Archive for October, 2010
The sun will rise next Wednesday on a new American landscape, the same way it rose on a new American landscape almost exactly two years ago.
That was the dawn of ObamaTime. Millions of Americans had dined delightedly on Obama’s rhetoric of dreams and preened at his homilies about the inherent moral greatness of the American people.
Obama and the Democrats triumphed at the polls. The pundits hailed a “tectonic shift” in our national politics, perhaps even a registration of the possibility that we had entered a “post-racial” era.
The realities of American politics don’t change much from year to year. The “politics of division” which Obama denounced are the faithful reflection of national divisions of wealth and resources wider today than they have been at any time since the late 1920s.
In fact the “dream” died even before Obama was elected in November 2008. Already in September that year Senator Obama, like his opponent, Senator McCain, had voted, at the behest of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (formerly of Goldman Sachs) and of Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, for the bailout of the banks. Whatever the election result, there was to be no change in the architecture of financial power in America.
Two events are scheduled for next Tuesday. If we are to believe the polls, the voters will install Republicans as the new majority in the House of Representatives. A longer shot–they may even win the Senate.
If that happens, Obama will be in exactly the situation that Bill Clinton found himself on November 9, 1994, the day after the Republicans won control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years.
Also on Tuesday or maybe Wednesday, chairman Bernanke and the Open Market Committee of the Federal Reserve Board will convene in Washington and decide on how much money to create–”quantitative easing”–and hand to the banks, in order to lift the country out of a Depression which has 30 million Americans either without a job, or working part time. Their deliberations will be more consequential, at least in the short term, than the verdicts of the voters in the democratic contest.
The November 2 election will at least settle a simple question: will the Tea Party movement, as nutty a bunch as has diverted America since the Goldwater movement of 1964, have any sort of decisive political effect?
So far as the US Senate is concerned, the Tea Party has been the prime factor in keeping Democrats in certain states in any sort of contention.
Even though a couple of oil millionaires from Wichita, Kansas, the Koch brothers, have been sluicing money into Tea Party-related political organizations, one can make a convincing case that purely on the basis of cui bono–who stands to gain–the Democrats surely invented the Tea Party out of whole cloth.
If it wasn’t for Tea Party maiden Christine O’Donnell, the Republicans would be counting victory in Delaware as a sure thing. But in a primary race, O’Donnell defeated the orthodox Republican and courtesy of her jaunty admission that she had once dabbled in Satanic practices–something this very religious nation takes as a serious disqualification for political office–she now lags far behind Democrat Chris Coons who, by the way, is already pledging that when elected he’ll be working to keep the Bush tax cuts for the super-rich.
There are other states–Colorado, Nevada, Alaska, and Kentucky–where Democrats may survive because of whacko performances by their Tea Party opponents. Joe Miller in Alaska has confessed to so many lies that Alaskans may well try to revert to Lisa Murkowski. But as a write-in candidate she labors under the burden of many Alaskans being unable to spell her name, so the Democrat, McAdams, might squeeze through.
In Nevada, Harry Reid may live to lead the Senate majority another day because of Sharon Angle’s racist ads, targeting Hispanics. Dan Maes, a Tea Party man battling to win the Colorado governorship, has impaled his candidacy with the charge that Denver’s pro-bycycle program (espoused by Democrat gubernatorial contender, Hickenlooper, currently the mayor of Denver) is part of a one-world conspiracy promoted by the UN. Maes is probably right, but as a conspiracy it’s not drawn voters to his cause. Rand Paul’s security guards in Kentucky were photographed stomping on the head of a liberal protester. Also on Wednesday, Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips came under fire for an Internet column published over the weekend in which he called for the defeat of Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) because he is Muslim.
If the Tea Party may yet save the Senate for the Democrats, in House races its candidates may have had the effect of juicing up Republican voters. Or not. A lot of the electorate clearly can’t make up its mind about which of their houses should be more plague-ridden.
Contrary to a thousand contemptuous diatribes by the left, the Tea Party is a genuine political movement, channeling the fury and frustration of a huge slab of white Americans running small businesses–what used to be called the petit-bourgeoisie.
The World Socialist Website snootily cites a Washington Post survey finding the Tea Party to be a “disparate band of vaguely connected gatherings.” The WSW sneers that the Post was able to make contact with only 647 groups linked to the Tea Party, some of which involve only a handful of people. “The findings suggest that the breadth of the tea party may be inflated,” the WSW chortles, quoting the Post. You think the socialist left across America can boast of 647 groups, or of any single group consisting of more than a handful of people?
Who says these days that in the last analysis, the only way to change the status quo and challenge the Money Power of Wall Street is to overthrow the government by force? That isn’t some old Trotskyist lag like Louis Proyect, dozing on the dungheap of history like Odysseus’ lice-ridden old hound Argos, woofing with alarm as the shadow of a new idea darkens the threshold.
Who really, genuinely wants to abolish the Fed, to whose destruction the left pledges ever more tepid support. Sixty per cent of Tea Party members would like to send Ben Bernanke off to the penitentiary, the same way I used to hear the late great Wright Patman vow to do to Fed chairman Arthur Burns, back in the mid-70s. Who recently called the General Electric Company “an opportunistic parasite feeding on the expansion of government?” Who said recently, “There are strains in the Tea Party that are troubled by what they saw as a series of instances in which the middle-class and working-class people have been abused or hurt by special interests and Washington.” That was Barack Obama, though being Obama he added, “but their anger is misdirected.”
