pizza. It’s sweet home to the Blues Brothers and his kind of town to Sinatra. It’s Mrs O’Leary’s cow, who did not cause the fire, but never mind. It’s Carl Sandburg’s city of the big shoulders, hog butcher for the world, home of Carson’s Ribs, immortalized in an episode of M*A*S*H as Adam’s Ribs, for whose specialty characters would walk all the way in from Joliet on their knees in the snow. It’s Al Capone and John Dillinger and the Roaring ‘20s, and what’s more American than our fascination with gangsters?
Baseball. Apple pie. Chevrolet. And…corrupt politicians.
They’re everywhere. Southern small town pols are notorious. Northeastern suburbs have their fair share of corruption too. There’s an upscale suburb close to us whose supervisor is being investigated for arson, the suspicion being that he arranged a fire to cover up evidence of a dozen instances of his robbing and bilking his constituents. And he was re-elected with this going on. By voters who knew he was robbing and bilking them. But, what the heck, the roads get plowed…by the highway department run by his brother. In towns and cities where things aren’t corrupt or aren’t as overtly corrupt, it’s because rival factions keep each other from laying sole hands on the spoils or powerful bosses make sure they have a say in every bribe and payoff and scam. Things aren’t as wide-open as they once were, but it can still be the case that “honest” politicians are the ones who wait until after leaving office to collect their payoffs or the ones who are most subtle and least overtly greedy when they practice what the old-time Tammany boss George Washington Plunkitt defined as “honest graft,” getting rich off of public works projects that are actually necessary and good for their constituents.
And Republicans as well as Democrats have been good at lining their pockets this way. That’s what Daley did. But he may not have been the most corrupt mayor of Chicago ever. That distinction may belong to a Republican. Willam Hale “Big Bill” Thompson. Who was mayor when Al Capone ran the city’s underworld and a good deal of the rest of it, as well.
The basis of Capone’s affection for Thompson was Prohibition. Thompson opposed it, which didn’t make him a rarity among big city mayors at the time. But unlike most of the others he didn’t even make a show of enforcing the law. In fact, he promised to do the opposite.
“When I’m elected we will not only reopen places these people have closed,but we’ll open ten thousand new ones…. No copper will invade your home and fan your mattress for a hip flask.”
Once in office, he not only kept his promise, but he seems to have regarded Prohibition as a government program to supplement the incomes of cops, judges, and politicians, himself included. Bribes and payoffs were a form of sales tax.
That was during Thompson's second go round as mayor. His first time through--- he served two terms between 1915 and 1923---he made his money and his reputation as a politician with his hand in the till the old -fashioned way, by straight-forward skimming, not scrupling, apparently, between honest and dishonest graft. Thompson was a builder. We meet him in City of Scoundrels, Gary Krist’s engaging narrative history of twelve very bad days during Thompson’s second term, proudly presiding over the opening of the Monroe street drawbridge and Krist credits him with encouraging and initiating the developments and improvements, including Michigan Avenue's Miracle Mile, that made Chicago into the most architecturally advanced and inspiring cities in the United States. But he promised far more than he delivered, gave the go ahead and financing to projects that were never completed or in many cases never even started, with the money appropriated disappearing into many pockets including Thompson's own, and did not bother to check if the city could actually pay for any of it.
Just trying to hold it together.
The trouble started during a heat wave in late July of 1919 with the very first Goodyear blimp crashing in flames on top a bank in the Loop. It continued with the disappearance of six-year old Janet Wilkinson and the citywide manhunt for who the police were sadly sure would turn out to be her molester and murderer. Then there was a transit strike, and then came five days of racial riots that left dozens dead, hundreds injured, and much of the South Side's African American neighborhoods burnt and looted.
Thompson was the son of well-to-do parents, a star athlete in high school who skipped college to go to work on ranches in Nebraska and Wyoming. By the time he became mayor, the only trace of the star athlete he’d been was how he’d gone to fat in the way many former linemen and heavyweight boxers do. He liked to wear a Stetson to remind people he’d once been a real cowboy, but when he saddled up for parades and campaign appearances, the sympathy of the crowds was with the horse. In those days there was still reason for Republicans to think of themselves as belonging to the Party of Lincoln, but the party was already divided between corporatists and money men, whom Thompson openly despised and defied, and progressives of the likes of Theodore Roosevelt brand, reformers, do-gooders, and good government types, and Thompson was not one of those either. He was a populist who didn’t believe in good government or using government to do good. He believed that it was a good…as long as it was useful. At a time when Republicans tended to see immigrants and their children either as infections or as projects for improvement, Thompson saw them as people who needed jobs and good schools and safe streets.
Or maybe he just figured that the surest way to buy their votes was to give them jobs and good schools and safe streets. Promise them those things, at least.
It didn’t hurt him with his Irish and German constituencies that he was an outspoken Wet and opposed Prohibition. To his surprise and chagrin, it didn’t help him as much as he expected when he opposed America’s entry into the Great War in Europe. It got him branded “Kaiser Bill” and there was concern (or hope, depending on how you felt about him) that accusations of a lack of patriotism would hurt him as he prepared to run for re-election in 1918.
But Thompson had another constituency he’d been cultivating while his political rivals, Democrats and Republicans, either ignored them or outright despised and dismissed them.
As an effect of the Great Migration that was bringing black people up from the South in search of jobs in Northern factories and some measure of escape from Jim Crow, Chicago had quickly growing African American population, whom Thompson courted with promises of jobs and public works projects in their neighborhoods, promises he often kept. He appointed African Americans to important positions in his administration, as well. And when he campaigned he was open in his appeals to black voters. This was tricky politically for him. Besides racial antagonisms, his black voters and his white ethnic voters were economic rivals. White workers tended to be union members while black workers were generally non-union (often because they were excluded from the unions). He managed the trick well enough to get himself re-elected, but it became an even larger and more dangerous problem when the riots began.
As you would expect, the riots, which began when a group of black teenagers swimming in the lake crossed an imagined line in the water and a white thug threw a rock that knocked one of the swimmers unconscious causing him to slip under the water and drown, take up the largest sections of City of Scoundrels. They went on for nearly a week, ranged over wide swaths of the city, caught thousands up in their violence, and caused Chicago’s second great fire.
The sections of City of Scoundrels covering the riots are harrowing and informative, especially if like me you didn’t know anything about this part of Chicago’s history. But they aren’t the most entertaining sections. Not that riots are entertainments or that nonfiction writing about riots and the attendant deaths and destruction ought to be entertaining in the way of writing about the Battle for Helm’s Deep. But there’s no reason it shouldn’t entertain readers by engaging their sympathies and stirring their emotions. It should be more than interesting. It should excite our interest. And the best way to do that, in nonfiction as well as fiction, is to give readers people to identify with and care about. Krist does a fine job of laying out the terrain and explaining the situation as it unfolds and leading us through the confusion and tumult. But there’s a distance in the presentation, as if we’re hearing about the riots from reporters who can’t get past the police cordons and are relaying what they’re being told by officials who are relaying what they’ve been told by other officials who are too busy trying to do their jobs to keep track exactly of what’s going on. Effectively, the sections on the riots read like a summarization of an official report pieced together from second and third hand reports well after the fact. The people involved appear more or less as statistics. So and so was beaten. So and so shot. So and so’s house was burned down. So and so was arrested along with…The neighborhoods bearing the brunt of the violence are located more than describe and treated as scenes of crimes or accidents instead of places where people lived, worked, and died.
