Something Smells

There are things you get used to, and after a while you don’t notice them at all. It takes someone from the outside to notice what’s peculiar. Some of us wasted our youth reading all those Horatio Hornblower books – our hero rises through the ranks of the Royal Navy as the Napoleonic Wars roll along. He learns about loyalty and courage and leadership, and when to be bold and when to be circumspect, and his men are loyal to him to the end – he may be conflicted at times, and sometimes too rash, but they’d follow him to hell and back, because he trusts them and respects them. They feel the same way.

Gene Rodenberry said he had Horatio Hornblower in mind when he came up with the character of Captain Kirk for Star Trek – and many of the Star Trek episodes closely track the C. S. Forester tales. Substitute the Starship Enterprise for one of the Ships of the Line under a sort-of Nelson. It’s the same sort of thing – even if Shatner was a goofball. He was no Horatio Hornblower. But at least Rodenberry had his plots written for him already. And Hemingway said he recommended Forester “to everyone literate I know” – and Winston Churchill said “I find Hornblower admirable.” It’s good stuff.

That’s cool. But it’s all in the detail, like in noticing that isn’t a harmless coastal trading sloop out there, even if it’s flagged British. It’s really a French Sloop of War – young Hornblower, downwind, catches the scent of garlic from their galley. Yep, they’re French, running under false colors. Quietly run out the guns as you tack and gain the wind advantage, and engage. And they’ll never know quite what happened. They don’t notice the slight constant perfume of garlic. That’s just how every day smells – nothing special, nothing distinctive, no big deal. It takes an outsider to notice. And then it’s too late. Hornblower wins the day.

Or was that the other captain? It doesn’t matter. Those sorts of details keep recurring, even in the Star Trek episodes. The outsider realizes something smells. It takes an outsider to say something stinks here.

And as the midterm elections approach and the airwaves are filled with political attack ads, some get the feeling that something stinks about this. This can’t be like other elections. Where is all this crap coming from? A thirty-second spot in primetime, run eighteen times an hour, on the affiliates of all three major broadcast networks, costs big money. Who is spending such funds, and why? And, this year, why is there no disclosure statement at the end of the ad, saying who paid for it?

But we’re told this is okay. It’s that Citizens United ruling – corporate funding of independent political advertising in candidate elections cannot be limited under the First Amendment – corporations are people too, and they have the right to say what they want, just like everyone else. And if they want to spend a billion dollars to say Candidate Smith is a jerk, well, that’s their right – it’s their money. On January 27, 2010, Obama addressed this during the 2010 State of the Union Address – “Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests – including foreign corporations – to spend without limit in our elections. Well, I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.” Chief Justice Roberts, in the audience, mouthed the words “not true” so every camera could catch his outrage at such an insult. That was curious.

But we all went about our business. It didn’t matter much. There was still a way to find out who was spending what. In June the Disclose Act passed in the House – mandating disclosure by corporations of their campaign expenditure, and prohibiting certain political spending by companies with twenty percent or more foreign ownership. It seemed sensible, and to make everyone happy it exempted the National Rifle Association and the AARP. But it died in the Senate – not one Republican would vote on a motion to end discussion and decide to go for it. You need sixty votes to end discussion on any matter, and the Democrats only had a clear and solid majority. So we are where we are on that matter.

And maybe we’re getting used to it. When every other television and radio ad is a political attack ad you tend to tune them out – like the crew of that French sloop and the garlic. And the Republicans will tell you this is normal in a democracy – people are free to advocate whatever they want. It’s no big deal.

But you can always trust the Brits. In the Guardian (UK) you’ll find Tea Party Climate Change Deniers Funded by BP and Other Major Polluters – about a new report just released by Climate Action Network Europe. That links donations by foreign oil companies with climate-change deniers like Jim Inhofe and Jim DeMint.

