Not Messing Around in the Middle

Unlike the subtle French or the excessively polite British, or the quiet and amiable Canadians, or the inscrutable Chinese, Americans are known for cutting through the crap and saying exactly what they mean, no matter who’s offended. The truth is the truth. Ask anyone from Bangor to San Diego, from El Paso to Wasilla – the worst thing anyone can be is pretentious. Real Americans are blunt, which is why, back in 2008, when John McCain was running against Barack Obama, he crisscrossed the country in a bus called the Straight-Talk Express, and probably why he chose Sarah Palin as his running-mate. She might have been frighteningly uninformed about almost everything in the world, and seemed unwilling or incapable of figuring who was who, and what was where, and what was going on here at home and around the world, but at least she was blunt. She knew what she knew she knew, and she was eager to call a spade a spade, although she didn’t call Obama a “spade” – at least in public. That word has dangerous overtones, so she called him a terrorist, or at least someone who palled around with terrorists, which she saw as pretty much the same thing. When folks who had come to her appearances started shouting KILL HIM she kind of shrugged. John McCain, when he heard those shouts at his rallies, got worried. He famously explained to that bewildered angry old woman with the mop of white hair that no, Obama wasn’t “an Arab” – he was “a decent family man, a citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with.” Most of America was relieved when he said that – things had been getting too nasty – but that night was instructive:

In addition to the man who said he feared Obama as president, another predicted the Democrat would “lead the country to socialism.”

“The time has come and the Bible tells us you speak the truth and that the truth sets you free,” the man added.

Yet another voter implored McCain in plain terms: “The people here in Minnesota want to see a real fight.”

McCain promised the audience he wouldn’t back down – but again sought to tamp down emotions.

“We want to fight, and I will fight,” McCain said. “But I will be respectful. I admire Sen. Obama and his accomplishments, and I will respect him.”

At which point he was booed again.

There was no way he could ride that tiger. The base of his party, having been whipped into intense anger for most of the year, never liked McCain much in the first place, and this was the last straw. Maybe it was his career in the military that had led McCain to think of himself as an honorable man, but now decency and honor had become a liability, and it must have felt as if his chosen partner in this endeavor also thought he was a fool and a sucker, or a liar and a hypocrite. Palin had gone rogue on him too, simply ignoring all the day-to-day tactics carefully planned out by his campaign manager, Steve Schmidt – “I can’t say that? Watch me! Whadda ya gonna do about it anyway, bald man?”

All this, except that precise quote, was meticulously documented – McCain and Schmidt ended up pretty damned depressed, because Schmidt knew that elections were won in the middle. That was the plan all along. The base would always vote for you, even if they had to hold their noses, and the base on the other side would never vote for you in a million years, so you go for the massive number of votes in the middle. You proudly trot out all the impressive straight talk about this and that, but with a few obvious caveats and exceptions, because you’re a reasonable man. You’re not calling for global thermonuclear war, not really – just a show of strength, to prove no one pushes us around, or maybe a small regional war we can win easily. And you don’t really want the poor and unlucky to curl up and die, but maybe they don’t really need food stamps and welfare and unemployment insurance at all, except in extraordinary cases. You then admit that those cases might exist, sometimes, rarely, and that abortion might be okay, maybe, in the case of rape or incest. As for how we really do need to get entitlement spending under control, there should be severe cuts in all of that – but not cuts to Social Security and Medicare, as people (who vote a lot) need both. The middle is won with a display of something like reasonableness.

Everyone knows this. Those voters in the middle don’t want a brutal zealot, saying extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, which is why Barry Goldwater got blown out in 1964 – they want an amiable zealot who sounds pleasant and reasonable almost all the time, which is why Ronald Reagan won easily in 1980 and again in 1984 without any problem. He did say some far-out things – like how government is always the problem and never the solution and is thus utterly useless, even if he ran the government and seemed to enjoy the job and obviously considered what he was doing as quite useful – but he said these things so nicely. And in 2008, Obama was the same way. He seemed reasonable, a trick McCain couldn’t pull off late in the campaign – the Straight-Talk Express had been rolling along at full speed for too long and couldn’t be stopped – and something that completely eluded Mitt Romney, although there was really no way to make that forty-seven percent stuff, and how corporations are people too, my friend, sound reasonable. You can’t say it’s more complicated than that when you just said it wasn’t complicated at all. Your base will kill you. Everyone else will think you’re folding under pressure. You have to establish a certain baseline-reasonableness from the start, and then surprise people with your bluntness. It doesn’t work the other way around.