Most of Chicago’s African Americans lived in neighborhoods on the South Side in an area that taken together was known as the Black Belt, and that’s where the rioting was concentrated. But we don’t get much of a sense of what it was like to live in the Black Belt under normal circumstances let alone during a nearly week long series of riots. Krist presents the Black Belt more as an object of sociological and historical study than as a place alive and bustling at a particular point in time with its own particular culture and ways of doing business, enlivened by the comings and goings of particular people with their own particular interests, passions and concerns. We see the Black Belt from the outside, through the eyes of outsiders, white outsiders. Krist’s two main eyewitnesses to the riots are Carl Sandburg, who was working as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News, and Sterling Morton, an heir to the Morton Salt fortune who was a lieutenant in the state militia that summer, and Sandburg’s reports from the scene are…reports, and Sterling, along with his unit and the rest of the militia sent to backup the police if the mayor called on them, spent the first several days waiting and then when the militia marched in at last, he was naturally more focused on the immediate dangers to him and his men than on gathering information about the people he was there to protect or round up. Morton viewed the Black Belt as a battleground not a part of his hometown.
So we don’t get anyone speaking for the neighborhoods and the people who live there or speaking for themselves as people living in the neighborhood. In fact, Chicago’s African American community has practically no voice of its own in the book. The journalist and activist Ida B. Wells (whom Krist refers to throughout by her full legal name, Wells-Barnett) has a prominent role in City of Scoundrels, and she lived on the South Side and was active in helping victims during the riots, but Krist mostly has her speaking in her role as a public figure and rarely as a private citizen of a city coming down around her ears. And in her public persona she often comes across as representing a party and community of one.
That’s a big chunk of the city to leave voiceless. And it gets at something I would have liked to have more of. Characters. City of Scoundrels is populated by many biographies but not enough characters, that is, we’re introduced to a lot people and get to know them through the facts of their lives, but we meet fewer people who speak for themselves and come off as having real lives off the page and in the process give us an intimate sense of what it was like to live in the city of Chicago a hundred years ago.
Two of the most alive characters, in that sense, are Thomas Fitzgerald, the suspect in Janet Wilkinson's abduction and murder---that's not a spoiler. From the beginning of her part of the book, there's not a doubt about what happened. The details are too familiar from the countless similar cases that make the news to this day. In newspaper interviews neighbors of the suspect and Janet's family sound depressingly like any you'd hear on Nancy Grace.---and a diary-keeping University of Chicago student who is the ingenue of City of Scoundrel's romantic subplot.
Twenty year old Emily Frankenstein (Yes. Really. Frankenstein. There’s more. Her doctor father was named Victor!) was the daughter of a prosperous Jewish family secretly engaged to a recently demobbed soldier her parents disapproved of because of his working class background and his growing interest in Christian Science. Emily wasn't comfortable with the Christian Science thing either, but she was convinced she could argue him out of it and improve him in other ways as well.
Emily's account of their courtship is lively, entertaining, and, for a twenty year old in love, psychologically astute. But, understandably, her focus is herself and her attention doesn't range far beyond her own front porch, and she was protected from the calamities and tragedies shaking the city by privilege and distance. We learn a lot from her about what it was like to be Emily Frankenstein. We don't get much of a picture of what it was like for Emily Frankenstein to be out and about in Chicago in the summer of 1919.
We get a much more detailed and illuminating picture of the daily life of the city and how ordinary people lived and worked and interacted in the sections on Janet Wilkerson's murder, since the investigation depended on tracing the comings and goings of Janet and her friends and family and their neighbors on the day of her disappearance.
The most vivid sections of City of Scoundrels, the ones with the most chills thrills, excitement, and, to me, news, are also ones in which Chicago and its people come to life, although, horrifyingly, in a number of cases, in the moments before they are burnt or crushed to death, and those are the sections dealing with the flaming crash of the airship The Wingfoot Express on top of Illinois Trust and Savings just as the bank was closing up for the day.
But it’s Big Bill Thompson who dominates the book, casting his hulking, cowboy-hatted shadow over every page. He was a colorful and amusing personality although not all that interesting a person. He doesn't seem to have left much of an account of himself or attracted the interest of any writers in a way that made them want to write seriously about him, the way Richard Daley would come to obsess Mike Royko. Mostly Thompson inspired the broadest satire or the narrowest sort of demonization. If there's a book out there like Royko's Boss or A.J Liebling's classic The Earl of Louisiana, Krist doesn’t make a lot of use of it. The result is that Thompson doesn't have much of a voice in City of Scoundrels. We "hear" him mainly through his speeches and public pronouncements in which he tended to mix populist rabble rousing with patriotic bombast typical of the day and the professional politician's usual forms of boasting and self-flattery. Thompson doesn't come across as intellectually or emotionally engaged in any of the events Krist is chronicling, except in a reverse way during the riots when he was trying his damnedest not to be engaged---he couldn't figure out how to appear active and in charge without alienating his white and black voters. The police were overwhelmed. The governor had the state militia ready to march in. All he was waiting for was for Thompson to ask for the help. But the governor was a political rival, and Thompson wanted his police department to get the credit for saving the city.
But people did write about him. He made news. And while. as he presented himself in public, he was all show and he seems to have had no friends or intimates of a literary bent who recorded his private thoughts and feelings, his enemies couldn't say enough about him. None of what they had to say was kind or even grudgingly complimentary. But what they did say and write (and you can imagine the most even-tempered of them writing much of what Krist quotes with red faces and clenched jaws) leaves no doubt that Thompson was very, very, very good at playing politics.
Few of his opponents and rivals came away from any dealings with Big Bill feeling they'd got the better of him. Often they came away feeling as dirty as they thought him. Nobody believed Thompson represented anyboby's best interests but his own. Nobody except the voters. Which led to a number of his enemies among the Chicago and Illinois political and economic elite giving vent to the not always well-suppressed suspicion, held by many elitist reformers regardless of party, that the problem with democracy is that the little people get to thinking they run things.
It wasn't a difficult leap from thinking the mayor was corrupt to thinking the people who voted for him were corrupt.
Democracy, as practiced in Chicago under Big Bill Thompson, and in every city for that matter, was a system by which the poor and undeserving voted to give themselves unearned goods and services bought with rich and deserving men's money.
And there you have it, the roots of Mitt Romney' 47 %, of the fear and loathing and self-righteous indignation behind Republican legislatures passing laws designed to keep people, particularly city people, those people, from voting, of some of the small town and suburbanite Tea Party types’ feeling that their country has been stolen from them, of the corporatist Right's contempt for the Welfare state and democracy itself as forms of theft.
It can all be summed up in that one word. Chicago.
Big Bill's second stint as mayor lasted just one term. When Democrat Anton Cermak defeated him in 1931, the Chicago Tribune delivered Thompson's political eulogy:
For Chicago Thompson has meant filth, corruption, obscenity, idiocy and bankruptcy.... He has given the city an international reputation for moronic buffoonery, barbaric crime, triumphant hoodlumism, unchecked graft, and a dejected citizenship. He nearly ruined the property and completely destroyed the pride of the city. He made Chicago a byword for the collapse of American civilization. In his attempt to continue this he excelled himself as a liar and defamer of character.
Of course I believe that the President not even in spite of but because of the political lessons he learned in Chicago is no Big Bill Thompson, but still Thompson is a relevant figure in this year's election and that makes City of Scoundrels not just an interesting and entertaining book but a useful one for understanding some of what's still going on today.
City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster that Gave Birth to Modern Chicago by Gary Krist, published by Crown, available in hardback and for kindle from Amazon.