Are you surprised? Chief Justice Roberts says this cannot happen, but the Guardian seems to have the actual facts of the matter:

The Cane report said the companies, including BP, BASF, Bayer and Solvay, which are some of Europe’s biggest emitters, had collectively donated $240,200 to senators who blocked action on global warming – more even than the $217,000 the oil billionaires and Tea Party bankrollers, David and Charles Koch, have donated to Senate campaigns.

The biggest single donor was the German pharmaceutical company Bayer, which gave $108,100 to senators. BP made $25,000 in campaign donations, of which $18,000 went to senators who opposed action on climate change. Recipients of the European campaign donations included some of the biggest climate deniers in the Senate, such as Inhofe of Oklahoma, who has called global warming a hoax.

And they note that the foreign corporate interest in America’s midterms is not restricted to Europe – there’s the now famous report from ThinkProgress that tracked donations to the Chamber of Commerce from Indian and Middle Eastern oil coal and electricity companies. And it’s not just the elections. The Guardian reported earlier this year that a Belgian-based chemical company, Solvay, was behind an odd front group that is suing to strip the Obama administration of its powers to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Who knew? What garlic?

But something smells. In an accompanying column, Gary Younge says it’s worse than you think, as Obama was never going to have the room to effect radical change:

As the mid-term elections approach, Obama is struggling to renew the sense of optimism and ambition of two years ago and finds himself battling to keep both centrists and radicals on board. There are areas of the country where his presence on the stump would hinder rather than help; a handful of Democratic candidates are not just running against Republicans, but him. As Democrats prepare for a likely drubbing at the polls, the question many who backed him are asking is whether he raised their hopes too high or their expectations were unrealistic? The answer is neither.

It is not unrealistic to believe that a country as wealthy as the US should be able to provide healthcare for all, a dignified life for its elderly, an infant mortality rate better than Cuba’s, a life expectancy higher than Bosnia’s, a foreign policy that does not hinge on military aggression, and an economy where fewer than one in seven live in poverty. What is unrealistic is to believe that any of those things can be achieved, or even seriously tackled, with just a single vote.

In short, there’s something rotten in the system:

Their mistake was to believe that transformational change was something you could impart to a higher power – the president – and then witness on CNN. The problem was not that many set their hopes too high but that rather than claim those hopes as their own they invested them in a single person – Obama – and in an utterly corrupted political culture. For the narrow ideological and organizational confines within which American electoral politics operates do not leave much room for real change.

It takes an outsider to see it:

A winner-takes-all voting system where both main parties are sustained by corporate financing, the congressional districts are openly gerrymandered and 40% of the upper chamber can block anything, is never going to be a benign vehicle for radical reform. Virtually every enduring progressive development in US politics since the war has been sparked either by massive mobilizations outside of electoral politics that have forced politicians to respond, or through the courts.

And now the courts are no help. So Obama is where he is:

But when it came to matters of substance, far from raising expectations too high he actually set them quite low. He stood on a moderate platform in the middle of an economic crisis that demanded drastic action. And even with that tepid agenda he won only 53% of the vote against a weaker candidate, with an even weaker running mate, who conducted an incoherent campaign.

So, given the institutions in which Obama was embedded, it was no great feat to predict today’s disappointment. The challenge was to see some opportunity in the surge of activists, previously dormant, depressed or despondent, who found in him a reason to return to or enter political activity and the possibility that they might form an independent movement.

That seems unlikely. Few see that anything is wrong, and there will be no surge, which leaves nothing but nastiness:

Lacking that, we are poised to see a flowering of the cynicism that has already taken root, fertilized by the financial crisis. When Sarah Palin mocked Democrats with the question “How is that hopey-changey thing working out for ya?” she was essentially championing the political sclerosis stasis she claims to oppose. Those on the hard left who mistake “I told you so” for analysis or an alternative are doing the same thing.

So we’re stuck:

If Obama imitated radicalism to great effect, then the Tea Party has done an even better job of affecting anti-corporate populism. Its candidates, bankrolled by big business as never before, don’t talk about social issues such as abortion or gay marriage, but instead campaign on their opposition to the bank bailout, healthcare reform and their desire to create jobs through small businesses.