Still, it would be nice if both sides would drop the pretense and just let it rip. Republicans could say look, we don’t want the Hispanic vote, or the black vote, or the Asian vote, or the women’s vote, or the votes of the young, or the college-educated either, or the urban vote, or the coastal vote. We want the vote of angry white males over seventy, guys living in the middle of nowhere who dropped out of school in the eighth grade, but who are good Christians – and that means not fake Christian, like those Catholics who worship Mary as much as Jesus, or Unitarians who worship everything and anything, or those Mormons with their funny underwear and that crap about those gold tablets in Palmyra, New York, of all things. And you know what? All those new laws making it damned hard for people to vote, passed in all those states now controlled by Republicans, really don’t have anything at all to do with voter fraud or whatever. We can keep the wrong sort of people from voting, and we will, and you can’t stop us, so get over it. Damn straight, we’re taking away people’s right to vote. In your face, suckers! And you know what else? America is going to be a place where if you can’t afford healthcare, you die, slowly and painfully, as you should. No one is going to miss those sorry losers, and their drag on the economy will end. Be glad we’re not using gas chambers on the Takers. We could, you know.

The Democrats could do the same. Damned straight, we’re in favor of income redistribution. The One Percent has hoovered up virtually all of the nation’s wealth, on the backs of workers who have paid next to nothing for more than a decade now, and one way or another they’re going to get back some of the wealth they created. Choose your poison – massive taxes on the rich, to rebuild the country and reduce the almost universal unfairness, or something like the French Revolution, but without the guillotine, or perhaps with it. And there will be unions again too, lots of them, because workers should be allowed to collectively demand fairness and safety, or collectively walk out. The big boys have had their way for far too long. Others matter too – and by the way, if those we elect vote for a system where everyone chips in for the good of all, like with Obamacare, you don’t get to take any of that away with this tricky scheme or that. And one more thing – the rich, demanding our awe at their wonderfulness, ain’t gonna get it. They’re just rich, no more than that. Are we picking on them? Yes, we are. It’s about time someone picked on them.

That would clear the air, but that’ll never happen. Those voters in “the middle” would have nowhere to turn, although that situation is developing anyway:

Minnesota State Rep. Andrea Kieffer (R) last week said that legislation to address equal pay and sick leave does not actually help women in the workplace, the Huffington Post reported. “We heard several bills last week about women’s issues and I kept thinking to myself, these bills are putting us backwards in time,” Kieffer said at a hearing on a bill to address the gender pay gap, according to an audio recording posted by the Alliance for a Better Minnesota. “We are losing the respect that we so dearly want in the workplace by bringing up all these special bills for women and almost making us look like whiners.”

A Republican woman finally said it. Women should just shut up and stop ASKING for things, like equal pay for equal work. That’s just whining. Stop it. It’s unladylike, and there’s this:

The executive director of the Texas Republican Party on Monday evening argued that rather than seeking legal recourse on equal pay, women should learn to better negotiate their salaries. “Men are better negotiators, and I would encourage women, instead of pursuing the courts for action, to become better negotiators,” Beth Cubriel said on YNN’s “Capitol Tonight.”

Cubriel’s comments come just one day after Cari Cristman, the executive director of the conservative Red State Women PAC, said that existing fair pay laws are sufficient and that women are too “busy” to push for more equal pay legislation.

Another Republican woman finally said it. Existing fair pay laws are fine, and if they’re unfair, so what? Don’t try to change them. No one has time for such nonsense.

These two may be onto something. Drop the reasonableness crap. The middle is useless, and you can screw up there:

With everyone trying to draw some national lesson from last week’s special election in Florida ahead of the November midterms, add this to the mix: Liberals think Democrats shot themselves in the foot on Social Security, an issue that played a central role in the district.

Democrats used a familiar playbook, accusing Republican David Jolly of wanting to privatize the program. House Majority PAC, an outside group that supports Democratic candidates, dropped almost $750,000 on an ad warning that David Jolly “lobbied for a special interest that wanted to privatize Social Security,” and that he “still says privatization should be on the table.”

Democrat Alex Sink herself called Social Security “an American promise” and said that unlike her opponent, she would “fight to protect the integrity” of the program. It’s a message the party hoped would resonate in a district that has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of voters over the age 65.

But Jolly had an easy comeback: He denied wanting to privatize Social Security, and fired back by noting that Sink voiced some support for the Simpson-Bowles debt-reduction plan, which included cuts to Social Security.

That Simpson-Bowles debt-reduction plan was supposed to be the hard but reasonable thing, but it bit her in the ass:

The National Republican Congressional Committee hit Sink from the left on this, saying she “supports a plan that raises the retirement age for Social Security recipients, raises Social Security taxes, and cuts Medicare.” Katie Prill, a spokesperson for the Republican group, added: “Sending Alex Sink to Washington guarantees that seniors right here in Pinellas County are in jeopardy of losing the Social Security and Medicare benefits that they have earned and deserve.”

