Ghost Politics

Living in the middle of Hollywood seemed a good idea at the time, but that was twenty years ago. Now it is what it is. Like the rest of Los Angeles, Hollywood is dry and hard, baking in the brutal sun. Straight up, the sky is always impossibly blue, but at eye-level the sky is the color of concrete, as is most everything else. Even the palm trees look sad, and tourists from Iowa wander around, looking for the glamour – but there isn’t any, or it’s hiding, over in Beverly Hills behind large gates and high walls, where massive amounts of water stolen from far-way places keeps everything green and shadowy. And nothing much happens. The movies and television shows are made on giant air-conditioned soundstages at the major studios, none of which are in Hollywood itself – save for an occasional location-shoot at the beach or up in Griffith Park or, sometimes, but very rarely, on Hollywood Boulevard. There’s nothing much to see, and now the whole town is worried about all the production that is being done elsewhere, in states that offer tax exemptions and cheap non-union labor and easy permitting. That changed everything. We have a fine-looking desert out back, on the other side of the mountains, but the desert scenes in the new Star Wars movies will be shot in Algeria again. No one makes movies here anymore, or soon no one will.

That was the hardest thing to get used to. This place isn’t about making movies and television shows, per se – this place is about making money. Movies may be an art form, or no more than another consumer product like cool sneakers or Apple’s latest iPhone, but either way, the major industry out here is marketing, not creating the thing itself. The thing that matters here is the “tag line” – the few key words that will pop up in print and on billboards and be intoned in every television and radio spot, getting people’s asses in the seats or having them download the thing, whatever it is, before they find out it’s just another movie. The “tag line” is, however, an art form in itself, and there are some classics, like “I see dead people.” Before that became the punch-line of a thousand jokes on Leno and Letterman, and then Saturday Night Live, and then Stewart and Colbert, that drove many millions of folks to the theaters to see a rather stupid Bruce Willis film – and some marketing genius probably got a big raise, even if few remember that dismal movie now.

It’s like that in politics too. Hollywood isn’t any different from the so-called real world. “I like Ike” got Eisenhower elected – nothing Adlai Stevenson ever said, or was said about him, could be reduced to three words. “In your heart you know he’s right” didn’t work for Goldwater, however, perhaps because people have brains too, but “Yes We Can” worked just fine for Barack Obama. What were McCain and Palin supposed to tell America? No, we can’t? No we shouldn’t? And when Obama’s message was further reduced to only two words, hope and change, what were McCain and Palin supposed to tell America? We offer you no hope at all, and endless years of more of the same too? It was a trap. They were killed by killer tag lines. Driving people to the voting booth isn’t all that different than driving them into theaters, even if they’re bored and disappointed when the final credits roll. Creating the “buzz” is everything.

The last time around the buzz was muted. Obama had no new tag line. He was here, doing his best, and the other guys were stone-cold crazy. That would do, and Romney and Ryan had no tag line at all. Whatever few words they wanted you to remember, words that would stick in your head forever, they’d rather not say, or it was too complicated to explain in a few words, at least to the economically illiterate American people who would never understand how the heroic world of big business and big money really works, for the good of everyone. You had to trust them on that. Romney did toy with that “no apologies” thing, but neither Obama nor anyone else had been going around apologizing for America, so no one knew what he was talking about, and thus the whole thing was rather boring. There were no killer tag lines.

In two years that may change. Obama will be an afterthought, but each party may have to seek permission from Buena Vista Pictures to use what they used in marketing that 1999 Bruce Willis film, that famous clip of young Haley Joel Osment intoning those chilling words, “I see dead people.” That’s because everyone is assuming the Democrats will run Hillary Clinton, to bring back the boom times of her husband, long ago, without the overlay of racial animus that Obama couldn’t help but cause, and there’s a good chance that the Republicans will run Jeb Bush, to get right what his father and brother never got quite right. Jeb’s father and brother are still alive and kicking of course, as is Hillary Clinton’s husband, but each of their presidencies is dead and gone. Either side could use that film’s famous tag line to mock the other side.