Ok, the Firing Big Bird jokes stopped being funny sometime Saturday afternoon, hours before SNL bombed with their Big Bird sketch. The Obama ad's amusing, mildly, once, but I wish they hadn’t bothered. It’s kind of silly, really, and I’d rather see the Democrats running ads about Mitt’s more serious gaffe in the debate---and, yes, he did make a few, which Democrats and liberals should have pointed out right away, instead of collapsing into despair. Mitt admitted he plans to voucherize Medicare, for crying out loud! That should be an ad, if it’s not already. And a more straight-forward ad defending Sesame Street and with it PBS might have been all right. But I have to confess something.
I don’t like Big Bird.
I was fine with Ernie, fine with Bert, fine with Grover, fine with Cookie Monster. Oscar still cracks me up, and I love the Count and love doing the Batty Bat. And I was more than fine with Kermit. I was down with Kermit. He was and still is the Frog!
But I’ve never been fine with Big Bird.
He’s annoying because he’s cloying.
I don’t much care for Elmo either. He’s even more annoying. And cloying.
Not that I want to see either Elmo or Big Bird fired. For the record, Mitt doesn't really want to fire them either. He wants to put them to work in the private sector making money for millionaires, which Mitt believes in the whole purpose of life for people and muppets.
I'm just saying that I'm not the target for those ads. watching them i feel a liitle---just a little---like Scrooge perusing the Toys R Us catalog.
But then I didn't grow up with Sesame Street. I'm a Captain Kangaroo kid. By the time Sesame Street premiered I was off to school. Oh, I saw it enough times. On days off and when I was home sick I'd watch with my little brothers and sisters. But I was a Muppet fan and I watched for the Muppets and I didn't consider Big Bird and Elmo true Muppets.
So of course the ads don't touch any deep chords in me. The nostalgia that I do feel isn't for my own kidhood but for my kids' kidhoods. They did grow up with Big Bird.
But here's the thing.
They did not grow up with Sesame Street.
Not in the usual way, that is.
They knew about Sesame Street. They knew all the characters. Young Ken doesn't remember how he felt about Big Bird or Elmo except that they didn't annoy him. His favorites were Bert and Ernie and Cookie Monster. Oliver was a fan of both. He loved Elmo. (To his parents' great relief, he outgrew this before any Tickle Me Elmos cloyed their way into our house.) But they knew the Sesame Street Muppets as the stars of videos and the travelling live shows that came to town every year. They didn’t watch Sesame Street itself regularly. Hardly ever in fact. There are reasons for this that were mainly accidental. One was that without thinking about it the blonde and I discouraged them from building their days around watching TV. Another, related to the first, is that thanks to our schedules when they were very little both the blonde and I were home during the mornings. When Sesame Street was on, they were often doing things with one or the other or both of us.
Not always fun stuff. We dragged them about on errands. But mostly we were able to spend what was known then as quality time. (Has that cliche died the death it deserved?) We had a nice backyard with a swingset and a sandbox where they could play on sunny days, chasing the clouds away. There was a branch library within easy strollering distance. Our house was full of books and they did not lack for toys.
But it's not as if they never watched TV.
What they mostly watched, however, was videos, and the Sesame Street videos were not among their very favorites. They preferred videos with big trucks and toy trains and, oh , how I still miss Thomas and his friends. The sight of that little blue tank engine can make me tear up way faster and easier than yellow feathers or red fur.
(Warning to young parents. There are things you'll be happy to see your kids outgrow. But there are other things that will break your heart all the rest of your life.)
Then something happened. First to Ken, then to Oliver.
They turned three.
And they started pre-school.
You see where I'm going here, right?
No, not into my rendition of Sunrise, Sunset.
This: They were very lucky little boys.
How many kids don't grow up with the company of both parents for large portions of their days or even with one around? How many don't have nice backyards to play in? How many don't live in neighborhoods where it's a pleasant walk to the library? How many don't get to attend schools with good early education programs and all-day kindergartens? How many kids grow up with Big Bird whose parents can't afford to take them to Sesame Street Live or can't get a weeknight off to take them?
I'm not surprised that Right Wingers sneer and snark at the Firing Big Bird thing. But it bothers me that many liberals are so dismissive too.
It doesn't surprise me, though, that by far the majority of liberals I've seen being dismissive are men.
Sesame Street is the first introduction to learning English for many immigrant families. For many inner city families it is one of the few shows on television that reflect their lives and neighborhoods and cultures and heritage and selves in a positive light.
And let’s not forget that along with everything else they want to take away from working families, the Republicans have it in for Head Start and before and after school programs too.
What's more, people of all sorts and conditions grew up with Sesame Street, loving Big Bird and Elmo and the rest. Their kids are growing up with it now. It means something to them, and not just in a trivial or sentimental way. It is an important part of childhood because it helps teach children not just to read and to count but to be as decent and kind and loving as Big Bird and Elmo.
For countless families, Sesame Street plays a key part in raising children.
And, guys? Guess who do the lioness' share of that job?
Like I said, when I was growing up I watched Sesame Street mostly in passing. It was a show for little kids. But I’ll tell you what I did watch attentively, even though I might have been embarrassed to let my friends know, if I didn’t know some of them were watching it too.
Mister Rogers Neighborhood.
It was on late in the afternoons so I could catch it after school. I never turned it on for myself, of course. But I would remind my brothers and sisters that it was time. Then I’d sit down and watch with them, just to be a good and obliging big brother.
It wasn’t that Mr Rogers was a hero to me, but he was something…special. A saint, maybe? I could write a whole post trying to explain it, I suppose, but it wouldn’t be as good as this essay by Tom Junod, to whom Fred Rogers was a hero.
It’s long. You might want to book mark and save it for when you can give it your full attention. It’s that good.
In the meantime:
And, of course:
Breaks your heart, right? Just be glad I didn’t post It’s Not Easy Being Green too.
Top photo courtesy of NBC.
I didn’t watch. For one thing: baseball. For another: boring. But mainly: I knew Mitt was going to “win”. The Media was never going to let him “lose.” The only way he could have lost is if he finished up crumpled on the floor behind the podium, whimpering “Make it stop! Please, God, make it stop!” Which wasn’t going to happen. Even if it did, the press corps still might have declared him the “winner” because they needed him to be in order for them to go back to their “It’s a toss up” narrative. If last night couldn’t have been described in any way favorable to Mitt as a “game-changer”, the press would have nothing to do for the next month but duck calls from their Republican sources demanding to know why they weren’t reporting on how the game had changed in Mitt’s favor.
That said, though. Mitt won.
Worse. The President lost.
But from all I’ve read online it looks to me like this:
1) Mitt won the debate but nobody much likes him for it.
2) The President lost the debate and Democrats are really pissed at him.
3) Nobody's vote was changed.
4) Mitt won by being the kind of jerk most people already think he is. My bet is that women were especially put off.
5) The President lost by being a stiff and by looking and acting bored stiff. Like I said, this pissed off Democrats, didn't change their votes.
6) The worst part for Democrats and the best for GOP is that the Media will spend the next week asking each other if the debate was a game changer.
Is that about right?
All right, so…bad news. But we live to fight another day.
What I’d like to see, though, is liberal women taking control of that fight. We men are too well-trained by sports coverage. For us it’s always about power and dominance. This is why every single loss by the hometown team sends us into panic, depression, or a rage. But women know this guy.
Mitt did to the President and Jim Lehrer what types like him do to the women they work with every day. Interrupted, condescended, bullied. These guys pretend not to hear you, then they repeat what you said as if they just thought of it themselves.
Mitt broke the rules last night. From the start he played it like he owned it. And he lied non-stop. And the President just stood there and let him get away with it, possibly because, like so many women who find themselves dealing with a Mitt in their midst, he was reluctant to speak up because it would have seemed impolite or…uppity.