Liberal writers cried hypocrisy, but it didn’t matter: Sink lost.

For the Left, it’s evidence that Democrats need to take a firm line on the entitlement program – or even support expanding it – at a time when some in the party, and especially the White House, have offered concessions.

Heather Parton (Digby) adds this:

Obviously, Democrats get no political benefit from trying to cut these programs, (unless you count Villagers extolling them for being “grown-ups” which should get them at least a hundred votes in Virginia.) Why they persist in thinking this was good politics is beyond me.

Senator Jeff Merkley came out for Social Security expansion this week and Senator Mark Begich had signed on earlier, so we should have a decent experiment in a blue state and a red state on this issue. I have no idea if it will be decisive, but in an off-year election that traditionally tilts heavily to older voters I think it’s fair to say that denying the Republicans the ability to slap you in the face with a stated desire to cut Social Security (and a plan to actually improve it!) is a smart idea.

Digby also notes Politico’s completely different take on this, hinting that the Democrat lost because Democrats are too mean to the wealthy:

Fresh off a bruising loss in Florida, the Democratic playbook for the midterms appears in need of a major rewrite – and the pro-business wing of the party is ready to draw up new plans. President Barack Obama in his budget once again floated a plan to raise taxes on Wall Street, but no one took it seriously. …

In two-dozen interviews, the denizens of Wall Street and wealthy precincts around the nation said they are still plenty worried about the shift in tone toward top earners and the popularity of class-based appeals. On the right, the rise of populists including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz still makes wealthy donors eyeing 2016 uncomfortable. But wealthy Republicans – who were having a collective meltdown just two months ago – also say they see signs that the political zeitgeist may be shifting back their way and hope the trend continues.

“I hope it’s not working,” Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot and major GOP donor, said of populist political appeals. “Because if you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.”

Wealthy donors are eyeing 2016 uncomfortably, which is why they poured tons of money into this minor Florida race, and sunk Sink. Smart Democrats should be worried, and are. Obama and the rest of the party will have to stop picking on them. No one wants to come off as a Nazi, and Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog adds this:

Do the billionaires really believe they’re under this kind of threat? Or are they like spoiled rock stars who see some tiny slight – the red M&M’s haven’t been carefully removed from the bowl or the bendy straws for the champagne aren’t pointing toward magnetic north – and believe that they’re as oppressed and brutalized as Solomon Northup or the six million?

I think it’s mostly the latter – but I don’t want to rule out the former. After all, it’s generally agreed within the Northeast Corridor that pitchfork populism actually is on the march, or at least that it has been of late. You may find this hard to imagine, being an ordinary person who’s still getting kicked in the teeth by the political and economic establishment with no apparent recourse, but [Politico's] White and Heberman want to assure you that we were recently this close to revolution:

“Just a few months ago, it looked like 2014 would be the year of the populist, with Democrats running on economic inequality, tea party Republicans bashing banks and newly minted New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio pledging to soak the rich with higher taxes. That was so January. The terrain is now shifting fast as the One Percent fights back hard and the effectiveness of the populist approach comes into question.”

Steve M is not impressed:

I shouldn’t mock Politico or the rich if they actually believed that one election, even of a progressive-talking New York mayor, means the revolution’s here – maybe you also thought that that was such a portent. Maybe you felt the same way after Elizabeth Warren won.

But elections aren’t a substitute for a large, angry, mobilized movement, however much progressives may hope they are. (How many people thought Obama’s election in ’08 meant we could all lower our guard and just watch things get a lot better?)

Only a tiny sliver of the U.S. population is truly angry at the rich, and at plutocrat-coddling politicians of both parties; it’s not enough to make a difference. It’s not even enough to make a difference in New York City — do you see hundreds of thousands of people out in the streets in Manhattan or Albany demanding a tax on the wealthy in order to fund universal pre-K?

And don’t get me started about White and Haberman’s ridiculous reference to “the rise of populists” in the GOP – I’m sorry, but there’s no movement in the GOP to curb the plutocracy, and there’s zero chance that even the teabaggiest future Republican president would let the banks suffer after the next financial crash. The plutocrats will twist enough arms to make sure that never happens – and most Republicans (and Democrats) won’t need to have their arms twisted.

There’s also Larry Summers with this comment on income and wealth inequality:

“Reducing inequality is good, but it’s 50 times better to do it by lifting those up who are low than by tearing those down who are high,” said Larry Summers, the former treasury secretary whose bid to become Fed chair got derailed by the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party. “The politics of envy are the wrong politics in America. The better politics are the politics of inclusion where everyone shares in economic growth.”