In 1995 Bill Clinton clawed himself out of the political grave by the politics of triangulation–outflanking the Republicans from the right, while retaining the loyalty of his progressive base. Can Obama display similar flexibility? The President’s aides are already confiding that the White House will move right. The question is: will his liberal base tolerate their hero colluding with Republicans in seeking to destroy Medicare (more likely than an onslaught on Social Security, which the Democrats may want to run on in 2012) in the interests of political survival. If that is the course Obama takes, look for a serious challenge to him from another Democrat, as we head towards 2012.
Some Democrats may buck the tide. In California it looks very possible that next January Jerry Brown will shake Arnold Schwarzenegger’s hand and return to the job of governing California, a function he last exercised 27 years ago, in 1983. If he prevails this will be a huge shot in the arm for those who believe that against all the evidence, American voters can appreciate a candidate who spends $100 million less than his opponent and didn’t campaign at all through the summer.
The first time I laid eyes on Jerry Brown was in College Park, Maryland. The newly elected governor of California had belatedly plunged into the race for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination, in which Jimmy Carter was marked as the favorite. With the help of the Baltimore political machine built up by Nancy Pelosi’s family, Brown stormed across Maryland. He was a good stump speaker, a refreshing contrast to Carter, with his earnest pledges about honesty and zero-based budgeting. Brown won the primary and went on to victories in California and Nevada.
Amid this bracing challenge to the peanut broker, I wended my way to Sacramento to view the governor in his local habitat. Whale song burst from loudspeakers in the street outside his office, in front of which was parked his demure official vehicle-—a Plymouth Satellite. Stewart Brand, editor of the New Agers’ bible CoEvolution Quarterly, was at his elbow as an adviser. Tom Hayden was on the line.
By the time of my late spring visit, California had already peaked as the Golden State. Ahead lay accelerating destruction or misuse of the state’s natural assets, starting with water; the ruin of a marvelous system of public education; creation of a vast gulag (twenty-three prisons built since 1984); phalanxes of absurdly overpaid public employees; and paralysis of the legislature in Sacramento.
You can hang some of the blame around Brown’s neck, though not the seeds of legislative paralysis. Finger Earl Warren for that one. It was Warren’s Supreme Court that issued two decisions in the early 1960s-—Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Sims—-ruling that legislators should be apportioned on a “one-person, one-vote” basis. This required state legislatures to reconstitute themselves entirely by the measure of population. Rural counties lost their state senators. Los Angeles and San Francisco swelled in power. The reconstituted California Senate of forty-—coupled with the two-thirds-majority requirement to pass the budget—-permits a faction of 14 senators to shut down the state once a year, and that is precisely what happens.
Nor can you blame Brown, who served as governor from 1975 to 1983, for the economic earthquakes that began in the late ’70s, when defense and aerospace contracts started to slow (California had been getting one in every five Pentagon dollars during the cold war boom); by the late ’80s as many as two million well-paid blue-collar workers and their families had quit Southern California.
The gulag is a different matter. Governor Brown didn’t start the “lock ’em up forever” boom, but he hopped on to the moving train nimbly enough. In 1977 the legislature passed a new sentencing law, which Brown swiftly signed. It amended the state’s penal code to declare that punishment, not rehabilitation, was now the goal. The law ended “indeterminate sentencing”–whereby convicts could win significantly shorter sentences by dint of good behavior, self-improvement as assessed by boards including guards and prisoners. Liberals thought this somewhat ad hoc procedure was inherently unfair. Enter, across ensuing years, mandatory completion of prison terms; shriveling of opportunities for convicts to improve themselves; virtual extinction of parole; and open-ended “civil commitment,” with endless extensions of prison time. The result was a swelling population of cons, many of them now entering senility and the Alzheimer years, many of them nonviolent offenders, crammed into tiny cells or using beds stacked three tiers high in prison gyms, all maintained decade after decade at staggering public expense.
Among them are those incarcerated for life under the state’s “three strikes” law, passed in 1994. In 2004 a state initiative to soften three strikes was set to pass handily until Brown, along with several other former California governors, did a last-minute ad blitz that reversed the poll numbers and defeated the proposition. Brown appears to have been the most enthusiastic participant; he flew to LA to do a series of ads with members of heavy metal groups, including Orgy.
Brown failed to fight the Prop 13 initiative effectively, though this prototypical Tea Party rebellion was probably unstoppable. When Prop 13 passed in 1978, the local governments that had already lost all power in the State Senate also lost any ability to raise money by increasing property taxes. Since then the only way to get dollars for education has been to go to Sacramento and beg or dream up another bond issue to place on the ballot. These bond issues can pass only with support from public employees-—especially police, prison guards and firemen, uniting with teachers, nurses, etc.—-and so the never-ending upward spiral of public employee salaries and pensions has no discernible limits.
By that time Brown had the damaging Governor Moonbeam label stuck on him by Mike Royko, though uncharacteristically this meanspirited Chicago columnist later apologized, just like Green Party punk rocker Jello Biafra later said he was wrong to call Brown a Nazi. It’s hard to be absolute about Jerry, though his stint as mayor of Oakland had very unattractive features. His tilt at Clinton in ’92 was most enjoyable, not least for the fun I had with Andrew Kopkind interviewing Brown for The Nation and with Robert Pollin when we jointly defended Brown’s flat-tax proposal in the Wall Street Journal, bringing down the wrath of the liberal nonprofit tax reform groups, which ardently defended the so-called “progressivity” of our existing tax code! He’s actually endorsed the appalling Peripheral Canal.
California’s problems are well beyond the curative powers of any one governor. Brown’s slogan in the mid-’70s was “We are entering an era of limits” (always excepting the prison population and the share of the very rich in the national income). So if he wins in November, there’s no need to nourish foolish hopes. I guess it’s Jerry’s last hurrah. I give him a decorous cheer, if only as homage to the ’70s, when politics were a lot more fun and more optimistic than they are now.