Almost Beyond Pandering

San Diego isn’t Hollywood. The drive down there takes you through San Clemente, where Nixon had his Western White House, as they called it, then past Camp Pendleton, the largest Marine base in the West, then past La Jolla, where Mitt Romney just built his fancy new giant house with its elevator for the family cars, and then you end up at the San Diego Bay – the home of our Pacific Fleet. The bay there is full of giant warships – aircraft carriers and such – and there are mysterious submarines here and there. No one knows where they stash all the nuclear weapons, but they’re there, somewhere.

This is no place for bleeding-heart Hollywood liberals – although Billy Wilder filmed Some Like It Hot at the old Hotel del Coronado on the far side of an island in the bay. Frank Baum wrote most of the Wizard of Oz there too – that crazy old ornate hotel was his model for the Emerald City – but that was long ago. San Diego is a military town now, in the heart of what is deeply conservative Republican territory. Everything south of Orange County is John Birch Society territory, even if the surfing is pretty good, and the folks down there keep sending those severely conservative people like Darrell Issa to Washington. Richard Nixon was born in nearby Yorba Linda – just up the road in Orange County. Those of us from Hollywood feel a little uncomfortable when we head too far south.

Given that, this was the place the Republican National Committee simply had to hold their annual winter meeting – at the ornate old wooden hotel that looks like the Emerald City, where they decided things. There would be far fewer primary debates this next time, with new rules – to limit the number of underfunded nut-cases who would never win and would make the party look absurd – and neither MSNBC nor Univision, or any other Hispanic network, would host any of those debates. They know their base. Other than that, it was auditions. Those who want to be president next time around gave what might be their eventual stump speeches, so the RNC could see if they were right for the part – convincing and photogenic and compelling. Up here in Hollywood we call that a screen test, and of course some failed. Ben Carson said our founding fathers were just like ISIS – willing to die for what they believed. Oops. No one remembered what Rick Perry said, as usual, and they didn’t even invite Chris Christie to speak – they know better – that guy is nothing but trouble.

They really wanted to hear from Mitt Romney anyway. He lost last time around, but he’s their kind of guy – rich and a master at the workings of the economy, or he must be, because he’s rich. The economy is always an issue. The peasants, who haven’t had a raise in a decade, what with the wage stagnation that has kept labor costs low and profit margins sky high for big business for a decade, are restless. The issue is, as always, income inequality, and maybe Romney, the man who knows everything about big business, had a way to tamp down that restlessness that could cost the Republicans the White House in 2016 – because no one cares about the evil of gay marriage anymore, and they’ve finally figured out that attacking the rights of women is a bit dangerous, and they have no better answer to Putin and ISIS and all the rest than what Obama is doing. They’d rather not be asked what they would do if they were in power – but the economy is their thing. It always has been. They know the real world, as they say. Obama never ran a major corporation, nor did Hillary Clinton. That is the Republican advantage.

Mitt would figure out how to deal with the angry peasants, and make them love flat wages forever, but this didn’t go well – because Republicans should never give major speeches from the deck of an aircraft carrier anywhere near San Diego. George Bush did that in 2003 from the deck of the Abraham Lincoln sailing just off the coast of San Diego – and no, the mission wasn’t accomplished. Romney chose the Midway, at anchor in the bay there, and that didn’t go well either:

Mitt Romney, sudden champion of Americans trying to make ends meet – it’s coming off to progressives and veterans of President Barack Obama’s winning reelection campaign as a little too rich.

The 2012 Republican nominee’s sudden return to presidential politics already had them dusting off old attack lines. His reinvention Friday night as an anti-poverty warrior has them in a frenzy of excitement, even glee, at what they see as the Democratic Party’s stroke of good luck.

“In a word,” said one of Obama’s 2012 campaign alums, describing the reactions bouncing around on private emails and text messages, “disbelief.”

Another word might be mockery.

“Romney is 47 percent concerned about inequality,” the president’s 2012 campaign press secretary, Ben LaBolt, said in an email. “The other 53 percent of him would rather polish his car elevators.”

And on the deck of the Midway:

“Under President Obama, the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse and there are more people in poverty than ever before,” Romney said. “Their liberal policies are good every four years for a campaign, but they don’t get the job done.”

“The only policies that will reach into the hearts of the American people and pull people out of poverty and break the cycle of poverty are Republican principles, conservative principles,” Romney said to no applause from the Republican crowd.

They were stunned, and Romney didn’t enumerate and explain those principles – some things are just true for these folks – but this was going too far. Everyone gets what they deserve in a free-market economy, and there was this:

“It’s a tragedy – a human tragedy – that the middle class in this country by and large doesn’t believe the future won’t be better than the past or their kids will have a brighter future of their own,” Romney said. He added, “People want to see rising wages and they deserve them.”