That’s how things are lining up. Slate’s John Dickerson has already made a convincing case that this time it will be Jeb Bush on the Republican side – the Republican establishment wants the guy, even if the base hates him. On the other hand, young Jeb has been saying absurdly nice things about immigrants – just like John McCain until McCain realized the base hated him. He’s also big on Common Core – the proposed national core curriculum for schools – which the base hates of course. Basic standards for what kids should know sounds a lot like the government saying God doesn’t matter, and such things should be determined at the local level. If folks want to spend their tax money teaching kids in their local school district that Jesus rode a dinosaur and all of science comes from the pit of hell, that’s their business, not Washington’s. The current line is this is just like those minimal standards for what should be included in any health plan – an attack on American values, and on religion itself, just like Obamacare, but the American Enterprise Institute and the National Chamber of Commerce need to be considered. They’re fine with an initiative that addresses the problem of developing an educated workforce who knows, generally, how things work in the real world. A workforce that belligerently believes in magic, and no more than magic, is kind of useless. How can you make money if those are the only people out there to hire? Jeb is on their side, and he’d leave Wall Street and CEOs everywhere alone, free to do what they will, and he’d lower taxes on the rich too, or, if they’re lucky, just eliminate taxes on them entirely, because they’re the good guys in America. At the very least he’d leave them alone.

It’s all good, unless you’re part of the evangelical born-again God-folks in the party – but the idea is that those folks can be mollified. Say a few things about abortion and contraception both being murder, and tell them gay folks need to just go away, or at least go back in their damned closets, right now, and that brown immigrants will be the ruin of America, and they’ll go along. They always do. The entire business community, top to bottom, desperately wants comprehensive immigration reform – cheap legal labor to exploit sure beats cheap illegal labor that can get you in all sorts of trouble – and sooner or later will get it. The angry xenophobic base will just have to suck it up. What are they going to do, vote for Hillary?

Jeb Bush is, however, their second choice. They’d have preferred Chris Christie, the severely pro-business guy everyone on Wall Street knows and loves, the outspoken defender of the Koch brothers, the local guy from just across the river – but Christie’s’ legal problems could sink him in the general election. Thugs should be subtle. Do the nasty stuff in a way that no one really notices. That too is a Wall Street rule.

This is a problem, as the New York Times reports:

Jeb Bush’s increasingly serious and public examination of a run for president has shaken the ranks of establishment Republican donors and fund-raisers who had planned to back Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey in 2016, forcing many of them to rethink their allegiance to the embattled governor.

In private conversations that are now seeping into public view, some of them are signaling to Mr. Christie’s camp that, should Mr. Bush enter the race, their first loyalty would be to him, not to Mr. Christie, according to interviews with more than two dozen of them.

Many of those who, because of geography and personal ties, were expected to line up behind Mr. Christie say they now feel torn. And it is clear that Mr. Christie’s recent troubles, especially the George Washington Bridge scandal, are adding to the allure of Mr. Bush, a former Florida governor.

Lawrence E. Bathgate II, a former finance chairman of the Republican National Committee and a major donor in New Jersey, said he dreaded the prospect of having to choose between the two men, calling it “a fraught decision.”

David V. Hedley, a former Wall Street executive and Republican fund-raiser in New Jersey, said he also felt tugged in two directions, conceding that “it’s tough right now for me.”

And Christine Todd Whitman, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, put it this way: “It would be awkward. It would be very awkward.”

Nowhere is the consternation greater than among the hundreds of top donors and so-called bundlers who cut their teeth on Bush family political campaigns. If Mr. Bush runs, they must choose between bucking their ties to the first family of Republican politics, or turning their back on Mr. Christie, who does not take well to disloyalty.

Yeah, that’s the problem with thugs, but there are greater loyalties:

At risk for Mr. Christie are not just the electoral affections of Bush loyalists, but also the backing of a still-potent national network of wealthy Republican donors and bundlers who propelled three Bushes to high office and who provided Mitt Romney with an overwhelming fund-raising advantage in 2012.

