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“Bait And Switch Cynic’s”: Obama Angers GOP By Standing Up For Middle Class

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

January 29, 2012 - Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , ,

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