The Dirtiest Word In American Politics

Article first published as The Dirtiest Word in American Politics on Blogcritics.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts surprised the news media and legal community alike when he joined the four liberal justices and affirmed the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, not under the Commerce Clause as widely considered more plausible, but under Congress’ taxing power. Predictably, congressional Republicans pounced on his opinion as evidence that President Obama broke his campaign promise to never raise taxes on middle class Americans.

“The Supreme Court, which has the final say, says it is a tax. The tax is going be levied, 77 percent of it, on Americans making less than $120,000 a year. So it is a middle class tax cut — tax increase,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “It’s now a tax, since the court said it was a tax,” agreed House Speaker John Boehner. Several Republican politicians and conservative media folks have gone off the deep end, asserting ObamaCare is the biggest tax increase in America’s history – “the largest tax increase in the history of the world,” according to Rush Limbaugh. Such ridiculous claims can be easily disproved, but speak to the broader issue of anti-tax dogmatism we see today on the right.

Much attention has been given to a 2009 interview between the president and George Stephanopoulos, where Obama repeatedly and unequivocally maintained the ACA does not raise taxes. Obama’s predictable political stratagem appalled the conservative media, which has seized the incident as further evidence of Obama’s thuggish, deceptive and socialistic tendencies.

After showing a video of Obama chief strategist David Axelrod claiming the ACA is in fact a penalty, Sean Hannity of Fox News asked Governor Sarah Palin the tough questions:

SEAN HANNITY: This is a tough question, but one I think needs to be asked. Did the president, is David Axelrod — is this deceit or is this a lie? Is this a purposeful lie?

SARAH PALIN: It is a lie and it was a purposeful lie back in September of ’09 when President Obama got in George Stephanopoulos’ face and tried to school him and tell George as a filter for the American public to be receiving information, tried to tell George, you are spinning this up, you are the one lying, George, when you suggest that this is a tax. Well, it as tax and anybody with common or economic sense applied knew that it would be a tax. And that is the only thing that would fly making it legitimate that is constitutional in the Supreme Court as we found out.

HANNITY: You know, as we look at all of these issues though as they’re now unfolding here, I would like to see the media ask the president himself. He’s told the America — you sold this as not being a tax and in fact it is a tax. I think it is a big deal.

What fascinates me most is the implication that Roberts’ opinion somehow changes the substantive reality of the Affordable Care Act. Republican Party political operatives are understandably concerned with public perceptions, so it’s not surprising that the RNC and Republican leadership exploited the ruling as an opportunity to feign outrage at the supposedly new revelation that the individual mandate is a tax. But shouldn’t the conservative media, which is ostensibly not merely a wing of the Republican Party, be more interested in the substance of the policy than in trivial rhetorical semantics? If Congress passed a law collecting an additional 10 percent of each American’s income, but insisted it was merely a penalty for labor and not a tax on income; besides its constitutional implications, why would this distinction matter to the American public? Non-partisan policy analysts, both liberals and conservatives, simply don’t care what the individual mandate is called.

But Republicans do care. They care because tax is a bad word. In fact, to conservatives it is the dirtiest word in American politics.

Liz Marlantes of the Christian Science Monitor reported the history of American tax politics, from Ronald Reagan’s historic tax cuts and subsequent tax increases, to George H.W. Bush’s broken tax pledge, to the militant anti-tax norms in the contemporary Republican Party.

[I]n recent years, the aversion to taxes has become more deeply ingrained. It is more than a policy preference, more than a tenet in a party platform. For many Republican officeholders, raising taxes is a subject they simply won’t broach anymore – period. If there is a third rail of politics today, it might not be Social Security. It might be tax increases.

Massive lobbying apparatuses, most notably Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, are dedicated solely to constraining Republican politicians from engaging in good faith budget negotiations. Norquist’s no-new-taxes pledge prohibits even the closing of tax loopholes.

“I don’t think there’s any conceivable way, under current circumstances, that any Republican would vote for any kind of tax increase whatsoever,” says Bruce Bartlett, a former economic adviser to President Reagan and a Treasury official during the first Bush administration, who has become an outspoken critic of the Republican Party’s current economic policies. “Republicans are absolutely convinced that to support tax increases guarantees their [electoral] defeat.”

There are various reasons for the GOP’s resistance to tax increases. The first is substantive: that high taxes suppress business activity, which is necessary for economic growth and job creation. In fact, the United States is “only inches away from no longer being a free economy,” according to Mitt Romney. Second, conservatives argue cutting taxes compels desirable fiscal discipline by forcing politicians to make tough decisions on spending cuts. Additionally, they argue taxes should be lower because revenue is wasted on worthless programs and corrupt causes. Finally, tax cuts are often couched in terms of values, such as freedom and liberty; oppressive tax regimes turn us into docile slaves to Big Government, so the argument goes.

