Maybe you had to be there. People say that when they realize you have no idea what they’re talking about. And you can imagine some Tea Party enthusiast – perhaps a reasonably well-off very angry white guy in his late sixties, retired and on Social Security, with his healthcare largely paid for by Medicare, trying to explain to his twenty-something grandson why he was down at the park screaming about Obama being a socialist and maybe a communist who wants to take his grandfather’s hard-earned cash and hand it over to lazy irresponsible deadbeats, because this young Obama fellow cares more about black folks than white folks. Yes, there’s that CBS/New York Times poll on the demographics of the Tea Party crowd – they’re white, and they think President Obama is doing too much for black people, and they’re wealthier than the average voter, which black people are not. And there’s the University of Washington poll that finds the Tea Party crowd also doubts the hard work, intelligence and trustworthiness of black people – in general.
Perhaps the twenty-something grandson, who finds most of these discussions of race mildly puzzling when they aren’t just tedious and rather boring, senses something else is going on here. In his crowd race isn’t much of an issue, or an issue at all. If it ever comes up, it comes up because racial differences are kind of fun, and the subject of a lot of dumb jokes, where everyone laughs. There are a lot of jokes about hair and food and whatnot. And the amazing life and death civil rights struggles of the late fifties and sixties, which they all know well, from school, are ancient history – something that happened before he and all his friends were born, and might as well have happened in another country, far away, in another age long ago. And maybe they did.
But the old man is who he is. And this screaming about socialism is puzzling too. Back in 2009 there that Rasmussen poll that upset the old man – it seems that only fifty-three percent of Americans “believe capitalism is better than socialism.” That set him off, particularly because with those under thirty there seemed to be a three-way tie. Thirty-seven percent prefer capitalism, thirty-three percent socialism and thirty percent are undecided. What’s the matter with kids these days? Young folks just aren’t watching Glenn Beck, damn it. But the twenty-something grandson doesn’t even watch television, much less Glenn Beck. No one watches television. Why would they? There’s Facebook and you Tweet and so on, and Indy and wall-of-noise music matters more – television is for twelve-year-old girls watching the latest Hannah Montana, now that the original one got all old and everything. So nope, he’s not watching Glenn Beck write on that blackboard and weep for America, and neither are his friends, so he missed what’s so awful about socialism. Having everyone chip in to make sure no one goes without healthcare coverage seems like a reasonable idea, like everyone chipping in for roads and bridges and public parks, like the one where the old man spent the afternoon shouting.
But the old man says we could turn into France, or Sweden, or even Denmark. Yeah, so what would be the problem with that? They seem like nice enough places. But the kid listens politely. Your grandparents deserve your respect, even if you have no idea what they’re talking about. And that will be you someday.
And maybe the old man will finally a more detailed and nuanced discussion why he was down at the park shouting, citing this event or that as if it were yesterday and talking about the godless Soviets who were out to alienate us, and how in the fifties we finally put the words One Nation Under God in the Pledge of Allegiance to show them a thing or two, and how people used to be polite and know their place, and how taxes were low and everyone got to keep their stuff, and everyone spoke English and certainly there were no Muslims anywhere, and movies and music weren’t all about sex, and no one wanted to change everything just to change everything. But the old man sees the eyes of his twenty-something grandson glaze over. That’s when he says maybe you had to be there.
And maybe you did. Actually it’s the Culture wars of the sixties. It’s just that they never ended.
Okay – imagine graduating from high school in 1965 and college in 1969 – the bookends are, in 1965, President Johnson outlines his “Great Society” and King is arrested in Selma, and we start bombing North Vietnam and Malcolm X is assassinated, and on the other end, 1969, the number of our troops in Vietnam reaches 448,400 and President Nixon say we will now “Vietnamize” the war because it’s their war, really, and there was Woodstock, and in September Ho Chi Min dies, and a month later Jack Kerouac dies, and the year ends with the first draft lottery since World War II. Maybe you had to be there – Sonny and Cher singing I Got You Babe, to Sly and The Family Stone singing Everyday People. It was an odd time. And people were mad about everything.