In the President’s case it might have been that he’s trained himself too well not to give anyone an excuse to dismiss him as an angry black man.
For a lot of women, it’s the case that they know if they try to assert themselves they will be told they’re being…bitches.
And the trouble is that the men around them who know the Mitts in their midst are being jerks don’t speak up because they’ve been cowed into thinking this is how the game is played.
But who says the rules can’t be changed?
Mitt won last night by being a liar, a bully, and an all-around jerk. That should be the story.
That, and he wants to fire Big Bird.
At Think Progress: Mitt’s 27 lies in 38 minutes.
Updated cuz I just thought of it: To reiterate, we men know what Mitt did was despicable but we’re of no help because we think that’s how the game is played. But this too: we want to show off how well we understand that’s how the game is played. So all we’re going to do is going explain over and over again how Mitt won and the President lost. Shows we’re savvy and tough-minded, see? Make us stop!
I’ve long believed that people’s political views are more an expression of temperament than reasoned thought. We’re all a blend of liberal and conservative flavors and how liberal and how conservative we are depends on how much of each got poured into us at birth and what life has added to the mix or drained from it since. I’ve got enough conservative in me to make me worry about what I’ll be like when I’m old and cranky.
Older and crankier.
David Frum, former speechwriter for George W. Bush speechwriter and now conservative blogger at the Daily Beast, has a good helping of liberal in him for as stanch a Republican as he insists he still is. The story goes that he let this side of himself show once too often and it got him frog-marched from the American Enterprise Institute. Frum himself denies that’s what happened. It was a simple salary dispute. He wanted one and AEI decided they did want to pay it. Whatever the case, it seems since he’s been blogging he’s felt freer to let his freak flag fly and while it’s more often the case that when I read his stuff I’m not out and out appalled, from time to time, and those times aren’t rare, I find myself nodding in agreement and even occasionally shouting out, “Yes! David! My man!”
Now, here’s the thing. Having a liberal streak doesn’t mean you necessarily endorse liberal policies. Nor does having a conservative streak mean you necessarily endorse conservative ones. It’s simply that you can see the other side’s point. But there’s more to it. It also means that you can see how a liberal policy can lead to a conservative goal or vice versa. An example of the former is same-sex marriage. Andrew Sullivan makes this argument forcefully and often. An example of the latter is Obamacare. It works like this.
The vast majority of us share two broad goals, defending the status quo and expanding opportunity, the status quo being a generally well-ordered, safe, and comfortable society, in which we’re reasonably free to shoot our mouths off, go where we want, and spend what money we have as we see fit, and expanding opportunity means giving ourselves and our fellow citizens more of stake in maintaining the status quo by letting more of us share in more of the benefits of living in this well-ordered, safe, and comfortable society, although that often requires changing the status quo.
Simply put, conservatives are more inclined to defend the status quo, even if that means denying some people some opportunity, while liberals tend to want to increase opportunity even if that means disrupting some aspect of the status quo if not the whole of it. The point is that the interests of conservatives and liberals are often the same.
So, yes, Obamacare preserves the health insurance industry and gives insurance companies a huge infusion of cash, but everybody’s insured, so everybody shares in the order, safety, comfort, and freedom provided by the status quo, which gives everybody a stake in preserving the status quo.
You can see where this is going, right? Most self-styled conservatives these days can’t. Many progressives can and they don’t like it.
The object of liberalism is to create more conservatives.
It should be obvious to conservatives that the fewer people with a stake in preserving the status quo the more people you'll have with reason to disrupt it. It is obvious to some conservatives. It just used to be obvious to most conservatives. In order to give more people a stake in defending the status quo, increase people's opportunities to enjoy the benefits of the status quo.
Conservatives used to see the good in spreading the wealth---in redistribution. Although Republicans have always been fond of their millionaires, they used to be almost as fond of the middle and working class. The object of economic progress wasn’t just to create and coddle millionaires. The object was to give more people the same stake in maintaining the status quo that millionaires have. Conservatives, generally, think---or thought---this was best done on the local level and by encouraging private enterprise. But it's why there are conservatives who support expanding civil rights, strong public schools, and even--- a shocker---progressive taxation. (That's where the 47 percent comes in, Mitt.) The point is that sometimes the best way to be a good conservative is to be liberal, and once upon a time most conservatives understood that.
Here's how liberalism and conservatism are mixed up in me. As a straight, white, middle class American male, I have always benefited from the status quo. But being a kind, decent-hearted, well-meaning, and generous guy, I want everybody to have what I have; however, being a selfish, self-protective, and greedy guy too, I figure that the more people who have what I have, the more people I'll have on my side if somebody tries to take it all away.
At the moment, the people who are trying to take it away are rich Right Wing corporatists and their political henchmen like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. Seeing this doesn't make me a liberal. You don't have to be a liberal to see that Romney and Ryan are threats to the status quo.
Defending the status quo by default means defending established privilege and more and more over the course of the last several generations the conservatism of the Republican Party has degenerated into an angry defense of privilege alone. Any and all privilege. White privilege. Male privilege. The privileges that come from having been born straight, Christian, and a citizen. The privileges that come from being rich. Especially the privileges that come from being rich. The corporatist Right and the Religious Right and the Tea Party Right are united in a common defense of their privileges and don’t give a damn about expanding opportunity. In fact, they look at expanded opportunities as a form of theft. They see life as a zero-sum endeavor.
“Whenever you get something, I lose something. However your opportunity expands, mine contracts. Whatever you have, you’ve taken from me.”
The corporatists, the Christianists, and the Tea Party types have as their common goal a taking back of America, by which they mean a taking away of opportunity from those they perceive as having robbed them of their privileges.
This isn’t conservative. It’s reactionary. It’s destructive. And it’s just plain mean.
David Frum sees that and it bothers him. In fact, it infuriates him. And it’s the basis for my finding myself in agreement with him from time to time.
It’s why, from time to time, he can sound like a liberal…because he is being liberal.
Take for example his set of tweets last week on why he thinks Romney is losing, which includes this:
(4) How do you message: I'm doing away w[ith] Medicaid over the next 10 yrs, Medicare after that, to finance a cut in the top rate of tax to 28%?
And ends with:
(10) But voters do care about the q[uestion]: what will this presidency do for me? And "dick you over" is not a winning answer
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Neither my liberalism nor Frum’s conservatism are all that adulterated, so although I often find myself nodding in agreement, it’s usually the case that I see his point not that we’re seeing eye to eye. But one thing we do see eye to eye on, it turns out, is Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times.
Couple weeks back, in my post Shake every hand, kiss every baby, I mentioned, more or less in passing, how the “self-made” entrepreneurs who paraded up on the stage at the Republican Convention to congratulate themselves on their self-reliance and go-getterism and whine about how the President doesn’t appreciate their wonderfulness reminded me of Josiah Bounderby, the mill owner and banker in Hard Times who likes to boast about how he worked his way up from rags to riches all on his own while leaving out the part of his life story in which his mother beggared herself scrimping and saving to put him through school and give him his start in business.
Frum was reminded of Bounderby too and he’s devoted a whole post to the comparison and to Hard Times which he calls “a brilliant anticipation of this summer's debate over ‘you didn't build that’” and “reply to the still-recurring fantasy of ‘Going Galt’.”