But the anti-tax hysteria expressed by the right doesn’t seem credible in light of historical and cross-national comparisons.

American tax revenue as a share of GDP is substantially lower compared to the vast majority of developed countries.

In fact, taxes today under President Obama are lower than they were under socialist and class warrior Ronald Reagan.

There has been an incredible failure of communication by the left in defense of taxes. Americans like education, public infrastructure and Medicare, but they don’t seem to have conceptualized the link between their tax obligations and these services. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll asking Americans to name what they believed to be the two largest areas of federal government spending found 41 percent listing foreign aid and 40 percent listing welfare, ahead of national defense, Social Security and health. In fact, foreign aid and welfare spending combined account for less than 5 percent of the federal budget. A sizable portion of anti-tax sentiment can therefore be attributed to widespread ignorance about who the government spends its money on.

Professor Douglas J. Amy makes the case that, like the Tea Party protesters who demanded the government stay out of the business of regulating Medicare, most people take the benefits of government for granted.

Government benefits are also different because they are often less tangible than the goods we get from a store. These benefits frequently take the form not of the presence of something, but of the absence of something. Think of it this way: much of the job of government in our lives is to ensure that bad things don’t happen to us. We pay taxes so that our homes don’t get burgled, and our food doesn’t make us sick, our banks don’t fail, and our bridges don’t collapse. In other words, often when people in government are doing their job right – nothing happens. No wonder no one notices. So while we really do get a lot for with our taxes, we often get it in a form that is largely invisible to us. This is one of the reasons why we too easily fall for the illusion that government is doing nothing for us.

Additionally, linguist George Lakoff argues that the rhetorical framing of the tax debate is partly to blame, as it contributes to the notion that hardworking taxpayers merely subsidize the wastes and excesses of Big Government without receiving any of the benefits themselves.

Conservatives have worked for decades to establish the metaphors of taxation as a burden, an affliction, and an unfair punishment – all of which require “relief.” … And on the day that George W. Bush took office, the words tax relief started appearing in White House communiqués to the press and in official speeches and reports by conservatives. …The word relief evokes a frame in which there is a blameless Afflicted Person who we identify with and who has some Affliction, some pain or harm that is imposed by some external Cause-of-pain. Relief is the taking away of the pain or harm, and it is brought about by some Reliever-of-pain. … The term tax relief evokes all of this and more. Taxes, in this phrase, are the Affliction (the Crime), proponents of taxes are the Causes-of Affliction (the Villains), the taxpayer is the Afflicted Victim, and the proponents of “tax relief” are the Heroes who deserve the taxpayers’ gratitude. Every time the phrase tax relief is used and heard or read by millions of people, the more this view of taxation as an affliction and conservatives as heroes gets reinforced.

There’s a kind of immaturity about the notion that taxes should always be lower. Sensible tax policy should be concerned with setting ideal tax rates, not with seeking perpetually lower margins. It is a legitimate policy preference to desire a particular tax rate lower than exists today, and like any other policy preference, it’s wholly appropriate to seek that end in budget negotiations. But to literally swear to never raise taxes under any circumstances is a bizarre practice, completely antithetical to the constitutional ideals of democratic deliberation and compromise. Setting fiscal policy is about navigating competing goals – economic growth, fiscal responsibility, moral fairness. To short circuit good faith policy deliberations with absolutist pledges not only precludes honest negotiations but could very well spell fiscal disaster if institutionalized gridlock becomes the norm.

Robert Reich is Wrong About “Unpatriotic, Regressive” Republicans

Article first published as Robert Reich is Wrong About “Unpatriotic, Regressive” Republicans on Blogcritics.

Berkeley professor and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich penned an op-ed blasting Republicans for “substitut[ing] partisanship for patriotism, placing party loyalty above loyalty to America.” He essentially argues Republicans are unpatriotic for seeking to dismantle government.

True patriots don’t hate the government of the United States. They’re proud of it. Generations of Americans have risked their lives to preserve it. They may not like everything it does, and they justifiably worry when special interests gain too much power over it. But true patriots work to improve the U.S. government, not destroy it.

But regressive Republicans loathe the government – and are doing everything they can to paralyze it, starve it, and make the public so cynical about it that it’s no longer capable of doing much of anything. Tea Partiers are out to gut it entirely. Norquist says he wants to shrink it down to a size it can be “drowned in a bathtub.”

When arguing against paying their fair share of taxes, wealthy regressives claim “it’s my money.” But it’s their nation, too. And unless they pay their share America can’t meet the basic needs of our people. True patriotism means paying for America.

