Republicans are furious with Barack Obama for waging a “divisive” populist campaign against Wall Street and America’s “elites” – because Republicans think that is supposed to be their job.
Together with the more confrontational tone he’s taken with Republicans since they rebuffed him on his middle class jobs package last summer, President Obama’s State of the Union Address on Tuesday is further proof he’s finally learned his lesson from the previous three years: That while he was off chasing independent “swing” voters said to prize compromise and moderation above all things, scheming Republicans had picked his pocket of those pitchfork-wielding populists who should have been Obama’s all along.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In both the physical world and in politics the law of gravity decrees that when things fall apart they are supposed to fall down. So, by all rights a second Great Depression that incinerated $16 trillion in household wealth and was brought about by the same kind of financial shenanigans and Wall Street recklessness that caused that first big depression back in the 1930s, should have provoked the very same kind of anti-business popular backlash that brought FDR to power then and should have created a Second New Deal now.
Yet, as populist historian Thomas Frank writes in his new book, Pity the Billionaire: the Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, so far the most visible response to the recent economic catastrophe has been a right wing campaign to “roll back regulation, to strip government employees of the right to collectively bargain and to clamp down on federal spending.”
The resurgence of the Republican Party so soon after the debacle of George W. Bush and the collapse of the financial markets in 2008 is a testament to human adaptability.
Rather than allow themselves to be crushed underneath a tide of middle class anger directed against the plutocrats and tycoons who stole their dreams away — as happened to Republicans in the 1930s – conservatives were determined this time around to lead the populist, anti-Wall Street revolt instead of be swallowed by it – even if it was a crusade cynically designed to serve the interests of the very same Wall Street that was responsible for the crisis in the first place.
Congressman Paul Ryan, for example, was both the author of the “kill Medicare as we know it” budget as well as an article in Forbes titled “Down with Big Business” in which Ryan argued that giant corporations could not be counted on to defend capitalism in its hour of need and so it was up to “the American people – innovators and entrepreneurs and small business owners — to take a stand.”
Conservative infatuation with “entrepreneurs” and “small business owners” was no accident. Like those prairie farmers who fed the Populist Movement of the 19th century, mom-and-pop hardware store owners are just as outraged by “crony capitalism” on Wall Street as they are by “European-style socialism” in Washington.
And so by passing the torch of free market capitalism from the international conglomerate to the local chamber of commerce conservatives knew they could give populist cover to a free market agenda that meant lower taxes for the rich and fewer regulations for Wall Street.
But the perfect expression of the Republican Party’s bait-and-switch cynicism came when Republicans tried to beat back Obama’s Wall Street reforms by pretending to be against Wall Street itself. Since “public outrage about the bailout of banks and Wall Street is a simmering time bomb set to go off,” wrote GOP pollster Frank Luntz in an infamous February 2010 memo to his Republican clients, the single best way for Republicans to kill Wall Street reform was to link it to favoritism of Wall Street — like “the Big Bank Bailout” instead.
And that is exactly what Republicans did, piously intoning how the Democrat’s reforms were really giveaways to the rich that sought to “punish” middle class taxpayers while rewarding “big banks and credit card companies.”
Add it all up and everywhere you looked the GOP defenders of the Top 1% were warning of “a colossal struggle between average people and the elites who would strip away the people’s freedoms,” said Frank.
Corrupt and cynical though all of this might be, Republican efforts to portray themselves as champions of little guy standing tall against “the interests” was not wholly implausible, as leaders of the revivified Right found the soil for their misdirection to be uncommonly fertile.
Hoodwinking the Tea Party Right that the “elites”who brought down the economy lived in Washington rather on Wall Street was never going to be a heavy lift.
In their year-long study of the Tea Party movement, The Tea Party and the Remaking of the Republican Conservatism, authors Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson found that while Tea Party members might be impresarios of political organization they were largely ignorant when it came to “what government does, how it is financed and what is actually included (or not) in key pieces of legislation and regulation.”
The blame, they say, lies squarely with “the content of right wing programming,” especially Fox News, which, the authors contend, propagates falsehoods “often as a matter of deliberate editorial policy.” Thus, millions of frightened Americans were uniquely vulnerable to manipulation and misinformation by a corporate-sponsored “‘populist” movement that served the interests of the plutocrats.