The video clips of Mitt Romney delivering what James Wolcott compares to Alec Baldwin’s big speech in the movie version of Glengarry Glen Ross is being parsed and parsed again sixteen ways from Sunday all over the internet today, with most of the parsing focused on why the 47 percent of the country Mitt dismisses as takers aren’t taking or if they are it’s because they really need to. It'll need Bill Clinton to sell this as a Democratic campaign theme and he’s probably gearing up to do it already. But right now it’s just wonkery that makes us liberals feel smart and morally superior while eliciting sneers from the Right, who eat hating on the poor and the needy up with a spoon.
It boils down to Mitt thinks half the people in this country are lazy bums, an appalling sentiment but half the people in this country agree! More than half. (I’m reminding myself of Bertie Wooster’s observation that half the people in the country don’t know how the other three-quarters live.) More than half the people in the country think the other three-quarters are lazy bums. Sometimes. Even good liberals think it. The lazy bums think it. A trip to the mall, a drive down the highway, a visit to the doctor’s office, dinner out at a restaurant, a wait in line at the post office or the bank, anywhere you go where you have to deal with other human beings will confirm it. It’s amazing how many people expect the rest of the world to cater to them.
I’m kidding. Half-kidding. But all kidding aside. This will help bring out the Democratic vote (I think) and turn around some independents by turning their stomachs (I hope), but good luck persuading any Republicans that Mitt was including them as targets of his contempt. More likely it will encourage them to be more enthusiastic in expressing the contempt they share with Mitt for…those people.
One of the more pernicious things about “movement conservatism” has been its appeal to the worst in people by encouraging them to distrust and despise their fellow Americans. And one of the more depressing things about it has been how eagerly so many people have been to do so.
If only millionaires voted Republicans, the GOP would poll lower than the Greens and LaRouchites. Non-millionaires vote Republican for many reasons, one of which is that they don’t like the government giving “their” money to people who don’t work or don’t work as hard as they do. In a similar vein, they don’t like that “others” are getting help they’re not getting even though they could use it too. Others don’t think anybody, including themselves, should get help from the government. They see it as charity and they don’t want charity. “I can solve this myself.” it’s what the nuns called “false pride” but it’s how they honestly feel.
But, finally, a lot of non-millionaires---mostly men, I suspect---vote Republican in order to feel like millionaires or, rather, in order not to feel like losers. The reverence for wealth as a sign of God’s and Nature’s favor was brought here by the Puritans (who, weirdly, evolved into Massachusetts liberals within a couple centuries of the Mayflower’s dropping anchor), but it has been central to Republicanism since the Robber Barons took over the party and began driving out the Theodore Roosevelts and Bob La Follettes who were Lincoln’s true heirs. And it became the guiding principle in the ‘80s when grown men began to say things like “He who dies with the most toys wins” as if it was a self-evident truth and a good thing. People who are on their way to dying with no toys, instead of thinking maybe there’s something wrong with valuing a human life only by how much money a person makes, start to wonder if they are “losers” and reject that possibility emphatically by intensifying their identification with the “winners.” And along with voting for the winners’ tribunes, this means intensifying their hatred of the designated “losers”. The “Not Me’s!” The “No Way Am I One of Thems!” Those non-millionaires are cheering right along with the millionaires for Mitt today.
Which gets at what’s reprehensible about Mitt---one of the things that’s reprehensible about him. He sees the world in purely economic terms. To him, people are economic units not spiritual beings and individuals only matter to the degree they create wealth. Those who don’t create wealth or create enough of it are, in Randian terms, moochers and parasites, takers not makers, or, to put in in a straight-forwardly materialistic Romney-ian way, people are costs to be controlled.
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.
What is that but an itemization of expenditures?
But he’s not just telling his audience to see the 47 percent as economic units that don’t pay off on any investment. He’s selling himself as an economic unit. “Vote for me! Give to me! And I’ll pay out like gangbusters!”
If it looks like I'm going to win, the markets will be happy. If it looks like the president's going to win, the markets should not be terribly happy. It depends of course which markets you're talking about, which types of commodities and so forth, but my own view is that if we win on November 6th, there will be a great deal of optimism about the future of this country. We'll see capital come back and we'll see—without actually doing anything—we'll actually get a boost in the economy.
He’s really offering no other reason to vote him. He’ll be the Confidence Fairy-in-Chief.
In fact, he’s pretty much promising to do nothing as President except sit in the Oval Office and watch CNBC and giggle as the Dow Jones climbs to 36,000.
And this is where I think the videos will cost him. Besides disgusting Democrats and Independents and, maybe, a few Republicans who are inclined to agree with the sentiments but recoil at hearing them expressed so nakedly, inelegantly, and cruelly---they won’t like hearing themselves echoed by the banker foreclosing on the widow’s ranch---Mitt is revealing himself to people who are only just beginning to pay attention to the campaign and to the political press corps, who should already know but have been assiduously pretending some other Mitt Romney has been running, that not only does he have no real plans for being President, he doesn’t know or care what it means to be President.
He hasn’t given a thought to what the country needs from a President, only to what we will get if we elect him---the wonderfulness that just comes naturally from having Mitt run things. Bain. The Olympics. That state whose name he'd rather not mention. The United States of America. All we need is him.
And not only does this add to and reinforce the perception that he is just a self-infatuated, self-flattering, self-congratulating rich jerk who divides the world neatly into, as Charles Pierce says, himself and his wonderful family and the Help, that he is in fact a guy who likes to fire people and doesn’t care about the very poor or, for that matter, the not very rich, but coming on top of his reckless and destructive blundering on Libya last week, it makes it even clearer that this man has no business asking us to trust him with the Presidency.
A lot more people are looking at Barack Obama and thinking, You know, he’s pretty good at this job, maybe we should keep him.
And then they’re looking at Mitt and shaking their heads and saying to themselves, “Definitely. Not. A. President.”
And that’s how I expect he’s going to get covered from here on out.
You’ve probably already read David Corn’s scoop at Mother Jones and looked at the clips, but in case you haven’t here’s the link: SECRET VIDEO: Romney Tells Millionaire Donors What He REALLY Thinks of Obama Voters.
Updated before I’ve even had a chance to post this: Jonathan Chait beat me to the punch with similar thoughts this morning at New York Magazine, The Real Romney Captured on Tape Turns Out to Be a Sneering Plutocrat.
And, naturally, Charles Pierce is way ahead of me too: The Worst Thing Romney Has Said About Americans Yet.
One of Mom Mannion’s favorite expressions when I was growing up was “There’s no fool like an educated fool.”
I always took that as a warning to her college-bound children not to get too full of ourselves and I heeded it about as well as any teenager heeds any warning from their parents. But I also thought she was both teasing and warning Pop Mannion too. My mother didn’t go to college. My father has a Ph.D.
But Pop is no educated fool. He knows whom he married and why and what’s good for him. I’ve never known him to be full of himself around my mother, around us, around his students, around anybody, including the many educated fools, he had to deal with when he was in politics.
Here’s an important thing about Pop Mannion the politician. Besides knowing enough to listen to my mother, he was a builder and a fixer and a problem-solver. But he was not a reformer.
Reformers of both parties set out to explain to voters just what medicine they’re going to have to take and why they should take it and be grateful for it even if they don’t like it and don’t think they need it.
Reformers, for the most part, are the type of people Mom Mannion had in mind when she warned us about becoming educated fools.
This one seems to have blown over in a hurry. No surprise, since it was Rick Santorum talking and at the moment few people care what Rick Santorum’s thinking about anything and here’s hoping even fewer care as time goes by. But over the weekend at the Values Voter Summit he said:
"We will never have the elite, smart people on our side…”
Reads like self-parody, doesn’t it? But know what? If your first and only response is to laugh, you’re probably one of Mom Mannion’s educated fools.
Read and watch the whole thing.