Isn’t it pretty to think so? The blogger Echidne doesn’t think it’s pretty at all:

This is so beautiful. It also dispenses with the accusation that concern with income and wealth inequality is based on nothing but that deadly sin of envy.

But imagine for a moment a society in which 99% of people are just barely surviving and where 1% of people own almost everything, living in guarded enclaves where the faucets and toilet seats are gold-plated. There’s nothing about such a society that would preclude the winning 1% from using the envy argument. In that sense it is an empty argument, one which cannot be disproved and one which doesn’t even have to be false, in the sense that of course the suffering poor would be envious of those who have their bellies full of food.

What Summers’ statement hides is that there are other arguments we can make about income and wealth inequality being bad for all of us, even ultimately for the very rich. How about the possible collapse of extreme unequal societies? How about the unpleasantness of living in a society where the haves must hire private guards to protect themselves against the have-nots? How about the damage inequality causes for the proper functioning of democracy?

There’s more:

Then there’s the problem that economic growth benefiting everyone would still have to benefit the poor and the middle-income people more than it benefits the rich if growth is to be the major policy to be used in reducing income and wealth inequality. But once we redefine the cake-division as applying not to the existing cake but to the growth in that cake, the envy argument can slip back in. Who are the critics to argue that the wealthier don’t deserve larger chunks of any cake growth?

Something is going on here. Ed Kilgore offers Rebels on the Left and Right are Sick of Compromise – densely argued and full of details and examples – but it’s clear that blunt and crude and rude Americans are being Americans once again. Why not drop all pretenses? You guys protect the rich, and the Jesus of the angry old white guys in the middle of nowhere. We’ll gather the young and the minorities and the women and gays, and the angry workers who can get nowhere, no matter what they do, and the folks who like science and such. We’ll have a little revolution and see how it comes out. Who needs the middle anyway? There’s nothing but trouble there. Obama knows that now.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Not Messing Around in the Middle

  1. Rick says:

    It was a worthwhile effort — seeing what both parties would say if they were really honest — but the problem is, of course, it only mostly worked on the Republicans.

    Republicans DON’T admit out loud that they’re suppressing votes, nor that they believe if you can’t afford a doctor, you should die, just to teach you the lesson that you should have just worked harder. But I gather you had a harder time with the Democrats, since many now DO admit they believe in redistribution — although I guess many are still shy about admitting they hate the rich, and want to punish them for being rich.

    But the fact that (at least I think) your effort pretty much failed is not so much a reflection on you as it is on the fact that reality itself has a liberal bias.

    Still, we Democrats still do have a problem, of sorts, figuring out how to deal with rich people:

    “Reducing inequality is good, but it’s 50 times better to do it by lifting those up who are low than by tearing those down who are high,” said Larry Summers, the former treasury secretary whose bid to become Fed chair got derailed by the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

    (As well he should have. It’s about time we liberals flexed a little muscle.)

    Now, I’m no professional economist, so Larry Summers could definitely run rings around me in a face-to-face, but this quote indicates to me that he may not understand what the rest of us mean by the term “inequality”. Specifically, his idea that you can correct this little problem of inequality by “lifting those up who are low” reminds me of the Diane Keaton city-slicker character in the 1987 movie, Baby Boom, who, when told by a workman that the well on her just-purchased Vermont countryside property has run dry, suggests that he just refill it with the garden hose.

    In other words, the problem with “inequality” is not that people at the bottom are poor, it’s that they are disproportionally poor in relation to the people at the top. A solution would not be to “lift” up the low, since whatever you did to do that would likely also just “lift” up the high, which leaves you back where you were in the first place.

    One might be tempted to use the “slice of the pie” analogy, in which, one might argue, if the whole pie is increased in size, even the smaller slices get larger — but this analogy turns out not to be all that analogous to our economy, since, because an economy determines not just how much you have but also how much you can buy with that, we have a situation in which poor people actually may get more, but are still not able to get more food with it.

    The problem of equality is one of balance and proportionality, and so any solution would have to involve getting the whole system back into balance. Although Henry Ford had some pretty bad ideas — his anti-semiticism was reportedly an early inspiration to the Nazis in Germany — but one of his good ones was paying his workers enough to buy his cars, which helped not only them, of course, but also his car business, not to mention the economy of the surrounding community.

    It’s a shame Republicans don’t seem to understand Ford’s concept. Those people are fonder of the idea that “A rising tide lifts all boats”, but after watching the performance of the economy in the last few decades, I prefer the version that says, “A rising tide lifts all yachts.”

    Rick

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