Mitt Romney said that forbidden word, deserve, and said that he really cares about poor people. Who knew? But everyone got him wrong last time, and he can win with the New Mitt, which is really the Old Mitt, who had been hidden. Just ask his wife, Ann:

“She knows my heart in a way that few people do,” he said. “She’s seen me not just as a business guy and a political guy, but for over ten years as you know I served as a pastor for a congregation and for groups of congregations… She’s seen me work with folks that are looking for better work and jobs and providing care for the sick and the elderly. She knows where my heart is.”

More silence on the deck of the Midway – something odd was going on here – but as the blogger Maha explains, Romney was only trying to get his party to get with it:

It appears income inequality is going to be a big issue in 2016. Hillary Clinton also has been making noise about it and trying to tie herself to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a long-time friend and alleged progressive. Opposing income inequality is the new black.

The reference isn’t that obscure. It comes from the world of fashion, where that “little black dress” is always just right, and then one season pink is the new black, or orange is the new black – the current use. Those in the know need to know what’s hot this year. This year it’s opposing income inequality. Opposing gay marriage was last year’s black. And the devil wears Prada, and so on. One must know these things. You might wear the wrong outfit. Consider the shame.

That may be all that Romney was saying. He offered no proposals, and perhaps this wasn’t the time or place for that. The Republicans have the rest of the year to come up with some sort of set of policies that will show that they really “care” about the peasants out there, those Takers not Makers, who “deserve” something or other, if it isn’t too expensive, if it doesn’t hit portfolios and profit margins. It might be possible to throw them a bone. That always quiets a growling dog. Or maybe they can just say the right thing without doing much of anything at all. That always works. Establishment Republicans have done that with the Christian Right for decades now. Just say the right sort of thing. Tell them you love Jesus. Those folks will calm down. Pandering works just fine.

That may be true, but it fixes nothing, and now that President Obama has nothing to lose – he cannot run again and the midterms are over and he can’t say just the right things, stupid things he doesn’t believe at all, to keep his party in control of at least the Senate, because it’s too late now – he can drop all the pandering. He’s free to propose whatever the hell we wants, because he believes it’s actually the right thing, and he just did that:

President Obama will use his State of the Union address to call on Congress to raise taxes and fees on the wealthiest taxpayers and the largest financial firms to finance an array of tax cuts for the middle class, pressing to reshape the tax code to help working families, administration officials said on Saturday.

The proposal faces long odds in the Republican-controlled Congress, led by lawmakers who have long opposed raising taxes and who argue that doing so would hamper economic growth at a time the country cannot afford it. And it was quickly dismissed by leading Republicans as a nonstarter.

But the decision to present the plan during Tuesday’s speech marks the start of a debate over taxes and the economy that will shape both Mr. Obama’s legacy and the 2016 presidential campaign.

It is also the latest indication that the president, untethered from political constraints after Democratic losses in the midterm elections, is moving aggressively to set the terms of that discussion, even as he pushes audacious moves in other areas, like immigration and relations with Cuba.

Why not stand for something? There’s nothing to lose, and this is bold:

The president’s plan would raise $320 billion over the next decade, while adding new provisions cutting taxes by $175 billion over the same period. The revenue generated would also cover an initiative Mr. Obama announced this month, offering some students two years of tuition-free community college, which the White House has said would cost $60 billion over 10 years.

The centerpiece of the plan, described by administration officials on the condition of anonymity ahead of the president’s speech, would eliminate what Mr. Obama advisers call the “trust-fund loophole,” a provision governing inherited assets that shields hundreds of billions of dollars from taxation each year. The plan would also increase the top capital-gains tax rate, to 28 percent from 23.8 percent, for couples with incomes above $500,000 annually.

Those changes and a new fee on banks with assets over $50 billion would be used to finance a set of tax breaks for middle-income earners, including a $500 credit for families in which both spouses work; increased child care and education credits; and incentives to save for retirement.

This is not Mitt Romney on the deck of the Midway saying that in his big and generous heart – that no one but his wife knew he had – he really feels for the poor and the middle class and they “deserve” more, if he and his party can figure out how to give it to them without hurting their portfolios and tax status. This is giving them something, and this also reframes the question of who “deserves” what. Romney really shouldn’t have used that word. Republicans should be careful about what they say on the decks of aircraft carriers.

