This was supposed to be the Leona Helmsley election. You remember her – fabulously wealthy, and born on the Fourth of July too – a masterful businesswoman and real estate entrepreneur. Yeah, she had the nickname the Queen of Mean, and that was long before there was anything like Bain Capital. But she followed the same get-rid-of-the-deadweight-and-make-a-lot-of-money principles. And no doubt she also thought of herself as a job creator – after all, housekeepers and bellhops still work at the Helmsley Hotel a few doors down the street from Grand Central. Those are jobs.
And like any successful businessman or venture capitalist she too hated paying taxes, as people like her – the successful in life – shouldn’t have to support the whiners who want the government to fix problems that they should take care of themselves. So she just didn’t pay taxes. Maybe it was a John Galt thing – but she was investigated and convicted of federal income tax evasion and sentenced to sixteen years in prison. A former housekeeper testified during the trial that Helmsley had said this – “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”
That was a bad move. Or it was at the time. But times change, and the current Republican effort to reduce taxes on the wealthy dramatically, even below the record low rates the wealthy have paid over the last ten years, and cut all social services for the poor and the elderly and unemployed, is pretty much an effort to show that Leona Helmsley was right. You might even see the bumper sticker one day – LEONA HELMSLEY WAS RIGHT VOTE REPUBLICAN!
But that might not work. Few remember her, so whatever bumper stickers you see will probably have to do with Obama wanting to take your stuff and give it to lazy good-for-nothing black people and Mexicans – although the message might be a little more subtle than that. But the idea is to protect and serve the rich, the job creators, the only ones who can save the American economy. That’s the patriotic thing to do. Surely you, the little people, can give up a few goodies for the good of the country.
Of course it’s probably best not to mention that any successful business hires new workers as a last resort, when increased demand for their goods or services forces them to do so. They’re only job creators by default. Any successful businessman will tell you that profit is a function of productivity – producing the greatest number of units of whatever with the fewest number of workers, working for the lowest possible wage, with the fewest possible benefits. You extend hours before you hire new workers. You make them exempt workers – give them a fancy title – so you don’t have to pay them overtime. And you make sure they have no right to unionize – slipping a few bucks to the right politicians, like Scott Walker, is a better investment than a new hire. And those politicians will keep your taxes low too. Heck, they might exempt you from local and state taxes if you set up shop in their town. But how else do fabulously wealthy successful businessmen become fabulously wealthy?
So Leona Helmsley was right all along, an imprisoned martyr to the cause. She only served nineteen months by the way – only the little people serve the full sentence. But the really sad thing is that Leona Helmsley didn’t live to see the Supreme Court tilt everything in her favor with the Citizens United ruling, allowing corporations, and the eccentric individuals who run them, to spend unlimited amounts of money to sway elections through contributions to SuperPACs. That’s the situation we have now, where maybe twenty-two billionaires, each a Leona Helmsley, will account for most all of the money spent in the upcoming presidential election, at least on the Republican side. Newt Gingrich was bankrolled by Sheldon Adelson to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. Rick Santorum had Foster Friess. Scott Walker has the Koch Brothers – but they shovel millions a week to anyone who promises to fight taxes and regulations and unions. And Leona Helmsley missed it all.
But things don’t always work out as planned:
A group of high-profile Republican strategists is working with a conservative billionaire on a proposal to mount one of the most provocative campaigns of the “super PAC” era and attack President Obama in ways that Republicans have so far shied away from.
Timed to upend the Democratic National Convention in September, the plan would “do exactly what John McCain would not let us do,” the strategists wrote.
The plan, which is awaiting approval, calls for running commercials linking Mr. Obama to incendiary comments by his former spiritual adviser, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose race-related sermons made him a highly charged figure in the 2008 campaign.
“The world is about to see Jeremiah Wright and understand his influence on Barack Obama for the first time in a big, attention-arresting way,” says the proposal, which was overseen by Fred Davis and commissioned by Joe Ricketts, the founder of the brokerage firm TD Ameritrade. Mr. Ricketts is increasingly putting his fortune to work in conservative politics.