Actually people were mad about people who just wouldn’t grow up. It was the Youth Culture. No one, except the Young Republicans at Dartmouth, wanted to grow up – no one wanted to work for the man, and settle down to that house in the suburbs with the 2.5 kids and the Dodge in the driveway. The iconic movie was The Graduate. The graduate comes home… I want to say one word to you, just one word. – Yes, sir. – Are you listening? – Yes, I am. – Plastics. – Just how do you mean that, sir?
The kid just didn’t get it, and two years later it was Easy Rider. On the road there a bit of conversation… They’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you represent to ’em. – Hey, man, all we represent to them, man, is somebody who needs a haircut. – Oh, no. What you represent to them is freedom. – What the hell is wrong with freedom? That’s what it’s all about.
No one wanted to grow up. Never trust anyone over thirty. Be a rebel. Smile ironically as the Beatles sing When I’m Sixty-Four – it’s so very odd to imagine that. And here’s the guy who directed Easy Rider today. Even if you cannot imagine growing old it happens. But you don’t have to like it.
Of course the cultural wars of the sixties pitted those who said be a responsible adult – cut your hair, take a bath, get a job and find your proper place in the world of the ordinary day-to-day work that needs to be done, and settle down and be dependable and conscientious, and don’t keep asking those big stupid questions that have no real answers – against those who said no thank you.
Maybe you had to be there, but that’s what that was about. And you can always tell that same war is being fought again when you hear someone say it’s time to put responsible adults in charge of things. You heard it when Bush ran to be president after the loose and happy Bill Clinton, the fellow who messed around with Monica and played saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show. What was that about? Bush was to be the adult – who would bring dignity back to the White House – surrounded by real adults, like Cheney and Rumsfeld. Bush wasn’t running against Gore. He was running against the youth culture of the sixties, against a generation that refused to grow up – baby boomers like Clinton, guys who had never been Young Republicans. It was time to put the adults in charge.
Of course it was nonsense. The Bush years, with the two massive wars of choice that didn’t work out well, losing New Orleans, and the destruction of the economy, has almost every historian alive concluding Bush had been the worst president in American history so far. But a decade ago the put-the-adults-in-charge argument was good marketing. You just use the dog-whistle from the cultural wars of the sixties – forget the peace-love-dope long-haired perpetual kids who won’t ever grow up, and bring on the adults, to get things done right, or done at all. No one is really over the sixties, so that always works.
But maybe you had to be there, because it may not work again. On Saturday, April 17, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, the tightly-wound twitchy young Republican congressman from Virginia, delivered the Republicans’ weekly address – and did his sixties culture-wars thing.
Well, he did. Cantor warned that the Democrats intend to “remake America in the image of Europe.” He didn’t mention Italian shoes or weekends skiing in the Alps, or sitting in a Paris café with friends chatting over cognac on a rainy afternoon. We were to imagine the nightmare that Europe is on our own, if we could – you know, universal healthcare and hyper-fast trains that run on time and a mellow people who get lots of paid vacation and still get good things done and thoroughly enjoy their not particularly materialist lives, at the price of paying somewhat higher taxes than we pay. It was easy to imagine the eyes of the old man’s twenty-something grandson glazing over right there.
But then Cantor said that if voters backed the Republicans in November, his party would offer “responsible, adult leadership.”
So is it that again? Is it Easy Rider again – the irresponsible quasi-hippy bikers versus the responsible adults? And of course there’s the matter of what happens when this flavor of adults is put in charge, which Steve Benen covers here:
Now, of all the things Republicans have to offer the electorate, perhaps no three words in the English language are less appropriate than “responsible, adult leadership.” As should be abundantly clear by now, today’s GOP officials approach their responsibilities and substantive discourse with all the maturity of a child. A young child. A young, slow child. A medicated, young, slow child who’s easily distracted and hasn’t learned social norms about honesty.
And Benen points out that in this report – on the same day – McClatchy noted that “Leaders of both parties had vowed for months that consideration of financial regulatory changes wouldn’t mirror the angry, partisan debates over health care and stimulating the economy. Everyone agreed that voters want tough new restrictions on Wall Street, and the legislation that the Senate is to take up later this month is full of bipartisan ideas.”