The reaction was immediate:

Republicans pounced on President Obama’s tax plan that he will unveil during Tuesday’s State of the Union Address as little more than a partisan stunt with virtually no chance of passing in the GOP-controlled Congress. …

Staffers for senior Republican members pounced on the plan as little more than a partisan stunt.

“It’s not surprising to see the president call for tax hikes, but now he’s asking Congress to reverse bipartisan tax relief that he signed into law,” said Don Stewart, deputy chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Stewart said that “Republicans believe we should simplify America’s outdated tax code; that tax filing should be easier for you, not just those with fancy accountants; and that tax reform should create jobs for families, not the [Internal Revenue Service].”

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, also criticized the proposal.

“This is not a serious proposal,” said Ryan spokesman Brendan Buck in a public statement. “We lift families up and grow the economy with a simpler, flatter tax code, not big tax increases to pay for more Washington spending.”

At Salon, Elias Isquith says none of that matters:

Even though the persistence of stagnant wages means we’re still experiencing a McJobs recovery, it’s certainly true that the president’s followed his second midterm shellacking with a surprisingly good few weeks. His poll numbers are looking better than they have in almost two years, and Princeton election analyst Sam Wang says it’s “a real phenomenon,” not a fluke. … I think there’s a case to be made that the president’s rising popularity – while certainly due in part to his decision to enact less crippling austerity than the Eurozone has and Republicans wanted – has more to do with recent actions of his that were a break from the approach that defined most of his second (and nearly all of his first) term.

He stopped pandering, although Isquith wants to make a few things clear:

As any political scientist will tell you, Americans give their presidents entirely too much blame and credit for the state of the economy (usually their No. 1 metric), which is often considerably outside any politician’s immediate control. What’s more, there’s reason to believe that at least some part of Obama’s recent good fortune owes to the plummeting price of oil, which despite what politicians of both parties tell you when they’re campaigning, has essentially nothing to do with whatever’s happening in the Oval Office. Last but not least, the president’s approval rating is not the product of an exact science; it’s more like a blurry snapshot of a moment in time. So we shouldn’t conclude too much from the recent polling, one way or another.

That said, however, something happened sometime between late November and mid-December:

Not incidentally, this was also the period when the president began not only acting more aggressively in terms of using his power unilaterally, which he’s actually been doing in some form or another since last year, if not earlier, but also supporting policies that could be easily characterized as typically liberal. In November, he announced a major change in how the federal government handled undocumented immigrants, which predictably cost him support from working-class whites but further established his party as the pluralist, multicultural alternative to the overwhelmingly white GOP. And in December, he not only spoke more frankly about his blackness than he had at any point in his presidency, but also announced a break from a half-century-plus-old policy by taking steps to normalize relations with Cuba.

Having walked head-on toward what have historically been two of the Republicans’ most effective attacks on Democrats – the party’s association with nonwhites and its “softness” in the realm of foreign policy, especially regarding communists – Obama went even further in January by unveiling a plan to offer millions of Americans a college education for free. He did this despite the fact that the policy would easily be described by conservatives as promoting “big government” (as indeed it was), and despite the fact that the plan’s funding would be unapologetically redistributionist. Much more than the Affordable Care Act, which also relied on using high-end taxes to provide health insurance for the working class and the poor but did so through an embrace of subsidies and by relying on market incentives, Obama’s college plan represented a straightforward argument for having government do what a broken market could not. This was not a Democratic Leadership Council neoliberal-style proposal to encourage the market to act, through outsourcing and tax incentives. This was simply using government.

That was a bigger leap than it seemed:

To many, that probably seems like a distinction without a difference. But that would only be true if the neoliberal model of deregulation, outsourcing, privatization and free trade that was made Democratic Party orthodoxy by Bill Clinton (and Labour Party orthodoxy by Tony Blair) could actually reach traditional liberal ends through traditionally conservative means. You’ll certainly be able to find those who disagree, but I believe the verdict is in, and it is negative. That doesn’t mean the era of neoliberal government is over, of course; there are still plenty of high-profile “New Democrats” – like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo or the woman who is likely to be the party’s next presidential nominee. For that matter, Obama’s recent “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative and his continued support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade proposal show that he himself has hardly made a clean break from the “third way.”

Still, even if his steps are halting, and even if part of his willingness to flirt with old-fashioned liberalism stems from his knowledge that a GOP Congress all but ensures none of his proposals will come to pass during the rest of his term, Obama’s clearly begun to reverse the rightward drift his party has experienced over the past generation.