That was the bombshell story of the day from the New York Times – this ten million dollar plan to defeat Obama by convincing everyone Obama is into Black Liberation Theology. And to deflect that this was race-baiting the plan was to hire a spokesman who is an “extremely literate conservative African-American” – and this hypothetical spokesman would argue that Obama misled the nation by presenting himself as what the proposal calls a “metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln.” And yes, it was a little nutty. But Fred Davis, who worked for John McCain, is still pissed that McCain wouldn’t let him run such ads in the 2008 campaign.
And there’s this detail:
A copy of a detailed advertising plan was obtained by The New York Times through a person not connected to the proposal who was alarmed by its tone. It is titled “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama: The Ricketts Plan to End His Spending for Good.”
Someone was worried. Eccentric billionaires can do dumb things:
The document makes clear that the effort is only in the planning stages and awaiting full approval from Mr. Ricketts. People involved in the planning said the publicity now certain to surround it could send the strategists back to the drawing board.
But it serves as a rare, detailed look at the birth of the sort of political sneak attack that has traditionally been hatched in the shadows and has become a staple of presidential politics.
It also shows how a single individual can create his own movement and spend unlimited sums to have major influence on a presidential election in a campaign finance environment in which groups operating independently of candidates are flourishing.
But you have to be smarter than this:
The strategists grappled with the quandary of running against Mr. Obama that other Republicans have cited this year: “How to inflame their questions on his character and competency, while allowing themselves to still somewhat ‘like’ the man becomes the challenge.”
Lamenting that voters “still aren’t ready to hate this president,” the document concludes that the campaign should “explain how forces out of Obama’s control, that shaped the man, have made him completely the wrong choice as president in these days and times.”
Good luck with that, as Adam Serwer notes:
On Thursday morning, the New York Times reported that a Republican super-PAC funded by wealthy conservative Joe Ricketts was considering a plan to turn Jeremiah Wright into Obama’s running mate in the 2012 election. By early afternoon, the Ending Spending Action Fund was already repudiating “The Ricketts Plan” to defeat Obama. That was fast.
And he cites the statement from the SuperPAC:
Joe Ricketts is a registered independent, a fiscal conservative, and an outspoken critic of the Obama Administration, but he is neither the author, nor the funder, of the so-called “Ricketts Plan” to defeat Mr. Obama that The New York Times wrote about this morning. Not only was this plan merely a proposal – one of several submitted to the Ending Spending Action Fund by third-party vendors – but it reflects an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects and it was never a plan to be accepted but only a suggestion for a direction to take. Mr. Ricketts intends to work hard to help elect a President this fall who shares his commitment to economic responsibility, but his efforts are and will continue to be focused entirely on questions of fiscal policy, not attacks that seek to divide us socially or culturally.
Leona Helmsley would not have made this mistake, and Serwer adds this:
In America today, really overt bigotry is toxic. It just is. If you want to exploit bigotry effectively, you have to do so with some kind of plausible deniability, and in 2012 just getting an “extremely literate conservative African-American” to narrate your racist ad just won’t cut it. It’s not clear, though, that Ricketts understood this before the Romney campaign started trying to distance itself from the “The Ricketts Plan” on Thursday. The third page of “The Ricketts Plan,” presumably referring to the airing of a hypothetical Wright ad during the 2008 election, states “If the nation had seen that ad, they’d never have elected Barack Obama.” If the quote is accurate, and Ricketts thought a Wright ad would have changed the outcome of the 2008 election, it’s hard to believe he never seriously considered running one this time around.
And earlier Serwer had offered this:
The 2012 election was always going to be ugly, with Republicans looking to maximize their share of a shrinking white electorate and the Democrats increasingly dependent on their coalition of young urban whites and minorities. But the idea that, if not for McCain’s honorable restraint, Americans would have voted against Obama is mostly a figment of the conservative imagination. A Pew study in 2008 found that a majority of Americans (including 50 percent of Republicans!) felt the media over-covered the Jeremiah Wright story. If that didn’t destroy Obama in 2008, when he was still something of an unknown quantity, it won’t work after four years of getting to know him. Everyone who could be convinced that Wright is the key to Obama’s soul has already been convinced.