But making matters worse, the Democrats have not exactly covered themselves in glory when it comes to making clear whose side they are on. The bank bailouts begun under George Bush are easily blamed on Democrats who both inherited them when they won the White House and voted for them when they controlled Congress. Corporate control of Washington is also a problem that undermines public faith in Democrats who are supposed to govern Washington. And when “Clintonism” is a word that means the “People’s Party” is catering to the interests of the rich and powerful — or when neo-liberalism” defines an economic system indistinguishable from conservative laissez faire — you can forgive the average voter for having trouble separating Wall Street elites from Washington ones.
With a powerful media network like Fox News at its disposal, able to “make viewers both more conservative and less informed,” it’s not difficult to understand how Republicans have been able to lead a mass revolt against “elites” that largely serves the interests of those very same elites.
But with his more recent moves to the left President Obama has begun to turn this around and win back a middle class that should have been with him from the beginning.
“After flirting with the role of the reasonable centrist after his party’s defeat in 2010, President Obama has decided to run for re-election as a full-throated liberal populist,” writes New York Times conservative Ross Douthat with a tone of resignation and disappointment more than agreement.
Peter Beinart of the Daily Beast agrees: “From Mitt Romney to Newt Gingrich to Glenn Beck, the conservative assault on Barack Obama comes down to this: unfettered capitalism is true Americanism.”
Among right wing conservatives, Obama’s efforts to use government to make American capitalism more stable and just isn’t the sort of rescue mission that both Democratic and Republican administrations have been waging since the New Deal. Conventional stimulus spending and jobs programs are instead “an alien imposition, hatched in foreign lands, and designed to make us less free,” says Beinart. And so Obama will either effectively answer that charge “or he will lose the 2012 election.”
My money is on Obama who’s recent course correction may turn out to be his own “Southern Strategy.” The original got its name back in 1968 after Richard Nixon had a Eureka! Moment when he realized there was no way Southern whites who voted with Barry Goldwater in 1964 and were now standing with George Wallace at the schoolhouse door belonged in the Democratic Party of Civil Rights and the Great Society. And today, they don’t.
Nearly 50 years later, Barack Obama seems to have had his own epiphany when he looked around at those who were shaking their fists at “Big Government” but who’d also been put out on the street by Big Banks and Big Business, and the President wondered: How can these people possibly be Republicans?
Proof that President Obama is onto something with his new, more populist approach is the fact that the unerring homing missile of popular resentments and discontents — Newt Gingrich — is going after plutocrat Mitt Romney as a “malefactor of great wealth,” while dancing on Romney’s grave with a victory speech in South Carolina that spit out the word “elite” 27 times.
The contortions that Republicans have had to go through to recast themselves as the Party of the People in order to advance an agenda lop-sided in its favoritism for the wealthy few exposes the structural deformities that have always bedeviled American conservatives.
Like lizards who camouflage themselves from predators, there has always been something chameleon-like about right wing conservatives compelled to adopt protective coloration to survive in a hostile liberal environment.
That is why right wing conservatives have had to learn to speak the language of liberalism — borrowing words like freedom, liberty and democracy in order to superficially appear to embrace ideas and ideals forbidden to them by their reactionary belief system.
That is why members of the Religious Right and Conservative Movement are more familiar with the liberal community organizer Saul Alinsky than Alinsky’s intended liberal audience seems to be, taking to heart his advice in Rules for Radicals that the way for political movements to get things done is to “go home, organize, build power.”
And immediately after the economy collapsed in 2008 and 2009, conservatism positioned itself as a popular protest movement for economic hard times, jettisoning “aspects of conservative tradition that were either haughty or aristocratic,” says Frank “while symbols that seemed noble or democratic or popular, even if they were the traditional property of the other side, were snapped up and claimed by the Right itself.”
Right wing conservatives knew a popular uprising by angry and distressed Americans against the Powers That Be was in the offing. But this time, unlike the 1930s, Republicans intended to lead that revolt instead of be victims of it.
No wonder, then, that Republicans are calling the President “divisive” when he tries to take back from them the backing of The People that rightfully belongs to him.
By: Ted Frier, Open salon, January 29, 2012
The Reagan Wars are finally underway, and Newt Gingrich is getting called on his shamelessly frequentdropping of the Gipper’s name. It makes sense for the candidates — none of whom has been able to make the Republican base fall in love with them — to make such a nostalgia appeal, but there are risks to it for both frontrunners.