Republicans will head to the polls to elect people who will actually cut jobs and support bankers. Democrats may well stay at home because their candidate has not made things better, and in so doing make things worse. Neither disaffection nor rage are electoral strategies. But in the absence of an alternative, frustration has political consequences.

Yeah, things stink, if you can smell them.

And of course the Republicans know that, really. Four months ago, American Crossroads, created by Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie to devastate Democratic campaigns, reported on its fundraising. After raising about a million in start-up funds, they had collected only two hundred dollars – and everyone laughed. But now American Crossroads has raised tens of millions of dollars in secret donations, all of which is being used to fund their attack ads. Things changed. American Crossroads intended to play by the rules, at least at first, and be all transparent, but they changed their minds. Rove and Gillespie had registered American Crossroads as a 527 – which required regular donor disclosure. That was their commitment, in the words of one of their spokesmen, to “full accountability.”

But in Politico, Ken Vogel reports that didn’t last, when the American Crossroads team learned the right-wing rich dudes preferred a system of secret money:

But, less than one month after the panel, with American Crossroads entering its fourth month of existence struggling to raise money from donors leery of having their names disclosed, the Crossroads operatives spun off a sister group called Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies (or Crossroads GPS, for short), which they registered under a different section of the tax code – section 501(c)4 – that does not require donor disclosure.

With the Crossroads fundraising team, led by Rove, emphasizing to prospective donors the ability to give to Crossroads GPS anonymously, fundraising took off.

Of course it did, for obvious reasons:

The success Crossroads has had in attracting anonymous donors highlights a broader trend on the right in which political activity has increasingly shifted to non-profit corporations that can conceal donors’ identities. Republican finance insiders interviewed for this story say it is easier to get major GOP donors to contribute when there’s no risk of having their identities disclosed and being subjected to either additional appeals for money from other groups, or to criticism from President Barack Obama and other Democrats.

Steve Benen comments:

They’re apparently motivated by a combination of fear and paranoia. Donors don’t want to have to deal with the public scrutiny that comes with trying to purchase American democracy – go figure – and they’re apparently genuinely afraid of some kind of punishment from the Obama administration.

And so, for all the talk about the value of transparency, disclosure, and the norms of American democracy, Crossroads’ leaders were more than willing to sell their principles for the value of secrecy.

I’m not sure who are bigger cowards – the donors who buy elections from the shadows or Rove and his team who abandoned their commitments when fundraising totals were underwhelming.

And Vogel also reported this:

“Whether it’s legitimate or not, there is this near-hysteria, this belief that the Democrats are going to come after us,” if donors disclose their contributions to GOP-allied groups, said one person who was asked to donate the Crossroads groups. “Everybody is truly afraid that the Obama administration is going to target them.”

What? Kevin Drum comments:

Both sides have their loons, but can you imagine this happening on the liberal side? Even at the height of Bush hatred during the early years of the Iraq war, rich liberals never lived in fear that Bush was “going to target them.” It’s paranoid lunacy. I’m sure they thought that conservatives would fight back against them, but that’s about as florid as they got.

Drum is amused:

There’s hardly a demographic in the country that’s safer from any effective kind of retribution than rich, establishment conservatives. But after a steady diet of Fox News I guess even they start to believe that Obama really is going to come after them with his Chicago style of thug politics. In reality, all they’ve gotten from him is an occasional bit of Wall Street bashing and some election-season tub thumping about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But reality really doesn’t matter much anymore.

Yeah, but we have to live with reality. What else do we have?

And you really don’t wasn’t to read Think Progress’ thorough report on how Scalia and Thomas have been instrumental in loosening campaign finance regulations, and their close relationship with the Koch brothers, and their attendance, as headliners, at a recent Koch brothers planning event, to take back America.

Marcy Wheeler looks at the Think Progress report and comes up with some questions about all this:

Again, it’s not a surprise that the guy who duck-hunted with Dick Cheney while reviewing a suit involving the Vice President would hang around with the conservative elite. But the report raises a whole slew of questions. … Scalia and Thomas have been involved in more than just rulings that make it easier for the Kochs to win election.