Romney wanted to drag the Republicans a little bit in that direction, as a matter of survival. Obama wants to drag the Democrats all the way over there, because it’s the right thing to do, and good for the country. This is not the new black. Obama is not a fashionista, and he seems to be tired of pandering – and at The Nation, John Nichols is excited:

With an eye toward addressing income inequality, the president will use his State of the Union Address to propose new taxes and fees on very rich people and very big banks. In any historical context, the tax hikes and fees are “modest,” but after a period of absurd austerity and slow-growth economics, Obama’s move is as important as it is necessary.

At a point when there is broadening recognition of the social and economic perils posed by income inequality, the president is talking about taking simple steps in the right direction. Congress is unlikely go along with him, but the American people will – Gallup polling finds that 67 percent of likely voters are dissatisfied with income and wealth distribution in the United States. And as this country prepares for the critical presidential and congressional elections of 2016, the president’s clarifying of the terms of debate on taxes becomes vital.

Sure, but the blogger BooMan is ambivalent:

It’s a lot easier to propose policies that will in some sense “soak” the rich when there is absolutely no prospect whatsoever that those policies will ever be enacted under your watch. So, the real significance of these proposals will be, as Nichols actual does note, restricted entirely to how it sets up the eventual Democratic nominee for their contest against Bush 3.0, Romney 3.0, Paul 3.0, or whatever other Republican winds up winning the booby prize in 2016.

That’s not good enough:

It’s worth noting that as far as I can tell, the president has never received even one small iota of credit for proposing things that are popular that never came to pass. In fact, the entire success of the Republicans in the 2014 elections was predicated on the idea that the president would receive more blame for gridlock and dysfunction in Washington than they would for causing it. That game plan was completely vindicated in the most depressing manner possible, and there are zero reasons to believe that the playbook won’t work again… Will the electorate care that the president proposed something that the Republicans laughed out of town?

No.

No, they won’t.

And just because a Democrat nominee is promising to do what the president could not we should not expect the electorate to find it credible or get excited about it. There are no easy fixes for the bind we’re in.

His Democrats are stuck:

To be successful, we must convince the electorate that Washington can and should do things to improve their lives, but the Republicans have enough power to ensure that our premise is a lie. We can’t beat them badly enough to change that.

It’s really checkmate.

That leaves pandering. Mitt Romney thinks it’s useful, and the Republicans are certainly good at it. And it’s the new black. You really can say anything on the deck of an aircraft carrier in San Diego.

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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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2 Responses to Almost Beyond Pandering

  1. Rick says:

    The blogger, “BooMan” (I’m sure there’s an interesting story that explains how he settled on that name), doesn’t think Obama trying to set up the presidential race in 2016 is good enough:

    In fact, the entire success of the Republicans in the 2014 elections was predicated on the idea that the president would receive more blame for gridlock and dysfunction in Washington than they would for causing it. That game plan was completely vindicated in the most depressing manner possible, and there are zero reasons to believe that the playbook won’t work again… Will the electorate care that the president proposed something that the Republicans laughed out of town?

    This is the first I’ve heard that the 2014 elections were about who’s been causing the gridlock and dysfunction in Washington. In fact, I don’t think Republican voters even sincerely cared about that issue, since it was all that gridlock that prevented Obama from getting much done, which is exactly what Republicans were aiming for.

    I’m still pretty convinced 2014 was all about Democrats, many running in red states, not mustering the courage to argue that Obama’s record has been a good one and nothing to be ashamed about — which was at least partly helped along by Obama himself, who refused to encourage voters to see how good things were, under the circumstances. The reason Obama’s poll numbers had been bad was because they included conservatives who just don’t like him, plus liberals who were annoyed at him for not fighting back; the reason they’ve gone up since was because liberals started noticing he has been standing up for principles, and hopefully ones that will inspire the Democrats running in 2016 to stand up for what they believe in.

    And if Democrats, including not only candidates for Congress but also whoever their next presidential candidate is, don’t take that lesson from 2014 and run on the belief that things only seem to work when Democrats are winning, then I’ll predict there’s a good chance of repeating the losses in 2016.

    Rick

  2. BabaO says:

    I love Romney and his entire act. I will ask him to marry me as soon as he uncorks his ultimate trick: when he bolts the GOPs and declares himself a DEM. It’s an inevitable morph, given that he’s yet relatively young and has apparently worn out the largess of the unimaginative, fickle and black-suited moneymen who are unaligned with The Force. (DAMN! I miss Hunter Thompson.)
    Nah, contrary to Bob, money both talks AND screams. The Supremes will soon rule that a natural fact. The morons will continue their reign at least until the water gets to the chumps’ ankles, and even then many will BELIEVE it’s honest sweat, or their just rewards from a grateful god, giving them a bit of advance warning to build an ark.

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