Santorum didn’t say smart. He said “smart.” It was an insult. He wasn’t talking about people who are smart. He was talking about people who think they’re so much smarter than everybody else.
And, he didn’t have to add out loud because his audience was ahead of him on it, We know how “smart” they are.
Liberals and liberal-minded conservatives (Yes, there are such people. As all us educated fools know, liberal has several meanings.) have often decried the anti-intellectualism of the Right. And that is something to be decried. But it shouldn’t be confused with the anti-intellectuals-ism that’s a longstanding American tradition born of frustration at having to deal with “reformers” waving their degrees in our faces as they barge into our lives to tell us they know what’s good for us and we need to listen up as they lay out their plans for improving our lives, whether we think they need improving or not.
An irony of this Presidential election is that that’s supposed to be the knock on President Obama, that he’s a smartypants liberal who thinks he’s so smart he can tell the rest of us how to manage our lives, but it’s Mitt who’s coming across to voters that way. But then Mitt is a product of the school of scientific management. An educated fool deluxe with two Hah-vud degrees to prove it.
Paul Ryan’s another dispenser of strong medicine he has no intention of prescribing for himself.
But the truth is liberals do seem to have the market cornered on educated foolery.
Try this. James Warren writing at the Atlantic about the Chicago teachers strike and trying to sound sympathetic while measuring out a big dose of castor oil for parents who want to keep their local elementary school open, partly because they know and like the teachers there:
It's a dynamic at play whenever the under-performing Chicago system, which is beset by huge deficits, tries to close or consolidates schools. The school board usually gets its way but not before a very public uproar. Even parents at what are clearly low quality, poorly performing schools rise to protest. There's a bond that blinds them to larger realities but ties them to that neighborhood building without any air conditioning.
My italics up there.
Blind to larger realities here means, “Sentimentally attached to their neighborhood schools in a way they wouldn’t be if they knew what’s good for them, which they should because we reformers are here to tell them what’s good for them.”
Imagine, parents being loyal to a neighborhood school and thinking, in their blindness to larger realities:
Couldn’t we just put in air conditioning here instead of bussing my kids across town to some huge but fancy reformer-approved education factory where I won’t be able to reach them if they get sick or where it will be a big problem for me to visit if I need to meet with their teachers and hard to get to their games and their concerts and their plays and where if I do manage to get there I will be lost in a sea of strangers instead of at home among my friends and neighbors?
Warren’s condescension would be bad enough on its own, but it comes in the middle of his writing sympathetically about one of those parents who happens to have died recently from pancreatic cancer.
I’d like Warren to go to the funeral and deliver the eulogy:
“While she was active, involved, and an asset to her community, let us not forget, she was nevertheless blind to larger realities…”
You can hear Mom Mannion saying it, can’t you?
It's tough to run for president against an incumbent, even when the economy is in rough shape.
Your problem is that while you're out on the campaign trail promising voters what you will do as President months and months down the line to solve problems affecting their lives at the moment, your opponent is back at work in the White House busy solving those problems right now.
You may have good reasons to think he's not in fact solving them or not solving them as well as you would, but it's tricky to say that. You don't want to sound like you’re rooting for the President to fail.
Which---be honest with yourself---at some deep, ugly, ignoble level you are.
You can't help it. Your success depends on his failure or at least on his being perceived to be failing.
One of the smart things Bill Clinton did when he ran against George Herbert Walker Bush was to make the future the focus of the campaign. Don't stop thinking about tomorrow. Building a bridge to the the 21st Century. Grow the economy. A clunking phrase but an optimistic one. Growth is all about looking forward. Clinton wasn't asking voters to judge Bush on what he had done. What he had done yesterday wouldn't matter tomorrow, yesterday's gone, yesterday's gone. Bush began to look like yesterday's President. Voters couldn’t help noticing that he was an old man of 66 and Clinton was 20 years younger. It helped Clinton that Bush in himself and in his achievements embodied an era that had ended on his watch.
Clinton was able to praise the President for what he had done, thank him for his service to the nation, and make the case that it was time for him to step aside. He put Bush in the position of having to argue that the past mattered more than the future, a tough sell Bush himself didn't appear to buy.
Back in 1972, George McGovern's whole campaign was pretty much predicated on his promise to end the war in Vietnam. But then Nixon did that. Then he negotiated detente with the Soviet Union and opened up China. There were good reasons why he shouldn't have been reelected but replacing him with a peace candidate no longer seemed that urgent. McGovern became the candidate from the past, running as if it was still 1968.
Mitt Romney has McGovern's problem. I'm not predicting he's as doomed to as resounding a defeat. But his campaign has been based---had been based---on one salient idea, that Barack Obama had failed to fix the economy.
What Mitt failed at was asking himself what he would do if what he was telling voters was the one big problem got fixed.
Of course he didn't think it would get fixed. He and the folks at Mitt Corp were convinced it couldn't be fixed by this President. It could only be made worse. In fact they were banking on it to get worse.
Their Republican allies in Congress were working to make it worse.
Mitt was helped along in this line of thinking by the Village Press Corps which had itself convinced that President Obama couldn’t get re-elected unless the economy showed clear signs it was recovering and then constructed a definition of recovering that was pretty much recovered. Things wouldn't be better until the economy was booming again or at least restored to where it was in August of 2008.
But Mitt appears not to have asked himself the bigger question. What would he do while the President was busy being the President? Presidents have to do more than watch the nation’s bottom line. Suppose a crisis came along? Suppose the eyes of the nation the eyes of the whole world were turned on the president of the United States? Suppose for days or even weeks on end nobody cares what you think or even remembers you exist?
If you've asked yourself this question, the correct answer is you be a good citizen, support the President, wait for the crisis to pass, then point out the mistakes or the things you feel he should have done differently. But while you are waiting you don't have to stand there like a block of wood. You practice being President. You practice looking like a President. You practice sounding and acting like a President. Because if people do take their eyes of the actual President to look at you it will be to ask themselves what it would be like during a crisis to see you up there dealing with it.
But besides this requiring patience, tact, self-discipline, and a degree of humility, it requires you to have asked yourself the existential question, What will I be when I am President?
If the answer comes back, Boss of the World, give it up right there.
The question breaks down into a lot of smaller questions. What do you plan to do when you’re President? How will you get it done? Who will you have to work with? How will you get them to go along with you? What if they don’t? What if you can’t get done what you want to get done or all you want to get done? What if there’s a crisis? How would you handle this disaster, that sudden problem, the rise of those enemies, the loss of those allies? How will you rally people to your side? What is your side? Your party’s or your country’s or the world’s? How do you want people to see you as President? What do you want history to say about you?
Why do you want to be President anyway?
Mitt’s thoughtless, reckless, selfish behavior over the last few days suggest that he’s never asked himself any of these questions.
He didn’t wait. He couldn’t wait. He couldn’t use the time to practice being President. All he could do, all he could think to do, was promote himself at the expense of the nation’s interest.
Which is not what we look for Presidents to do.
What it appears to come down to is that Mitt has no idea what it means to be President. He seems to think it’s a straight-forward managerial position, no different than running Bain or the Olympics (“Governor of Massachusetts? When was I ever governor of Massachusetts?”) and that the only qualification Mitt needs for the job or any job is that he be Mitt.
Not. A. President.
Updated already: Mike the Mad Biologist on the intellectual bubble in which Mitt Corp operates, How ‘Epistemic Closure’ Led to Romney’s Gaffe.
Updated again after careful reflection: John Scalzi explains to Mitt why You Never Go Full McCain.
Photo of George H.W. Bush, Ross Perot, and Bill Clinton at one of their debates during the 1992 Presidential campaign courtesy of the BBC.