And what happened? Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell decided this week to throw “a rhetorical stick of dynamite into what had been a collegial debate.”
Benen notes he did so by lying about the substance of the proposal – he made the argument that the Wall Street reform legislation would “institutionalize” bailouts, which Paul Krugman suggested was “shameless” at best:
Mr. McConnell is pretending to stand up for taxpayers against Wall Street while in fact doing just the opposite. In recent weeks, he and other Republican leaders have held meetings with Wall Street executives and lobbyists, in which the GOP and the financial industry have sought to coordinate their political strategy.
And let me assure you, Wall Street isn’t lobbying to prevent future bank bailouts. If anything, it’s trying to ensure that there will be more bailouts. By depriving regulators of the tools they need to seize failing financial firms, financial lobbyists increase the chances that when the next crisis strikes, taxpayers will end up paying a ransom to stockholders and executives as the price of avoiding collapse.
Even more important, however, the financial industry wants to avoid serious regulation; it wants to be left free to engage in the same behavior that created this crisis. It’s worth remembering that between the 1930s and the 1980s, there weren’t any really big financial bailouts, because strong regulation kept most banks out of trouble. It was only with Reagan-era deregulation that big bank disasters re-emerged. In fact, relative to the size of the economy, the taxpayer costs of the savings and loan disaster, which unfolded in the Reagan years, were much higher than anything likely to happen under President Obama.
That’s when the putative adults were in charge, by the way.
And Benen is amazed:
That McConnell is obviously, shamelessly doing Wall Street’s bidding doesn’t seem to faze him. Indeed, the larger dynamic is surprisingly transparent. While McConnell is saying the Democratic proposal would somehow “institutionalize” bailouts.
Matthew Yglesias puts it this way – “The point of the new regulatory powers it to (a) prevent the need for bailouts and (b) provide an alternative process to bailouts. The banks aren’t paying McConnell to put a stop to bailouts; they’re paying him to prevent the regulations that might stop bailouts.”
Adults aren’t supposed to lie, are they? McConnell rushes off to New York last for a private, behind-closed-doors meeting with hedge fund managers and other Wall Street elites, and after this meeting – where McConnell reportedly sought campaign contributions – he returns to DC determined to kill the legislation that would bring some accountability to the industry.
But Cantor says bring on the adults like McConnell, and Obama in his weekly White House address the same day says there are adults, and then there are adults:
Now, unsurprisingly, these reforms have not exactly been welcomed by the people who profit from the status quo – as well their allies in Washington. This is probably why the special interests have spent a lot of time and money lobbying to kill or weaken the bill. Just the other day, in fact, the Leader of the Senate Republicans and the Chair of the Republican Senate campaign committee met with two dozen top Wall Street executives to talk about how to block progress on this issue.
Lo and behold, when he returned to Washington, the Senate Republican Leader came out against the common-sense reforms we’ve proposed. In doing so, he made the cynical and deceptive assertion that reform would somehow enable future bailouts – when he knows that it would do just the opposite. Every day we don’t act the same system that led to bailouts remains in place – with the exact same loopholes and the exact same liabilities. And if we don’t change what led to the crisis, we’ll doom ourselves to repeat it. That’s the truth. Opposing reform will leave taxpayers on the hook if a crisis like this ever happens again.
It seems that saying you’re an adult doesn’t make it so. And in Slate, Jacob Weisberg notes in this piece that there once were responsible adult leaders in the Republican Party, and not so long ago, but they have gone missing:
Do you remember the Responsible Republicans? In the 1980s, small herds of them still roamed freely around Washington. In 1982, they stampeded over Ronald Reagan’s veto of the largest tax increase in history to mitigate the fiscal harm of his 1981 tax cut. In 1983, they converged on Capitol Hill to pass a package of tax increases and benefit cuts recommended by the Greenspan Commission to keep Social Security solvent. In 1986, they followed Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson to pass bipartisan immigration reform legislation by a large majority. In 1990, several were spotted with President George H. W. Bush (the Responsible one) at Andrews Air Force Base, conspiring to reduce the deficit.