As Jeffrey Goldberg noted Wednesday, former Reagan assistant secretary of state Elliott Abrams lashed out at Gingrich in National Review: “He voted with the caucus, but his words should be remembered, for at the height of the bitter struggle with the Democratic leadership Gingrich chose to attack… Reagan.” Meanwhile, the Restore Our Future PAC, run by a former close aide to Romney, has released an ad that features a quote from the former president attacking Gingrich and noting (rather pettily) that he only appears once in Reagan’s diaries.
There’s some truth to these attacks. A quick swing through news archives shows how often he criticized the president. Abrams highlighted this quote from 1986: “Measured against the scale and momentum of the Soviet empire’s challenge, the Reagan administration has failed, is failing, and without a dramatic change in strategy will continue to fail…. President Reagan is clearly failing.” He also cited Gingrich calling Reagan’s 1985 summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich.”
That’s just a start. Here are a few selections from the vault, which seem more meaningful than scanning the index of Reagan’s diaries:
- In 1982, he was furious at Reagan for agreeing to tax increases. “As recently as April, he said, ‘I wasn’t sent to Washington to raise taxes.’ Now he’s going on television to explain why he didn’t mean it.”
- That same year, White House adviser Lynn Nofziger charged that Rep. Jack Kemp, the leader of a guerrilla band of House conservatives, was “hurting the president and the presidency.” A gleeful Gingrich retorted, “If Kemp went to Argentina tomorrow, we the rebels would go on.” He also said, “Maybe they can beat us by the sheer weight of the White House, but they do so at the cost of Reagan’s natural base.”
- Also in 1982, Gingrich found himself writing a handwritten apology to White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker, after he blasted Baker for harming Republican chances at the polls in that year’s midterm elections.
- Here he is in 1985, complaining that Reagan’s tax plan was much too far left: “The secretary of the treasury decided to make an alliance with a Chicago Democrat, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, in effect pitting the president of the United States against the very people who gave him a 49-state victory.”
- Gingrich in 1987, commenting on Reagan’s spending plan: He “is now making, domestically, the biggest mistake of his second term.”
- In 1987, after Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination was defeated and nominee Douglas Ginsburg was forced to withdraw over revelations that he had used marijuana in the past, Gingrich blasted the Reagan administration: “We currently have no strategy, and we’re looking dumb.”
- Gingrich on the Iran-Contra Affair: “He will never again be the Reagan that he was before he blew it. He is not going to regain our trust and our faith easily.”
Gingrich spent much of the 1980s dispensing effusive praise for a supply-sider GOP presidential nominee of the decade. Here’s one quote:”the most important Republican since Theodore Roosevelt, the first Republican in modern times to show that it is possible to be both hopeful and conservative at once.” Damningly, however, he wasn’t talking about Reagan: he was referring to his friend and House colleague Jack Kemp.
But while Gingrich spent much of the 1980s pushing the GOP rightward and attacking the president when he tacked toward the center, the hard conservative pose was a new one for the Georgian. Reagan was of course the political progeny of Barry Goldwater. Gingrich recently suggested he’d supported the Arizona senator during his ill-fated 1964 presidential campaign, and while that might be true, it’s established fact that four years later, he was southern regional director for Nelson Rockefeller, the man ran against Goldwater in 1964 and whose name has become synonymous with moderate, East Coast Republicanism; he said in 1989 that he’d spent “most of [his] life” in that more centrist wing. Ed Kilgore reported last March that during Gingrich’s first two (unsuccessful) runs for the House, he actually attacked the Democratic incumbent from the left, before moving right in time for his victory in the 1978 race.
(In the same 1989 interview, Gingrich blasted Reagan’s handling of the black vote. “One of the gravest mistakes the Reagan administration made was its failure to lead aggressively in civil rights,” Gingrich said. “It cost the Republican Party. It helped cost us control of the Senate in 1986.”)
Recently, of course, the former speaker’s attacks on Romney’s work at Bain Capital have raised the eyebrows of conservative critics upset that Gingrich is attacking his rival from the left.
On the other hand, the Gingrich campaign is promoting a Nancy Reagan statement from 1995 — it might not be direct from the Gipper, but is the next best thing:
The dramatic movement of 1995 is an outgrowth of a much earlier crusade that goes back half a century. Barry Goldwater handed the torch to Ronnie, and in turn Ronnie turned that torch over to Newt and the Republican members of Congress to keep that dream alive.