“Obama grabs babies and lifts them up on almost a daily basis. About time he got a taste or his own medicine.” New York Magazine editor Dan Amira on Twitter.
This is what I was talking about the other day, the kind of thing you have to do if you run for office. And like I said, you don’t have to like it, you just have to mean it.
Somehow, though, I think the President likes it and means it.
The President got hugged while campaigning in Florida, but as any good reporter will tell you, there’s always a local angle. Jeremiah Horrigan found it for our local paper, the Times Herald-Record:
He was in his sweats, swinging away on a driving range Sunday when he got an excited call from the manager of his pizzeria.
"The president's coming here, in like 18 minutes!" the manager said.
"The president of what?" a mystified Scott Van Duzer wanted to know.
As all the world now knows, the president whom Van Duzer immediately ran off to greet was the president of the United States, Barack Obama.
You could say, as most already have, that Van Duzer's greeting was an uplifting experience for President Obama: after high-fiving him, he gave the president an exuberant bear hug and lifted him off the floor of Van Duzer's Big Apple Pizza and Pasta Italian Restaurant.
But who, you might reasonably wonder, is Scott Van Duzer? The short answer is he's a local boy — he was born in Cornwall and lived there until he was 7.
Read the whole story, Ex-Cornwall man surprises Obama with big bear-hug. (Registration suggested but not required.)
You may have heard that vindictive Right Wingers with too much time on their hands decided to try to punish Van Duzer for the sin of liking it that the President of the United States visited his pizza joint by hate-spamming Big Apple’s Yelp entry.
Fortunately, sane and decent-hearted people have been coming to the rescue. At the Atlantic wire, Adam Clark Estes reports that The Boycott Against Obama's Bear-Hugging Buddy Is Failing Miserably.
Both photos by Doug Mills of the New York Times.
I don’t watch the daily polls and I don’t like anybody who does.
Ok. I don’t like it when anybody does. My Twitter feed is full of poll obsessives who alternately drive themselves nuts and launch themselves into states of giddy euphoria as they watch the polls go up and down. People seem to think that any minute now a new poll’s going to come along that will decide things once and for all right now so we can all relax and stop worrying about November. I’ve actually unfollowed a number of people I like and admire as bloggers and twitterers because of their poll watching compulsions. Months before an election I don’t need to know. And I don’t need to spend the months before an election alternately driving myself nuts and launching myself into states of giddy euphoria over politics! I’ve got too much else to make me crazy and even a few other and better reasons to be euphoric.
Plus, there’s some arrogance at work.
I don’t feel I need to watch the polls because I’ve predicted the outcome of every Presidential election since I was a kid long before the second Tuesday in November. Every election has been decided in my mind by late spring. The only one that fooled me a bit was 2000. I thought Gore would win it a little more handily.
So I’ve been trying to ignore the polls, even when they’ve been good news for the President, which, the last few days, they certainly have been.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. Two things have been at work. The first is that it’s been a theme of Mitt Romney’s life that the more people get to know him the less they like him. It goes way back. It’s the subtext of the bullying and assault of that kid in prep school. Mitt was doing it to try to get the other students to like him. I don’t know why he’s had this effect on people. Probably lots of different reasons. I used to like him. Sort of. When he ran against Ted Kennedy. Massachusetts is kind of our second home state and I followed that race. I didn’t want him to win. But while I wouldn’t have voted for him against Ted I might have voted for him if he’d been running against some other Democrat. Massachusetts has produced some pretty lousy Democrats and I don’t mean of the Republican-lite variety. I mean corrupt, stupid, inept, or otherwise useless. Mitt didn’t strike me as so bad next to some of them. I didn’t like him as much when he was governor though. I liked him less when he ran for President in 2008. I couldn’t put my finger on why. But this time out I positively loathe the guy and I can tell you why. I have told you why, in about a dozen posts. Boils down to this. To him people are costs to be controlled. He’s the first person to run for President on a major party line who believes human beings are a problem.
If that’s what people are picking up on, it’s no wonder nobody likes him.
And virtually nobody does.
That’s one thing that has been consistent in the polls. People do not like him. Even people who plan to vote for him. This has been a point pundits and analysts in the Village media have studiously ignored, because they’ve been wedded to the idea that the President is doomed and if they included Mitt’s personal approval in their analyses they would be predicting that the American people are bent on putting a man they don’t like in the White House.
When has that ever happened?
Nope. Liberals didn’t like Nixon. Most people did. My grandmother loved him.
But my feeling---and that’s all it is, my feeling, not a prediction---that the President is on his way to re-election isn’t just based on Mitt’s being unlikeable and his convention giving more people the opportunity to learn not to like him.
I also expected the President’s convention to be just that---the President’s convention.
I expected that the more people saw of the President outside of the filter of Village Conventional Wisdom, the more they would remember that we don’t need a new President. We already have a pretty good one. I’m not talking about his effectiveness at getting this or that bill passed. I’m talking about his ability to be the many things we need our Presidents to be, all of which add up to giving us confidence that he is in command.
And if you think being in command means being able to make political opponents drop to their knees and beg for mercy with just a frown, you have watched too many episodes of The West Wing.
Even George Washington couldn’t do that.
FDR couldn’t even do it to his political allies.
Being in command or, rather, giving the people confidence that the President is in command, means giving them the confidence that the day to day running of the country is being taken care of and that if something happens, if there’s a crisis, the President will act swiftly, decisively, and competently to put things back to right. Again, this isn’t a matter of doing the right thing by anyone’s ideological lights or by Paul Krugman’s lights (bright and focused as they so often are). It’s more a matter of the passengers trusting that when the car spins out on the ice the driver isn’t going to panic and steer us off a cliff.
And this has been the basis of my “predictions” of who is going to be President. The guy who gives the impression of being the better driver wins. The re-election of George W. Bush would seem to refute this, but there are always other factors at work as well, and one of them is that Americans tend to like their Presidents and it takes a lot of work on the part of one to make them dislike him. Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter worked at it.
W. didn’t. Well, he didn’t work at anything. But people still liked him until Katrina hit and he proved that he wasn’t in command, and then it was too late.
What happened at the Democratic Convention is that people were reminded that we have a President. Bill Clinton tore Mitt Romney to pieces but after starting with the point that Barack Obama is Bill’s idea of a good President. From there on, everything he said about Mitt was an implicit or explicit comparison between Mitt and the President. And then, Thursday night, the President took the stage.
He didn’t come out as that hopey-changey guy from 2008. He emphatically put that guy in the past. He stood there as the President of the United States.
And a lot of people’s hearts swelled with pride.
I think the debates will accelerate both these trends, that the more people see of Mitt the less they will like him and the more they see of the President the more they will accept it and like it that he is the President.
That’s what I think. I’m not predicting. I’m just saying what I think and why. I think the President will be re-elected because he is the President.
The Village talk about the polls has been all about what a tight race it is, but the focus has been on the polls of likely voters and, for reasons of prudence, those polls have been based on a very strict and limiting definition of likely. The talk, though, hasn’t been simply a matter of prudence. It’s been colored by a number of assumptions. One is that that even though the President has generally been up a few points even among likely voters, because his lead is within the margin of error, the error will correct in Mitt’s favor. The other assumption is that the President is running against history.
Here’s the CW in a nutshell: “Obama’s in deep trouble because no modern President has won re-election with economic numbers as bad as the numbers the President has had to deal with.”
“Modern” means since World War II, so how many incumbent Presidents are we talking about?
Jimmy Carter and George Herbert Walker Bush.