I’ll start by acknowleging that I am very sympathetic to many of Reich’s sentiments. Modern Republicans are, in fact,
unprecedentedly antagonistic, uncompromising and regressive. They have relentlessly and unconditionally derailed the President’s agenda, even on legislation they had previously supported. Republicans have become substantially more right-wing over the last few decades – even as Democrats have remained more or less ideologically constant. This isn’t just my opinion; it’s literally scientific fact.

But Reich is wrong for equating liberalism with patriotism. He argues true patriotism is about “coming together for the common good,” which is liberals’ core justification for government involvement in the economy. While I agree that the interests of society are best met when we sometimes act collectively through government, I don’t believe those who disagree with me necessarily lack “love for or devotion to one’s country,” as Merriam-Webster defines patriotism. People differ on their interpretations patriotism; some believe patriots must be unconditionally loyal to country, some express their patriotism through symbols and rituals, others believe true patriotism is achieved through constructive criticism and dissent of government. But no matter how one defines the concept, it is wrong to brand an entire ideology unpatriotic so long as it purports to protect and defend the best interests of the American people.

That said, there is a legitimate case to be made that modern Republicans don’t have America’s interests at heart – that they are intentionally sabotaging the economic recovery for political gain. Argues Michael Cohen:

For Democrats, perhaps the most obvious piece of evidence of GOP premeditated malice is the 2010 quote from Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell:

“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Beyond McConnell’s words, though, there is circumstantial evidence to make the case. Republicans have opposed a lion’s share of stimulus measures that once they supported, such as a payroll tax break, which they grudgingly embraced earlier this year. Even unemployment insurance, a relatively uncontroversial tool for helping those in an economic downturn, has been consistently held up by Republicans or used as a bargaining chip for more tax cuts. Ten years ago, prominent conservatives were loudly making the case for fiscal stimulus to get the economy going; today, they treat such ideas like they’re the plague.

Traditionally, during economic recessions, Republicans have been supportive of loose monetary policy. Not this time. Rather, Republicans have upbraided Ben Bernanke, head of the Federal Reserve, for even considering policies that focus on growing the economy and creating jobs.

And then, there is the fact that since the original stimulus bill passed in February of 2009, Republicans have made practically no effort to draft comprehensive job creation legislation. Instead, they continue to pursue austerity policies, which reams of historical data suggest harms economic recovery and does little to create jobs. In fact, since taking control of the House of Representatives in 2011, Republicans have proposed hardly a single major jobs bill that didn’t revolve, in some way, around their one-stop solution for all the nation’s economic problems: more tax cuts.

Moreover, journalist Roger Draper’s recent book reported a prominent group of 15 senior Republican figures, including Eric Cantor, Jeb Hensarling, Pete Hoekstra, Dan Lungren, Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan, Pete Sessions, Tom Coburn, Bob Corker, Jim DeMint, John Ensign, Jon Kyl, Newt Gingrich and Republican pollster Frank Luntz, planned on the day of Obama’s inauguration to, in the words of McCarthy, “challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.”

A slew of prominent Democrats have subscribed to this conspiracy theory, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, and Obama chief political strategist David Axelrod. Amazingly, nearly half of the country agrees, according to a recent poll.

However, even if it is true that some Republican government elites are, in fact, unpatriotic, this does not prove that anti-government dogmatism is unpatriotic, as Reich suggests. It is likely that the majority of Republican politicians, and, of course, ordinary conservative Americans, have pursued their radical agenda out of sincere love for country, and are therefore genuine patriots. If true, the group of unpatriotic, and frankly treasonous, Republican politicians who are willfully sabotaging the country are not acting out of hatred of government, but out of rank selfishness, insensitivity and cruelty.

Why Joe Scarborough is a Fool For Voting For Ron Paul

June 14, 2012 4 comments

Article first published as Why Joe Scarborough is a Fool For Voting For Ron Paul on Blogcritics.

Two weeks after Mitt Romney accumulated the 1,144 delegates required to become the Republican Presidential nominee, two months after his only viable competition dropped out, and half a year after anyone with access to basic fundraising disclosures knew he would eventually win, Joe Scarborough announced to the world he voted for Ron Paul.

Scarborough’s op-ed begins by contrasting Paul with Romney, Rick Santorum, and    Newt Gingrich. Which, in my humble opinion, is an utterly nonsensical undertaking because Romney has already won the nomination. Elections are about choices, and the Republican nominee has already been chosen. “Protest voting” is the ultimate form of mental masturbation; the protester’s principled act gives him all the satisfaction of rejecting the established choice, without forcing him to bear any of the burdens of being genuinely anti-establishment. As soon as he’s done with his symbolic ritual he goes right back to defending the Republican Party nominee on his cable TV show.

Anyway, let’s get inside his thought process.

I operate on instinct. So I should not have been surprised by my own gut reaction to the absentee ballot that lay before me on the kitchen table.