It’s hard to imagine, furthermore, that this is a winning battle for Romney, and not just because of his reputation as a moderate. Because he was working in the private sector in the 1980s, he didn’t have the chance to work with (or against) Reagan, but during a debate against Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1994, then-Senate candidate Romney disavowed the former president is fairly clear terms. “Look, I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush,” he said. “I’m not trying to return to Reagan-Bush.”
The irony in this fight over Reagan’s legacy is that — as Andrew Romano explained in Newsweek two years ago — the real man wasn’t as doctrinaire nor as conservative as partisans on both sides remember him (a fact Gingrich’s many attacks from the right above demonstrate). So the Republican race has turned into a contest between two candidates who used to be to the left of Ronald Reagan attempting to represent a party that has since moved to the Gipper’s right.
By: David Graham, Associate Editor, The Atlantic, January 27, 2012
Newt Gingrich has adopted the late organizer as a punching bag, but he and Alinsky share a view of America and reverence for the Founding Fathers.
In his victory speech the night of the South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrich declared:
The centerpiece of this campaign, I believe, is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky…. What we are going to argue is that American exceptionalism, the American Declaration of Independence, the American Constitution, the American Federalist papers, the Founding Fathers of America are the source from which we draw our understanding of America. [President Obama] draws his from Saul Alinsky, radical left-wingers, and people who don’t like the classical America.”
Gingrich’s statement raises two questions. One, what is the “classical America” of the founding fathers, and two, who is Saul Alinsky?
As an historian, Gingrich should know better than to confuse compromise with consensus. There was little all-encompassing agreement among the Founding Fathers. Does Gingrich mean to stake his campaign on Alexander Hamilton’s proposal of a life term for the president? James Madison’s idea that the federal legislature should be able to veto state laws? Would he have preferred Benjamin Harrison‘s proposal that slaves should be counted as half a person for purposes of representation, or is he satisfied with the three-fifths compromise? Enough.
As to Saul Alinsky, the Chicago organizer who died when Barack Obama was a 10-year old boy in Hawaii, it is hard to figure out why Gingrich is so fixated on a man whose most notable achievement was organizing Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood in the 1930s to combat inhumane working conditions. You would think from Gingrich’s allusions that Alinsky must have been a Marxist, maybe even a Communist. His biographer Sanford Horwitt is clear: Alinsky was neither. Or you can just read Alinsky himself — has Gingrich? — who wrote in his 1971 Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, “To protect the free, open, questing, and creative mind of man, as well as to allow for change, no ideology should be more specific than that of America’s founding fathers: ‘For the general welfare.’”
Indeed, one of the most striking things about Rules for Radicals is how engaged Alinsky is with the very people that Gingrich positions as his opposites. Alinsky opens his book with a quotation from Thomas Paine, and draws his examples, approvingly, from the lives of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Francis Marion, Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and the Federalist Papers.
Here’s a pop quiz. Below are four quotations. One is from Saul Alinsky, one from Newt Gingrich, one from Thomas Jefferson, and one from Thomas Paine. See if you can figure out which is which:
- “Let them call me rebel, and welcome, I feel no concern from it; but I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul.”
- “[The] eternal search for those values of equality, justice, freedom, peace, a deep concern for the preciousness of human life, and all those rights and values propounded by Judeo-Christianity and the democratic political tradition…. This is my credo for which I live and, if need be, die.”
- “I am trying to effect a change so large that the people who would be hurt by the change…have a natural reaction…. I think because I’m so systematically purposeful about changing our world. [I am] much more intense, much more persistent, much more willing to take risks to get it done.”
- “I hope we shall crush… the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare… to challenge our government to a trail of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”
It’s easy to cherry-pick quotations to serve your rhetorical point, but I am confident these lines represent the views of their authors: Paine, Alinsky, Gingrich, and Jefferson, respectively. Alinsky believed that people whose interests are not respected by government, who are maligned or discriminated against or taken advantage of, should organize to advocate for their interests. He fought against racism and for better working conditions. His politics were unequivocally left-wing, but he believed forcefully in democracy as “the best means toward achieving” the values he professed. And he believed democracy came with personal responsibility. Alinsky sounds downright Gingrichian when he criticizes “people who profess the democratic faith but yearn for the dark security of dependency where they can be spared the burden of decisions.” For those people, “the fault lies not in the system but in themselves.”