While many have retired from active politics, those who remain constitute a hyper-loyal and energetic band of brothers (and sisters). Many of them served as so-called Rangers and Pioneers within the vaunted hierarchy of Bush fund-raising, and went on to plum appointments and ambassadorships in George W. Bush’s two administrations.

Even a decade later, former Rangers and Pioneers heavily populate the ranks of the party’s elite bundlers, a group that the party’s 2016 aspirants began courting almost before President Obama was inaugurated for his second term. Several said they would continue to evaluate the field – unless, that is, Mr. Bush steps in.

The writing is on the wall, except the Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter decided to look at the obstacles Jeb Bush would have to deal with in his own party and the general electorate, because things have changed out there:

Talk to those who know Jeb Bush and they’ll tell you that family considerations are weighing most heavily on his decision to run. But, what’s most concerning to those who have worked with the former Governor is the fact that he’s been out of the game for so long. His “it’s an act of love” moment [his comment on the motivations of illegal immigrants] was less about “truth-telling” they say, and more about a lack of discipline and practice. That was the same reason they gave for his confusing and contradictory response to comprehensive immigration reform last spring. Moreover, the rules of the game have changed A LOT since he was last on the ballot in 2002. Jeb has never had to campaign with SuperPACs, the Tea Party, Twitter, YouTube, or camera phones. The press has only just begun to dig into his private sector work, which will bring its own set of controversies.

Ed Kilgore puts it this way:

Jeb sounds kind of like Fred Thompson did in 2008, when all he seems to have absorbed about the changing nature of politics was that this Intertube thing meant you didn’t have to campaign personally all that much anymore, which was fine with him. His inability to adjust to the pace and scrutiny and new rules of politics turned out to be fatal. If, God forbid, I were close to Jeb Bush, I’d put him through some sort of hellish campaign boot camp to see if he could handle it before he got anywhere close to an announcement.

Walter says that for Republican Establishment types, Jeb Bush is like a “comfy old sweater.” He better get well out of his and their comfort zone before launching another Restoration.

That last comment refers to the whole reign of Charles II (1660–1685) and the brief reign of his younger brother James II (1685-1688) – when the monarchy was “restored” in England. Charles I had been executed on January 30, 1649. England had done without a real king for quite a while. Oliver Cromwell had run the place in the interim, perhaps like Obama is running the country now, until the “sons” return. Ed Kilgore sees dead people too.

Meanwhile, on the other side, there’s Bubba, the Big Dog, who isn’t dead yet, or doesn’t want to be dead:

Former President Bill Clinton, who has grown increasingly frustrated that his economic policies are viewed as out-of-step with the current focus on income inequality, on Wednesday delivered his most muscular defense of his economic legacy.

The speech reflected a strategic effort by Mr. Clinton and his advisers to reclaim the populist ground now occupied by Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and other ascendant left-leaning Democrats, and, potentially, to lay out an economic message that could propel his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, to the White House in 2016.

“My commitment was to restore broad-based prosperity to the economy and to give Americans a chance,” Mr. Clinton told students at Georgetown University, his alma mater, as Mrs. Clinton looked on from the front row. For nearly two hours, the former president defended the impact of policies like welfare overhaul and the earned-income tax credit, and displayed a series of charts detailing the number of people his policies lifted out of poverty.

“You know the rest,” he said of the 1990s. “It worked out pretty well.”

That was the point:

As president, Mr. Clinton presided over one of the healthiest economies in recent memory, but he also forged a new model of a pro-business, pragmatic Democrat who championed public-private partnerships and open markets. His language as president was more focused on lifting the middle class than castigating the wealthy. That should not be confused with a lack of concern for the poor, Mr. Clinton says now.

He and his wife have been worried:

That nuance has grown harder to communicate in recent weeks, especially as Ms. Warren has promoted her best-selling book, “A Fighting Chance,” which argues that the deck is stacked in favor of big banks and against ordinary people. A cadre of economic advisers has been helping Mr. Clinton crunch data and to think about how to better frame his economic legacy – one that included a balanced budget and the creation of 22.7 million jobs – in the context of the current climate of economic populism.