I scanned the list for Republican primary candidates and let instinct take over.

Mitt Romney? Not on your life. A big government Republican who will say anything to get elected.

Rick Santorum? No way. A pro-life statist who helped George W. Bush double the national debt.

Newt Gingrich? Ideologically unmoored. A champion of liberty one day, a central planner the next.

Ron Paul? Yep. I quickly checked his name and moved on to a far more complex task: fixing my daughter a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

After spending six months analyzing each candidate’s every move for three hours a day, five days a week, it never occurred to me that my decision to vote for the quirky congressman from Texas would happen as fast as a tornado whipping through an Amarillo parking lot.

I am truly amazed at Scarborough’s instincts. He spent “six months analyzing each candidate’s every move for three hours a day, five days a week,” and his big take away is that Romney’s a big government Republican? The same Mitt Romney that would rather default on our national debt than raise taxes a single penny? The same Mitt Romney that wants to give $265,000 tax breaks to the average millionaire at the same time he slashes healthcare and raises taxes on the elderly, poor, and disabled? The same Mitt Romney that wants to make life so miserable for illegal immigrants that they voluntarily “self-deport”? Mitt Romney is an unconditionally obedient, empty vessel for the most reactionary forces that have ever controlled the Republican Party. To think he will suddenly take a sharp turn to the center if elected president is to misunderstand the institutional pressures and political incentives any contemporary Republican leader faces. Romney will challenge the Tea Party to his primary re-election’s peril.

Scarborough says he voted for Paul for spending “his entire public career standing athwart history yelling ‘stop’ to an ever-expanding centralized state,” specifically citing his support for a balanced budget, opposition to government interference in the housing market, and dedication to “dismembering” the “big government beast.”

Let’s analyze each point in turn.

If Ron Paul were given complete dictatorial control over the federal government, not only would he not balance the budget, he would in all likelihood default on our debt. I know in Republican-land tax cuts for the rich are magically revenue neutral, but here in the real world if you abolish the income tax, like Paul wants to do, it would be mathematically impossible to reduce the national debt, much less balance the budget. Even if he literally destroyed the entire federal government, closing down every public school and highway, dropping every senior from the rolls of Medicare and Social Security, and disbanding the entire United States armed forces, he still wouldn’t be able to afford the salaries of the only government bureaucrats he seems to like – career politicians, like himself.

Additionally, Scarborough says he likes Paul’s grand solution to preventing housing bubbles? I assume he’s referring to Paul’s policy of returning to the gold standard, an action that a poll of forty mainstream economists, liberals and conservatives alike, unanimously agreed would be bad for the average American.

Explains Paul Krugman:

The argument against it is one of pragmatism, not principle. First, a gold standard would have all the disadvantages of any system of rigidly fixed exchange rates–and even economists who are enthusiastic about a common European currency generally think that fixing the European currency to the dollar or yen would be going too far. Second, and crucially, gold is not a stable standard when measured in terms of other goods and services. On the contrary, it is a commodity whose price is constantly buffeted by shifts in supply and demand that have nothing to do with the needs of the world economy–by changes, for example, in dentistry.

The United States abandoned its policy of stabilizing gold prices back in 1971. Since then the price of gold has increased roughly tenfold, while consumer prices have increased about 250 percent. If we had tried to keep the price of gold from rising, this would have required a massive decline in the prices of practically everything else–deflation on a scale not seen since the Depression. This doesn’t sound like a particularly good idea.

And his final point, that Paul is this great anti-government crusader. I can’t really argue with him there. From wanting to end Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid, to gutting essentially every single regulation ever created, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which he said undermine[d] the concept of liberty and “destroyed the principle of private property and private choices,” Paul is anything but a big government Republican. We all remember when he infamously declared the government should turn away sick people without health insurance, right? Well, in a sick twist of irony, Paul’s own uninsured former campaign manager took his freedom to the grave when he died of pneumonia at age 49, leaving his mother with $400,000 in medical bills. Surely Paul’s rank extremism is precisely why conservatives’ insistence on the evils of everything-government are absurd at best and dishonest at worst. Either they don’t understand how disastrous society would be without government regulations, or they are willfully deceiving the public with their absolutist, and often demagogic, rhetoric.

I want to give Scarborough the benefit of the doubt. He’s not a crazy Paulbot. In fact, I’d be surprised if Scarborough agrees with much of anything Ron Paul stands for. So what explains his vote?

I blame the media. The same mainstream media Paul’s supporters routinely claim have conspired against his candidacy actually did him a great service by not informing the public of his actual positions. If only the public (and his own supporters) knew what he really stood for, Paul would once again be properly relegated to where he belongs – the far-right lunatic fringe.

Mitt Romney, the Chickenhawk?