So why is Gingrich so fixated on Alinsky? Maybe Gingrich is playing a game familiar to all graduate students: throw out a name you’re pretty confident few others have heard of in order to make yourself sound smart. If the name happens to sound Jewish and European, and therefore might raise the specter of a politics Alinsky himself wanted no part of, all the better. Gingrich has invented a straw man, an imagined un-American, and set him up against an imagined “classical” American past. None of that helps our political debate. As I have suggested elsewhere, bad history is worse than no history at all.
There may be reasons to criticize the real Saul Alinsky, but he belongs on the roll call of those who worked for, not against, a better America. Gingrich proclaims “American exceptionalism.” If the flawed, contentious Founding Fathers agreed on anything, it was that power does not come by divine right but rather from self-government. What better way, then, is there to show your fidelity to that spirit than to work, as Alinsky did, to “form a more perfect union”?
By: Andy Horowitz, The Atlantic, January 27, 2012
When President Obama announced his latest vision for the so called “Buffett rule” — a 30 percent minimum tax on millionaires — during his State of the Union address this week, Republicans were quick to criticize it. For instance, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) derided the proposal as a “political gimmick.” “It’s a smokescreen,” added Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA).
However, as a new analysis from Citizens for Tax Justice pointed out, the Buffett rule as laid out in the speech could raise up to $50 billion per year to pay down the deficit, while affecting just 0.08 percent of taxpayers:
Citizens for Tax Justice has calculated that President Obama’s “Buffett Rule” would, if in effect this year, raise $50 billion in a single year and affect only the richest 0.08 percent of taxpayers— that’s just eight percent of the richest one percent of taxpayers. [...]
To calculate the $50 billion figure, we assumed that there would be a minimum tax that applies to adjusted gross income (AGI) minus charitable deductions. (We’ll call this modified AGI.)
We assumed that a taxpayer with modified AGI greater than $1 million would face a minimum tax of 30 percent of modified AGI. The taxpayer would pay whichever is greater, their personal income tax under the existing rules or this minimum tax.
Obviously, $50 billion by itself won’t balance the budget, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. At the same time, the Buffett rule will aid in correcting some of the problems in the tax code — like one quarter of millionaires paying lower rates than millions of middle class families and some millionaires paying no income tax at all — that have helped drive income inequality up to a level not seen in the U.S. since the 1920s.
By: Pat Garofalo, Think Progress, January 27, 2012
Mitt Romney casts himself as a small-business owner on the stump in Florida.
Mitt Romney just can’t drop his phony everyman act, and he added a new spin on it Friday night: the struggling young businessman.
By this point anyone with even the slightest interest in politics is well aware of Romney’s extreme wealth. Criticism from his rivals finally forced Romney to enter his most recent tax returns into the public record, and the figures were astounding. He earned $21.7 million in 2010; he earns the average median household income in less than a single day.
Yet he continues to uncomfortably wear his regular-guy jeans over his Brooks Brothers suits, trying his hardest to convince voters that he can relate to their economic woes. When he was here in Florida last year he told a group of voters that he was also unemployed and, in New Hampshire, the Harvard MBA/JD said he had also had moments where he was concerned about getting a pink slip
Romney included a new narrative of hardship at a rally hosted inside a pant factory plant in Orlando on Friday night. He began by railing against the government before discussing the early parts of his career as a vulture venture capitalist:
“Let me tell you the difference between what happens in the real economy—the private sector—and when government is practicing crony capitalism, playing by their own set of rules. You see, when we first helped Staples (the office superstore) get started, we raised about $5 or $10 million, to get that first store going. The government put in $500 million into Solyndra. And our offices, by the way, were in the back of a shopping center, an abandoned shopping center. We had all old furniture. I remember these chairs we had for the board meetings; they were these mahogany hide chairs. We sunk so deeply you had to have an athletic body to get out of them.”
That must have only seemed like roughing it compared to the throne Romney sat on at Bain Capital. When consulting firm Bain & Company tasked Romney with spinning off a new private equity venture in 1983, he raised $37 million in funds to launch the new group the next year, hardly the type of budget to describe a group meeting in back alleys and sitting on leftover furniture purchased from Goodwill.
It’s mystifying why Romney continues to push this persona. America loves the idea of a self-made millionaire, and while that’s a bit of a hard sell given his father’s prominence in business and politics, it’s surely closer to reality than his current guise of a typical suburban small business owner.
By: Patrick Caldwell, The American Prospect, January 28, 2012