The storyboards for the Wright ad, though, implicitly accept this. Instead of merely highlighting Wright, the ad actually adopts the Rush Limbaugh black revenge fantasy theory of the Obama presidency, namely that America’s ongoing economic stagnation is not the result of an incorrect or inadequate response to the recession, but that it was deliberately engineered by Obama as payback against white people. Under this theory, Obama has deliberately nurtured the economic malaise – one that threatens his chances at a second term, led to higher levels of unemployment among non-whites than whites, and resulted in the evaporation of minority wealth gains – just to get back at whitey. Like the idea of Obama being an amalgamation of President Jimmy Carter and the Black Panther Party’s Huey Newton, this deranged explanation collapses under the crushing weight of its own contradictions.
And there’s the language:
Although the Internet will be forever grateful for the introduction of the term “black metrosexual Abraham Lincoln,” the term really says everything about the twisted lens through which this group of Republican strategists understands race and masculinity. Put simply, the group is going to try to convince voters that Obama is the type of black man they cross the street to avoid. That didn’t work in 2008 and, it’s hard to see how anyone who wasn’t already working from the same distorted understanding of race is going to buy it now. For all of America’s lingering problems with race, racism just isn’t the silver bullet.
And yes, Mitt Romney ran the other way:
Mitt Romney swiftly and firmly distanced himself Thursday from a group exploring plans to target President Barack Obama’s relationship with a controversial former pastor. But the revival of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright as a campaign issue momentarily placed race at the center of the presidential contest and showcased the independent groups playing a new role this year with big-money TV ads. …
“I want to make it very clear: I repudiate that effort,” Romney told reporters after a campaign stop in Florida. “I think it’s the wrong course for a PAC or a campaign. I hope that our campaigns can be respectively about the future and about issues and about vision for America.”
Romney indicated he was eager to shift the discussion back to jobs and the economy – bedrock issues on which he contends Obama is vulnerable.
But one of his deep-pocket fans messed that up, and this one-day story had everyone involved:
For his part, Arizona Sen. McCain said Thursday he felt he had done the right thing on the Wright issue.
“I remain proud of our campaign and proud of what we were able to accomplish, and I would do it over again,” McCain said at the Capitol. He said the matter seemed dead after Romney repudiated the proposal.
He shrugged when asked whether independent groups should take up matters such as Wright’s remarks.
“It’s a way for political operatives to continue to make money,” McCain said.
Another top Republican, House Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio, declined to be drawn into the debate.
“This election is going to be about the economy,” he said when reporters asked him to react to the proposed ad campaign. “I don’t know what these other people do or why they do it.”
This was a mess, and there was this – Glenn Beck Offers $150,000 To Rev. Jeremiah Wright for Obama Dirt and the video clip of the day:
Even Romney chuckled a bit after delivering this line at a press conference this afternoon.
Romney was asked by reporters whether he still stood by his comments he made to Sean Hannity about Rev. Wright in February.
“I’m not familiar with what was said, but I stand by what I said, whatever it was,” he said, adding that he would take a look at the quote cited by the reporter.
Yeah, well, whatever, but this is what Romney said to Hannity:
I think again that the president takes his philosophical leanings in this regard, not from those who are ardent believers in various faiths but instead from those who would like America to be more secular. And I’m not sure which is worse, him listening to Reverend Wright or him saying that we must be a less Christian nation.
There was blood in the water. The sharks were circling, and folks were looking at the shadowy man with all the money:
J. Joseph Ricketts, 70, a politically conservative Nebraskan known as “Joe,” built the TD Ameritrade brokerage firm into a billion-dollar empire that backed the purchase of the Cubs as well as interests in film, media, resorts and bison meat products. As the man reportedly behind a planned $10 million anti-Obama ad blitz – a spokesman on Thursday blamed the proposal on consultants and said it was being shelved – Ricketts is a new force in GOP and conservative politics.
It doesn’t run in the family: Ricketts’ daughter, Laura, is a prominent lesbian activist who is a volunteer fundraiser for Obama.