An Associated Press report from earlier this week scrutinized Mitt Romney’s lack of military service in the Vietnam War and its potential implications on the 2012 election and his presidency.

Though an early supporter of the Vietnam War, Romney avoided military service at the height of the fighting after high school by seeking and receiving four draft deferments, according to Selective Service records. They included college deferments and a 31-month stretch as a “minister of religion” in France, a classification for Mormon missionaries that the church at the time feared was being overused. The country was cutting troop levels by the time he became eligible for the draft, and his lottery number was not called.

Many young men of privileged backgrounds avoided the draft with college deferments. As discriminatory and unfair as the loophole may have been, it was firmly within the mainstream and therefore likely irrelevant today.

There are, however, four distinct political liabilities the Romney campaign may nevertheless struggle with. First, Romney actually protested in favor of the draft as a freshman at Stanford, even as he personally received a college deferment.

His apparent lack of empathy for his less fortunate peers reeks of a hypocrisy and sense of entitlement that is stunning. He elaborated on his position when running for Senate in 1994 when he told The Boston Herald, “I was not planning on signing up for the military,” indicating he had no “desire to go off and serve in Vietnam.”

His second political problem is he lied about it. While running for president in 2007, Romney told The Boston Globe:

I was supportive of my country. I longed in many respects to actually be in Vietnam and be representing our country there, and in some ways it was frustrating not to feel like I was there as part of the troops that were fighting in Vietnam.

In terms of ideological honesty, Romney’s entire campaign has been a lie, so one might think the “dishonesty cost” has already been factored in by the public. Telling more lies now won’t hurt him politically because by now everybody knows he’s a liar. But this lie is different. It’s one thing to avoid military conscription – over principle, cowardice, disinterest, whatever – and give the people who actually risked their lives and died the proper respect they deserve. But by pretending he secretly desired to fight in Vietnam, Romney disrespected the service of millions of people who actually did fight in the war he chose to avoid.

Third, Romney’s tough-talking, pro-military rhetoric is disconcerting to many who see it as hypocritical for a draft dodger to send other people to fight and die in wars. This is especially relevant since his number of Bush-era, neoconservative advisers suggests he plans pursue a highly muscular foreign policy. At times he even appears excited to start wars. I personally don’t hold his lack of service against him in this respect, as I think the calculation to start war should be a cost-benefit analysis independent of the personal baggage of the commander-in-chief. I would be equally objectionable to a military veteran pursuing a reckless war than I would be to a non-veteran initiating one.

Romney’s fourth political liability, which I believe could be the most damaging, is how he received his non-college deferments. After his freshman year at Stanford Romney received 4-D deferment status as “a minister of religion or divinity student” for his missionary work in France – a special class of deferment that allowed Mormons to disproportionately avoid service, as “the church and the Selective Service System work hand-in-hand in deferring the missionaries.” This is especially damning, as it suggests that Romney’s religion, a religion still regarded with extreme suspicion and prejudice by many Americans, may have given him unfair advantages.

Politico reported the biggest fears of Romney supporters, including his public awkwardness, his ideological inconsistencies, his unwillingness to challenge the far-right of his party, his overt and transparent pandering. And the “anti-Mormon thing.”

It is striking how many conversations with top Republicans come back to fears, at least expressed when on background, about Romney just being himself. And how often that conversation ends with a discussion about his Mormon faith. A common refrain: Conservatives will never tell pollsters what they really think of Mormonism and its implication on how they and their friends vote.

“I worry that there is an anti-Mormon thing out there on both sides — Democrats and some Republicans,” said Bill Bennett, the conservative author and host of the radio program “Morning in America.”

“Callers say, ‘I just can’t vote for him’ and then they don’t tell you why. My guess is it’s a Mormon thing. I think most people are coming around. But maybe 5 percent in this election — that could be the difference.”

While anti-Mormonism is widespread in the evangelical community today, many argue it will be a non-factor as their dislike of Barack Obama is a much stronger motivation. However, since anti-Mormonism is so close to the surface of the evangelical worldview, an especially egregious, religiously-charged moral failure could largely inflame prejudices and resentments, greatly reducing conservatives’ enthusiasm and turnout. An aggressive and particularly damning character assault could be the last straw.

Everybody knows the Obama campaign won’t touch Romney’s military service or Mormon faith with a 10-foot pole. But what about a rogue Super PAC? The quadruple whammy of draft dodger + hypocrite + warmonger + nefarious Mormon could be a difficult narrative to overcome.

Why Liberal Elites Aren’t the Problem

Conservative journalist J. Peter Zane wrote an op-ed in the Daily Caller titled “The real plutocrats” critiquing the attitudes and worldview of liberal elites. A provocative yet reductionist piece, the article begins by summarizing the Democratic narrative explaining Governor Scott Walker’s recall victory; that Walker outspent his Democratic opponent by a 7-1 margin, essentially “buying” the election with wealthy, out-of-state donors and secretive super PAC funding.