I’m not including Gerald Ford because he’s a special case.
How many other un-elected Vice Presidents who became President because the sitting President resigned in disgrace and left town one step ahead of the law and who then pardoned that disgraced President ran for what wasn’t in fact re-election but election for the first time?
But here’s the thing.
They’re all special cases.
Jimmy Carter and George Herbert Walker Bush were running for re-election when the unemployment numbers were bad but not as bad as they are now, true. But weren’t other things going on too?
Off the top of my head I can think of a few things that might have hurt Carter beside unemployment.
A thirteen percent inflation rate.
Lines at the gas stations.
The world’s biggest, meanest, fastest-swimming rabbit.
My mother would add one more.
He stopped smiling.
I could write a whole post about how this all adds up to people having the sense that Carter wasn’t in command. Maybe I will. For now, though, the point is that it’s not just the economy, stupid.
By the way, the sign Carville put up in campaign headquarters was “The economy, stupid” not “It’s the economy”. It was a reminder to anyone talking to the press to stay on message. Keep the focus on the economy because that was President Bush’s main weakness. Mitt Corp went off message. Probably because they realized that the economy wasn’t going to be as much of a weakness for the President as they hoped it would be and panicked. But that’s yet another post.
So, that’s what I think has been happening. I also think that as the election gets closer more people are going to move into the likely voter category and more of them will be people who plan to vote for the President.
But we’re still two months out. All kinds of things can happen. Even if the trend continues in the President’s favor he’s still going to need every vote he can get.
One more point.
It’s not enough that the President gets re-elected.
We need to take back the House and hold the Senate and I haven’t seen polls showing that either is guaranteed.
But then, like I said, I’m trying to ignore the polls.
We were watching The Statue of Liberty, one of Ken Burns’ early documentaries, the other night, and one of Burns’ trademark secondary narrators was Vartan Gregorian, now the President of the Carnegie Corporation, at the time (1985) President of the New York Public Library, at various times before and in between a professor, dean, and president at a number of prestigious colleges and universities, all his life a Christian Armenian born in Iran, and since he was twenty-two, when he came here to study at Stanford University, a resident of the United States. I presume that somewhere along the way he became an American citizen but his biography at Wikipedia doesn’t say when he did or even if he ever did. Doesn’t matter. The point is that the Statue of Liberty as the symbol of the United States as a nation of immigrants has a special meaning to him, and during the course of the film, in answer to a question we don’t hear asked but which is apparently along the lines of What is the greatest threat to individual liberty? he says:
Ignorance is the first threat to liberty. The second is to treat ourselves as economic units rather than as spiritual beings.
Given the subject of the film and what he did with the liberty afforded him by his coming to America, which was to get a world-class college education and the devote his life as a scholar, thinker, and administrator to helping countless others get their educations, I took it that Gregorian was reacting to the idea that people immigrated to the United States just to make money and that the American Dream is simply to get rich.
I also thought, He’s predicting the rise of Mitt Romney! How’d he know?
But here’s the thing. He wasn’t predicting the rise of Mitt Romney. He was watching it. Watching the rise of a thousand young Mitt-a-likes, at any rate. Reagan was President. Greed was good. I Got Mine, You Get Yours and He Who Dies With the Most Toys Win were vying to replace E pluribus unum as the national motto. Instead of Out of the many, one, we were becoming a nation of ones, Number Ones, each looking out for itself.
In Mitt Romney, Republicans have given us the first major Presidential nominee who sees the United States purely as an economic enterprise and all its citizens as economic units.
To him, America is all about success which as far as he seems to believe or care is synonymous with getting rich. This makes him the ideal candidate for the Republican Party these days. Never mind the Tea Party. It’s still the corporatist party, the party of rich people infatuated with themselves as “wealth-creators", which is really their way of pointing out that they have bundles of it and you don’t. The supposedly Christian party believes in nothing so strongly as storing up treasure on earth. Everything else, every good in life, follows from that, from getting rich, from having the money to buy whatever you need and want. And if you don’t have that money, you don’t get to have it, any of it, even if you desperately, desperately need it to keep yourself and your family healthy, sheltered, clothed, and fed.
That was the theme of the Republican Convention. We Built It…We Own It. (Clint finished the thought for them.) Yesterday I said I wanted to turn a Mitt Snit into a meme. His whole convention was a Mitt Snit. Thousands of people got together to express their collective indignation at the President’s suggestion that they owed even a bit of their success to anybody or anything else especially government aid. That they were holding this self-pity fest in a venue that government picked up 62 percent of the tab for while a hurricane was bearing down on them and if it hadn’t veered to the west and had struck Tampa they’d have been screaming for the Feds to come bail them out, literally and figuratively, were ironies entirely lost. Speaker after speaker took to the podium to brag about their successes as self-starting, self-reliant, self-sufficient entrepreneurs, including, risibly, one whose business was started entirely with the help of government loans and survived on government contracts.
There were several messages behind this, not the least insistent of which was that the Republican Party is the party of hard-working, enterprising wealth-creators in contrast with the Democratic Party, the party of Welfare-dependent layabouts, slackers, moochers, and takers. But it was also a come on for the lottery: Vote for Mitt, Vote Republican, and You Can Be Rich Too. Ultimately, though, it was a reduction of the American Dream into a get rich quick scheme and it divided the nation into Those Who Have It and Those Who Don’t and since Those Who Don’t were invisible at the convention, the final message was that only Those Who Have It count.
The whole point of life is to make piles of dough and the United States exists mainly for the care and feeding of millionaires.
This was so blatant and so fundamentally not just un-American but inhuman that folks at The American Conservative noticed and were appalled.
Reacting to Paul Ryan’s speech, which besides the lies included his cramped, Ayn Randian-warped vision of America as a nation of predators, sharpers, and speculators eyeing the main chance, Scott Galupo wrote:
In Ryan’s intellectual bubble, there are job creators and entrepreneurs on one side and parasites on the other. There is no account of the vast gray expanse of janitors, waitresses, hotel front-desk clerks, nurses, highway maintenance workers, airport baggage handlers, and taxi drivers. They work hard, but at the end of the day, what can they be said to have “built”?
And Samuel Goldman, noting that “most Americans are not entrepreneurs or business owners” followed up with:
We heard a great deal last night about what a President Romney would do about America’s enemies, at least as John McCain and Condoleeza Rice understand them. We also heard something about Romney’s dedication to freedom, although without much explanation of what that means. But we heard almost nothing about what another Republican administration offers Americans who work jobs rather than “creating” them.
It’s part of the so-called American dream, as Sen. Paul put it, that “any among us can become the next Thomas Edison, the next Henry Ford, the next Ronald Reagan…” Another part is that those who don’t reach the towering heights of achievement can hope for stable lives that include a reasonable measure of comfort. Republicans once endorsed this rather modest ambition. Does anyone believe they care about it now?
A theme of the Burns documentary is that we are a nation of outcasts coming together to help each other make a place---a home---for ourselves in the world. In his Wikipedia entry, Gregorian is quoted reflecting on the all help he got when he first arrived here:
In Palo Alto, an Armenian family adopted me for all Sunday meals and holidays. All of this reinforced my conviction that diasporas are not ghettos—rather they are connecting bridges to larger communities, be it Jewish, be it Irish, be it Chinese, Armenian, Indian, and so forth. I never realized that until then…
At the Republican Convention, the theme was that we don’t need bridges, literal or metaphorical, because there are no communities that need connecting. We’re all on our own in a land of opportunists, each of us a little would-be Mitt on the make.
Read Goldman’s whole post at The American Conservative, We Are Not All Entrepreneurs.