After all, they once cast two of the only nine votes to matter in the 2000 Presidential election.

They’ve not only issued rulings that make it easier for conservatives to win elections, they’ve decided an election. And one of the most obvious explanations for why Thomas and Scalia have attended at least one of these secret shindigs but not Sam Alito or John Roberts would be if they attended before the latter two were SCOTUS Justices. You know, back before Thomas and Scalia selected a President.

So did Thomas and Scalia attend a meeting strategizing how to win elections before they decided one?

Things may stink, but do we need another conspiracy theory? Or maybe she’s onto something. Read the rest if you’re into that sort of thing. Something smells fishy, or it’s the garlic.

But there is emerging research on what drives election outcomes, and it may be what smells. Peter Liberman and David Pizarro have a piece in the New York Times on the link between disgust and conservatism:

Subtle cues about disgust and cleanliness can affect social and political judgments as well. In an experiment conducted recently by Erik Helzer, a Cornell Ph.D. student, and one of us (David Pizarro), merely standing near a hand-sanitizing dispenser led people to report more conservative political beliefs. Participants who were randomly positioned in front of a hand sanitizer gave more conservative responses to a survey about their moral, social and fiscal attitudes than those individuals assigned to complete the questionnaire at the other end of the hallway.

In another experiment one of us (Dr. Pizarro) was involved in, a foul ambient smell – emitted, unbeknownst to test subjects, by a novelty spray – caused people answering a questionnaire to report more negative attitudes toward gay men than did people who responded in the absence of the stench. Apparently, the slightest signal that germs might be present is enough to shift political attitudes toward the right.

Matthew Yglesias comments:

I think it remains to be seen how these kind of dynamics play into macro-scale political phenomena, but suffice it to say that people aren’t making up their minds about political issues based purely on judicious consideration of the evidence.

And Yglesias points to this:

Republican Van Tran, the upstart challenger to Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), is betting on voters sniffing out his opponent’s struggles – literally.

Tran is sending out a scratch-and-sniff direct mail piece attacking Sanchez that features a hideous odor emanating from it.

Much like magazine perfume advertisements, the mailer says, “Open for a fragrance sample of ‘Loretta, The Scent of Washington.'”

On the inside of mailer, the piece says, “Something smells rotten about Loretta. It’s the stench of Washington.” Below that is the scratch and sniff panel.

A GOP source who experienced the Eau de Sanchez put it this way: “It is a horrible odor, like the combination of the five or six worst possible scents you can imagine.”

Yeah, politics stinks. But that was supposed to be a metaphor. And you’re not supposed to smell the stench when you’re in the middle of it.


From a reader:

I’m sure that “they’re apparently genuinely afraid of some kind of punishment from the Obama administration” stuff is cover for the more obvious answer – that they want to help out their friends without the negative publicity fallout that comes from voters knowing who they think their friends are. Funny nobody mentions that possibility.

Actually, elsewhere, one or two of the donors do say they want to be unnamed because they don’t want to catch crap from their customers. They say it’s not fair. The Chamber of Commerce says it won’t disclose the names of donors funding its multimillion-dollar political advertising blitzkrieg because it fears its members will be harassed. Of course the businesses that belong to the chamber don’t want to lose customers for taking controversial positions, as Target recently experienced when it backed an anti-gay candidate in Minnesota.

One of the big donors – supplying half of all the Rove’s group funds – is the real estate guy from Texas who funded the Swift Boat fellows, and he also owns the Gold’s Gym chain. Now four of his franchise operators, up in the Bay area here, want out, and the gyms are being boycotted. People weren’t supposed to know what he was up to. They found out. Drat.

And a minor note – our Governor Arnold got his big start at the original Gold’s Gym down in Venice Beach. That’s amusing. The original Gold’s Gym building, on Pacific at Rose, has been empty for years. It’s up for auction.

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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