Zane opines:

The thrust of this analysis is that powerful plutocrats — a tiny fraction of the population — used their money to convince Wisconsinites to cast a vote for self-destruction. Let’s pause for a moment and consider the worldview this represents: It suggests that most people are stupid and clueless, unable to identify much less act in their self-interest. They do not make decisions but are manipulated by powerful forces beyond their ken (sheep to the slaughter).

It is not surprising that Democrats would have such a view. After all it describes how their party — the world’s most powerful plutocracy — works.

Yeah, I know. Anyone who claims opponents of unlimited corporate money in politics are the real plutocrats instantly loses any claim to intellectual honesty. But putting his hyperbole aside, maybe Zane is actually on to something.

He elaborates:

At the top, is a relatively small number of wealthy, well-educated people with very liberal views articulated by publications such as The New York Times, The New Yorker and MSNBC.

Below them is a much larger group of relatively poor folk with much less education who know a lot more about Paula Abdul than Paul Krugman.

The first group is loud and influential. They are the voice of the party and, they believe, that’s how it should be. After all, they’re the best and the brightest. They’re enlightened shepherds, who know far better than Mr. and Mrs. Sixpack about what’s best for them. Like political herding dogs, they must cajole and manipulate “the people” to pour the right thoughts into their heads. But it’s all good, because their efforts are only meant to help these witless folks who are prone to stray toward bad ideas. And, to their everlasting credit, their hardscrabble supporters are smart enough to know they must follow.

Zane is right for the wrong reasons. He’s correct that the Democratic Party (like the Republican Party) is ruled by an elite group of highly educated, wealthy “plutocrats” who fundamentally believe “politics is about telling people what to think.” His analysis is unfair because it implies plutocracy is unique to the Democrats, but whatever.

What he misses, however, is the difference between government rule by elites and government rule for elites. Despite my liberal populist views on the role of government, I endorse the Jeffersonian concept of representative democracy by rule of intellectual elites.

We think experience has proved it safer for the mass of individuals composing the society to reserve to themselves personally the exercise of all rightful powers to which they are competent, and to delegate those to which they are not competent to deputies named, and removable for unfaithful conduct, by themselves immediately.

Hence, with us, the people (by which is meant the mass of individuals composing the society) … being unqualified for the management of affairs requiring intelligence above the common level, yet competent judges of human character, they chose for their management representatives, some by themselves immediately, others by electors chosen by themselves.

Ordinary people, while not “stupid and clueless,” as Zane suggests liberal elites believe, are neither sufficiently informed nor deliberative on matters of government to make effective public policy. In the same way you wouldn’t call a plumber when you need open heart surgery, it makes little rational sense to consult him on the complexities of foreign policy or macroeconomics. Policy-making requires specialized knowledge and expertise that the masses simply don’t have the time or incentive to develop. Why else would public opinion be so volatile and campaign fundraising be so essential? Ordinary folks are easily manipulated by whomever can afford the most 30 second TV ad spots.

To be clear, I’m not anti-democracy. While the average Joe probably isn’t smart enough to be president, his general values and expectations must be satisfied by his elected officials. Rule by elites only works when they are held accountable to the outcomes of their policies. This is why it is essential that we preserve the basic fairness of “one person, one vote.” A system that gives disproportionate speech to some precludes effective democratic accountability.

The problem isn’t that we are ruled by elites; the problem is our ruling elites aren’t responsive enough to ordinary people.

And one of the primary reasons the rich have disproportionate influence on public policy is the disproportionate influence they have on campaign finances. We don’t have too many rich people in government; we have too many rich people controlling government.

Why is Joe Walsh So Scared?

On Thursday tea party freshman Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL) received national attention for his racially-charged rant on welfare, black dependency, and Rev. Jesse Jackson.

I get wound up. Boy do I really get wound up. I am scared that we’re past the point. We have so many people now dependent on government, so many people want handouts. The Democratic Party promises groups of people everything. They want the Hispanic vote. They want the Hispanics to be dependent on government, just like they got African-Americans dependent upon government. That’s their game. Jesse Jackson would be out of work if they weren’t dependent upon government. There’d be no more work for him.

Much of the liberal media has justifiably criticized Walsh for singling out blacks and Hispanics as dependent upon government without any apparent justification. From Ronald Reagan’s stories about a Cadillac-driving “Welfare Queen” from the South Side of Chicago to Newt Gingrich’s labeling Barack Obama the “food stamp president,” the racialization of poverty and welfare has a long history of breeding class and race resentments. The notion that welfare, and government services more generally, serve primarily to transfer wealth from hardworking, deserving whites to lazy, morally bankrupt minorities is a prevalent stereotype that once led to the unraveling of the New Deal coalition and today threatens the survival of our basic social services.