That’s fine, but Thomas Frank is troubled, and an interviewer asked him this question:

So Bill Clinton, according to Thursday’s New York Times, says “he’s been fighting income inequality since his earliest years in Arkansas politics.” How does that square with your memory of the president who enacted the draconian ’90s welfare reform with Newt Gingrich, who overrode labor opposition to trade treaties, who helped deregulate Wall Street and the financial industry? And who, as Bob Woodward so famously reported, knew at the time: “I hope you’re all aware we’re all Eisenhower Republicans. We stand for lower deficits and free trade and the bond market. Isn’t that great?”

Frank remembers it this way:

Alan Greenspan, who Clinton twice reappointed to chair the Federal Reserve Board, used to joke back in 2007 that “Bill Clinton was the best Republican president we’ve had in a while.” That’s coming from a man who worked for some real Republicans – and who was also one of the greatest culprits in the housing bubble and the financial crisis, because he just didn’t feel like using his power to regulate the way mortgages were done.

But that complete and utter assuredness that we shouldn’t really regulate financial institutions was the prevailing sentiment of the Clinton years. That’s what it was all about. The NASDAQ was soaring and the world supposedly looked to us to see how an economy should be run. And Clinton’s team used to be proud of what they had done, the whole transition from manufacturing to “a post-industrial economy.” What a triumph. Larry Summers, one of his Treasury secretaries, gloated in 1999 about this, and then went on to talk about how awesome it was to have “a venture capital sector in which entrepreneurs may raise their first $100 million before buying their first suits.” It was a “new macro-economic paradigm.” Gee whiz.

The funny thing is, Clinton is right that he came on the scene “fighting income inequality.” That really is how he got elected in 1992 – he campaigned as the guy who would do something about the ruination of the middle class and the soulless high-end swaggering of the Reagan era. But you’d think he wouldn’t want us to remember that now, since all those problems grew so much worse.

The record is mixed at best:

Give the man his due. There was a tax increase on the rich in the first Clinton administration. Wages grew in the second Clinton administration, and that was a very good thing. It happened because unemployment was so low, however, not because unions had made a comeback or anything. Clinton also expanded the earned income tax credit, which is probably what he thinks of when he wants to recall what a friend he was to working people.

But the overall feeling of the era was one of complete, unreserved adoration for Wall Street and money and the heroic boss. This was the age of CNBC’s “CEO Wealth Meter,” the years when the NASDAQ soared to 5,000, when you had all those investment books coming out – the Beardstown Ladies, “Dow 36,000” – when you could follow the adventures of those awesome “day traders,” when you had “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire,” surely one of the most pungent moments in the long and reeking history of trash culture. Of course Clinton deregulated the banks – they were making us all rich!

This kind of celebrationism was objectionable when Reagan was president, but under Clinton – this jolly man of the people – it looked different somehow. Those CEOs were just regular folks, working to make all of us richer, via our lovable pal the stock market! That’s what Clinton’s cultural function was – to make all this seem human. I called it “market populism.”

It didn’t work out:

Of course it turned out to be a bubble, and it ended in disaster. As did the housing boom, which got its start in the late ’90s, and as will the next bubble to come down the pike. Neoliberalism may be heaven on earth for the people on top, but for the rest of us it means insecurity and lifelong debt and a constant struggle to hang on to what our parents took for granted. Nice going, Bill.

Do we want to go back there? Do we want to try a third Bush instead?

When young Haley Joel Osment intoned those chilling words, “I see dead people,” we were all supposed to be scared shitless – and that was a great tag line for a moody horror picture. It’s probably not the tag line you want everyone applying to your campaign for the presidency, however, unless you’re promising four or eight years of dark spookiness.

No one is promising that, so each side had better call Hollywood, quick. We do great tag lines out here, and nothing much else actually. We’ll come up with something better for you. It’s what we do, for a fee.

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.
This entry was posted in 2016 Presidential Election and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Ghost Politics

  1. SalvaVenia says:

    A workforce that belligerently believes in magic, and no more than magic, is kind of useless. – Straight to the point and crux of the matter. No big change since the Pilgrim Fathers …

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s