After the Andrews summit, however, glimpses of them outside captivity became increasingly rare. With their habitats in the Northeast, Midwest, and Pacific Northwest under threat and their natural predators on the rise, the status of the species moved from “threatened” to “endangered.” Though occasionally spotted on the rocky shoals of Maine’s Penobscot Bay and in beach houses up and down the California coast, they now rarely emerge from the wilderness. During the health care battle, President Obama was unable to find a single Responsible Republican to serve as a mascot. There continue to be rumors of the Double R’s return around issues such as immigration, financial reform, and climate change. Yet we have now gone several years without a confirmed sighting.
Steve Benen comments:
The point of Weisberg’s piece was to identify the moment that sent the GOP grown-ups into permanent exile. The Slate editor points to Bill Kristol’s 1993 health care strategy memo – kill reform at all costs, regardless of merit, Kristol advised, and refuse to cooperate in good faith – as the “crucial” turning point for contemporary Republicans, which helped shape the party’s approach to governing ever since. That sounds about right to me.
But regardless of the origins, the consequences are the same.
In 2010, Republicans choose not to know anything about public policy, can’t engage in an honest debate, reflexively oppose anything Democrats support (including GOP ideas), and reject responsibility for the spectacular failures they created while in the majority.
So with Cantor promising “responsible, adult leadership” Benen wonders where he’ll find such a thing:
When was the last time a Republican leader said something intelligent and accurate about any area of public policy? When was the last time the GOP acted in a responsible fashion during a substantive debate? When was the last time the nation saw so much as a glimmer of maturity from any member of the party leadership?
Weisberg concluded, “The rise of hyper-partisanship is not one of those problems for which the left and right are equally to blame. Democrats, who like legislating better than Republican do, and who have seldom had the GOP’s ability to march in lockstep, still instinctively prefer to work on a bipartisan basis. They continue to hope, against the odds, that [Responsible Republicans] will escape extinction and one day provide partners for them again.”
It seems clear to me that won’t happen unless Republicans suffer some additional, severe electoral humiliations.
But perhaps they will avoid additional, severe electoral humiliations if they keeps saying they are the adults, not the other guys – playing the sixties card for all it’s worth. But someone else’s eyes are glazing over, and then another person, and then another. Maybe you did have to be there to get it – and now most people weren’t. If you’re still ticked off at George Harrison’s long hair you do have a problem.
McConnell was asked on CNN what, specifically, was said at the gathering about the Wall Street reform bill – CNN has good reporters who smell a rat. But McConnell was evasive and instead of answering the questions about the meeting, he talked about scrapping the legislation altogether – “We ought to go back to the drawing board and fix it.”
Benen is not impressed:
It’s like déjà vu all over again – Democrats tackle a pressing national issue, negotiate with Republicans in good faith, craft a reasonable, middle-of-the-road legislative package that deserves bipartisan support, lobbyists tell Republicans to kill it, and McConnell voices his support for killing the legislation and going “back to the drawing board.”
Is it me or does this sound familiar?
The same thing happened with healthcare reform – add a hundred or more of their ideas and have them say you didn’t listen to us, so let’s scrap it all and start again. Benen puts it this way:
“Republicans can’t support the reasonable legislation Democrats want because it has a provision we’re pretending not to like.”
“Fine, we’ll get rid of the provision.”
“Republicans still can’t support the legislation, and we don’t want to tell you why.”
And then they say they’re the adults. And on the Goldman Sachs matter House Minority Leader John Boehner is getting surreal saying, in effect:
The Obama administration and Goldman Sachs are close allies, and the administration-backed reform bill is intended to help firms like Goldman Sachs. And we now know for sure that administration officials are carrying water for Goldman Sachs because … they just charged Goldman Sachs with fraud.
Well, that is his argument. But if you’re going to insist upon refighting the culture wars of the sixties – the dull but reliable adults versus the flower children who refuse to grow up – you really do need to work on that dependable and conscientious adult thing. Just saying you’re an adult doesn’t make it so.
But maybe, all these years later, the Young Republicans from Dartmouth versus those who headed off to San Francisco with flowers in their hair is not the best way to frame things. Yes, maybe you had to be there. But these days those who were are few, and even if you listen politely, and grant that they deserve your respect, you do have no idea what they’re talking about. That war was over long ago. It just wasn’t that important.