The subject of this blog post, however, is Joe Walsh. What’s he so scared of? He explained on the O’Reilly Factor Friday night:

The Democrat Party wants everyone dependent on government. They are the party of government, I mean it makes sense. If you are dependent upon government for more and more of your livelihood and your benefits, you’ll continue to vote for the party of government.

Walsh went on to say, “We’re at a scary point, because look. We’ve got half this country that’s not paying federal income taxes,” implying that a majority of government-dependents could collectively control national elections, thereby precluding attempts to reform entitlement spending.

First, the “50% don’t pay income taxes” talking-point is extremely misleading as it not only includes groups like the unemployed and retired, but also ignores the various taxes they do pay, such as payroll, property, sales, state and local taxes.


Why does this particular talking-point create such a visceral anxiety in many conservatives? Harvard professor Theda Skocpol, who attended several local tea party meetings for her research, makes a fundamental distinction between the right-wing populism of contemporary American conservatives and the libertarian free-market ideology they claim to adhere to:

[Tea party activists] are not only focused on cuts in taxes and public spending. Indeed, the older, white, conservative-minded people who make up the grassroots are often beneficiaries of public spending on Social Security, Medicare, and military veterans’ benefits. They more specifically oppose “welfare spending” on the poor, immigrants, and the young — all of whom are seen as “freeloaders” who have not earned their way. Grassroots Tea Partiers are also very concerned about immigration and want crackdowns on undocumented people.

The defining characteristic of right-wing populism isn’t opposition to big government or federal spending. In accordance with the “50%” talking-point, Mitt Romney’s budget actually calls for higher taxes on the poor even as it gives $265,000 tax breaks to the average millionaire. And he accuses Obama of “class warfare”? Furthermore, 76% of self-identified “tea party supporters” oppose major cuts to Medicare and Social Security, even as these massive socialistic entitlement programs together account for 36% percent of the total budget. And don’t even think about cutting defense or raising taxes…

The reason the “50%” talking-point is so effective is because it creates class resentment by dividing the populace between “makers” and “takers” – between hard working producers who play by the rules and pay their taxes, and lazy leeches who irresponsibly enjoy the excesses of big government. And it works because nobody sees himself as a leech.

According to Federal budget and Census data:

In 2010, 91 percent of the benefit dollars from entitlement and other mandatory programs went to the elderly (people 65 and over), the seriously disabled, and members of working households. People who are neither elderly nor disabled — and do not live in a working household — received only 9 percent of the benefits.

Moreover, the vast bulk of that 9 percent goes for medical care, unemployment insurance benefits (which individuals must have a significant work history to receive), Social Security survivor benefits for the children and spouses of deceased workers, and Social Security benefits for retirees between ages 62 and 64. Seven out of the 9 percentage points go for one of these four purposes.

79% of food stamp recipients get off the program in less than two years, while the median spell is only eight months. 47% of recipients are children.

Conservatives’ rhetoric about a colossal “entitlement society” of long-term dependents gives people the false impression that their hard-earned tax dollars are being wasted on able-bodied folks who lack the work ethic to support themselves. While it’s true that 60% of Americans receive more government benefits, including social services, education, national defense, infrastructure and transportation subsidies, than they pay in taxes, it is also true that these 180 million people have less combined wealth than the 400 richest individual Americans. The relatively small absolute tax burden on the poor and lower middle class is a function of enormous income inequality, not unfairness in the tax code. Minimum wage’s annual income of $13,624 is barely enough to pay for rent – much less food or health care for a family. Our economy’s structural inequality necessitates redistributive economic policies if we are to guarantee a basic level of dignity to each of our fellow citizens.


While Walsh’s fear that the Democratic Party cynically purchases votes from an indolent entitlement class is largely absurd, his claims aren’t entirely baseless. Both political parties have an incentive to pursue fiscally expansionary policies; Democrats tend to prefer expanding the safety net for the economically vulnerable while Republicans favor giving tax cuts to the wealthy. Tax increases and spending cuts are both unpopular because the public is greedy and doesn’t appreciate that the public services they rely on must be paid for.

But to assert that government programs exist merely to “buy votes” is misleading because it implies that they are inherently illegitimate – that government programs are necessarily political bargaining chips for popular support and therefore against the public interests. But is the government merely “buying votes” when it provides seniors free government health care? What about when it gives children free socialized education handouts? Surely he’s right that the public as a whole would be better served without many programs. If it were up to me I would look at exorbitant defense contracts, subsidies for profitable corporations and entitlements like Medicare and Social Security that go to the middle class and the rich. Of course many disagree, but that means we should debate the role of government, not stigmatize the poor as undeserving and welfare as illegitimate.