And there’s this detail:
Ricketts spent nearly $1.2 million in 2010 to create Ending Spending Action Fund, which was reportedly considering the Wright attack ads. The committee has a sister nonprofit, also called Ending Spending, which Ricketts set up for issue advocacy. It was preceded by Taxpayers against Earmarks, an advocacy group for Ricketts’ campaign against the use of congressional provisions to benefit specific projects in legislators’ districts. Calls to Ricketts at Ending Spending were not immediately returned.
A champion of limited government and free enterprise who once supported Democratic Party candidates, Ricketts joins such well-heeled conservative activists as the Koch brothers, who head the conservative Americans for Prosperity organization, in pumping millions of dollars into campaigns to influence elections and public policy. His Tampa, Fla.-based super PAC spent $600,000 in the Nevada Senate race in 2010 in a failed attempt to unseat Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Yeah, he bankrolled Sharon Angle. He’s an odd fellow, even in his family:
Ricketts’ family in 2009 purchased 95 percent ownership of the Chicago Cubs for a reported $900 million. The main investor was Ricketts’ son, Tom, who is the team’s chairman, but Ricketts’ other three children, Laura, Pete and Todd, also have interests and are on the team’s board. Joe Ricketts also has an interest. Despite his limited government philosophy, the ball club is pressing for $200 million in state-backed bonds to renovate Wrigley Field, the Cubs stadium also owned by the family.
On Wednesday, Tom Ricketts directly confronted his father over the reports that he had commissioned the anti-Obama ad campaign. “As chairman of the Chicago Cubs, I repudiate any return to racially divisive issues in this year’s presidential campaign or in any setting – like my father has,” he said.
If the nation is going to be purchased and controlled by a handful of billionaires, can’t we have better ones? And this just had to happen:
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is not returning calls from the Ricketts family and is “livid” over a New York Times report that Joe Ricketts commissioned a proposal for a multimillion-dollar ad campaign linking President Obama to the president’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, according to an Emanuel aide.
Joe Ricketts’s children, which include Obama bundler Laura Ricketts, bought the Chicago Cubs in 2009 and have been in talks with the city about renovating the team’s 98-year-old stadium, Wrigley Field.
That appears to be on hold now.
Rahm Emanuel used to be Obama’s chief of staff. Two hundred million in state-backed bonds, you say? Wrigley Field won’t be getting any new taxpayer-funded infield grass anytime soon now.
This is the great unspoken drama of American politics right now – and has been for a while. In a world of economic distress, where a globalized economy gradually eclipses any single country’s ability to control its own economic destiny, and when multiracial immigration tears at the cultural identity of nation states, it is utterly predictable that more atavistic strains of nationalism will emerge. Across Europe, the hard and far right is gaining, as the center buckles. In America, the fervor behind shutting down Mexican immigration is occurring just as that immigration has slowed to a trickle or begun to reverse itself.
And the Tea Party, utterly indifferent to massive spending in good times by a Republican, had a conniption at a black Democrat’s modest measures to limit the worst downturn since the 1930s. Conniption isn’t really the right word: this was a cultural and political panic in the face of a president who was advocating what were only recently Republican policies: tax cuts, Romneycare on a national level, cap-and-trade, a W-style immigration reform, and a relentless war on Jihadism. They reached back to a time, when there were only three kinds of Americans – native, white and slaves. They even wore powdered wigs.
To ignore this cultural turmoil is to miss the forest for the trees in this election. No one represents the new and future America more clearly than Obama: a mixed-race, pro-immigrant, pro-gay pragmatist. And Romney’s great strength in this election is that he looks and speaks and acts like a generic American president from the 1950s.
And maybe that’s why that seventy-year-old fellow likes Romney:
His Mormon faith adds heft to his American brand (Mormonism is more purely American than any other branch of Christianity and until recently, was rooted in white, racial superiority.) His style is comforting, even as his policies (so far as we can glean them at all) are more radical than any Republican in decades. (He is, for example, far to Reagan’s right on entitlements, taxes and spending, as well as on immigration.) His slogan is: “Believe in America.” Not too subtle, is it?
Expect the subtext to become text in this election.
But the current plan has been shelved. Jeremiah Wright won’t do. No one really cares about him anymore. Perhaps it’s time to turn to the heroic tax martyr, Leona Helmsley. There is a narrative there, even if no one remembers her.