The Obama Campaign’s Strategy Shift?

After months of defining Mitt Romney as a flip-flopping, ultra right-wing, out of touch plutocrat, the Obama campaign is planning to start attacking Romney’s record as Governor of Massachusetts, according to a new report by ABC.

Team Obama will point to Romney’s rhetoric on job creation, size of government, education, deficits and taxes during the 2002 gubernatorial campaign and draw parallels with his presidential stump speeches of 2012. The goal is to illustrate that Romney has made the same promises before with unimpressive results, officials say.

You can read the full memo released by Obama chief strategist David Axelrod here. And watch the attack ad here.


It’s too early to say whether this new attack will be effective, so it’s worth noting much of this blog post is speculation and guesswork. Nevertheless, I’m going to make the case for why the Obama campaign and Democratic super PACs should, and eventually will, focus on Romney’s career as CEO of Bain Capital rather than his record as Governor of Massachusetts.

There’s a special class of independent voter who supported Obama in 2008 because he was the candidate of hope and change. He promised to rise above everyday partisan politics and change the way Washington works. After this promise clearly never materialized (for reasons I won’t get into here), that class of independent voter has turned away from the President, probably for good. The results-oriented, non-ideological, pocket book voter disapproves of the President’s job creation record, so if the election becomes about who has the talent to “fix” the economy, Obama is at a major disadvantage.

This is why Romney has emphasized the state of the country in very technocratic terms. He talks about the unemployment rate and the national debt and the price of gasoline. He’s trying to portray Obama as a good guy who just doesn’t understand how the economy works. This allows the people who voted for Obama in 2008 off the hook – it’s not the voter’s fault the President’s promises of hope and change turned out to be empty. Romney wants the independent voter to think of him as “Mr. Fix-It,” a pragmatic businessman who knows how to create jobs, not as the conservative ideologue he portrayed himself in the Republican primary.

Thus far, Obama has waged the campaign on completely different terms. For Obama the election isn’t about what has happened in the country during the last four years – without taking a position, I think it’s fair to say that the President’s legislative record (Obamacare, stimulus, bailouts) and economic leadership (slow job growth, high unemployment rate, record budget deficits) are unpopular with the median independent voter. Obama wants the election to be about values and the future – about “creating an economy that’s built to last” with a strong middle class and opportunities for all who work for them. Romney’s “business experience was about two sets of rules – one for his investors, and another for the workers who lost jobs, pensions and benefits.” The election is about values and character, not executive record or technocratic expertise.

The problem with Obama attacking Romney’s gubanatorial record is he’s fighting a losing battle. Everybody already has an opinion on the state of the country under President Obama. People disagree, but it’s hard to change anyone’s mind. But no one outside of Massachusetts has any idea what kind of governor Romney really was – people’s perceptions will be based solely on each candidate’s spin. The Obama campaign will present one set of facts (47th in job creation, higher taxes, etc) portraying him as a failure, and the Romney campaign will respond with a sepetate set of facts (low unemployment rate, smaller government, etc) portraying him as a success. In the end it will be a confusing mess, probably a wash, and most voters will err with Romney because they know America is in decline under President Obama and Romney is the only alternative.

Obama has to wage the election on terms he can win decisively – values and competing visions for the future. Romney might be a successful businessman and have a good family, but he doesn’t understand ordinary people and as President his policies would only help the rich. Sure, the economy isn’t doing great, but at least you can trust President Obama to fight for middle class families. The Bain attacks are powerful because they resonate on an emotional level – Romney didn’t just break a few promises here and there, he “sucked the life” out of companies, profiting millions while tens of thousands suffered. He isn’t just a bad statesman, he’s a vampire. The Bain attack works because it impugns Romney’s fundamental moral decency. A character assault at its core, it frames Romney the “Other” – a callous plutocrat without the talent or campassion to care about you.

Another reason the strategy could backfire is that independents like the idea of a “Massachusetts Republican” because it is basically code for “moderate Republican.” This could undercut the narrative that Romney’s a right-wing, tea party extremist, as nothing in Romney’s record supports that thesis. Additionally, Romney could excuse some of his broken promises due to his struggles with large Democratic majorities in the Massachusetts legislature. He probably didn’t do too bad compared to the Presidents dealings with the Tea Party congress the last couple of years.


This is total speculation on my part, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Obama campaign is introducing non-Bain related attacks in part to shield itself from criticisms from the Democratic donor-class that is sympathetic to private equity. Obama can now argue that demonizing Bain Capital isn’t the sole basis of his campaign, allowing him to raise more money this summer from the financial sector before the onslaught of negativity in the fall.

The public will inevitably learn more about Romney’s history in Massachusetts. But his career at Bain Capital is what stands between him and the presidency.


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