In 1925 – the year that F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby and we had that epic Scopes trial in Tennessee over teaching evolution, or even science, in our schools – T. S. Eliot was in London and in a foul mood. His wife, Vivienne, was having an affair with Bertrand Russell. Or maybe she wasn’t. Or maybe she was. In these matters it’s always best to assume the worst. Things are always what they seem. Only fools kid themselves, and major poets don’t lie to themselves. They don’t lie about anything. They traffic in emotional honesty, so that was the year Eliot published The Hollow Men:
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long
Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom
That’s part of the poem, which ends with the famous chant:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Damn, he was in a bad mood. The poem may not be about the business with his wife at all – larger cultural issues were at play – but as expression of bitter disillusionment, that’s hard to beat. There’s always that damned shadow. Intentions are only intentions. I will love you forever. There will be peace in our time, after that awful War to End All Wars – Mussolini rose to power in Italy in 1925 – and God has a plan. He won’t let bad things happen. Yeah, right – and this year in America, those who have told us that they are running for president, or will soon tell us they are, want to do good things for us, just the ordinary folks, not for the few absurdly rich donors who underwrite their campaigns. Everyone’s a populist these days, and they’ll love us forever, even if we can’t write them a check for ten millions dollars every weekend.
Ah well, it’s the season of intentions, and this was the week for signaling intentions:
Hillary Clinton used Times Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People list to pay tribute to Elizabeth Warren – a lawmaker some liberals hope will challenge the former secretary of state for the 2016 Democratic nomination. In the short piece, Clinton touts Warren as a champion for the middle class and nods to the duos interesting relationship when she writes that Warren “never hesitates to hold powerful people’s feet to the fire: bankers, lobbyists, senior government officials and, yes, even presidential aspirants.”
“Elizabeth Warren’s journey from janitor’s daughter to Harvard professor to public watchdog to U.S. Senator has been driven by an unflagging determination to level the playing field for hardworking American families like the one she grew up with in Oklahoma,” Clinton writes. “She fights so hard for others to share in the American Dream because she lived it herself.”
Hillary Clinton is just glad Warren refuses to run – Warren seems convinced she can do more for ordinary folks from her Senate seat – and Warren isn’t buying Clinton’s new-found populism:
“I think we need to give her a chance… to lay out what she wants to run on. I think that is her opportunity to champion issues the senators feels are important,” Warren said on NBC’s “Today” when asked if Clinton was the right messenger for the Democratic Party.
Intentions are only intentions, but Clinton is worried:
Clinton has sought advice from the Massachusetts senator “several times” in the last year, a source with knowledge of Clinton’s plans told CNN in February, a sign of how important Warren’s wing of the Democratic Party is to the foundation of a would-be presidential bid for the former secretary of state.
Clinton must have asked how one does this populist thing. Rand Paul, on the other hand, simply kissed ass:
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul also gave tribute to a political force that’s certain to influence his presidential run – Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers behind a network of outside spending groups that are expected to spend nearly one billion dollars in the upcoming election.
But Paul, in his Time 100 blurb on the brothers, downplays their campaign spending and instead highlights “their passion for freedom and their commitment to ideas,” which he says is “underappreciated.”
He wants some of that cash. Running for president is expensive, but the Clinton thing did bother a few folks:
On “Morning Joe” Wednesday morning, host Mika Brzezinski said that Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton was onto something with a more economically populist message, but needed make it come across as more organic…
“If this is going to resonate with people, it has to stop sounding like she talked to Elizabeth Warren on the phone and then repeated everything Elizabeth Warren said,” Brzezinski said. “I wish she had said this before the two of them met and people started talking about Elizabeth Warren.”
The rest of the panel pointed out that economic populism had become everybody’s message, even Ted Cruz’s.
“I want to believe it, I guess is my point,” Brzezinski said. “I want to believe this is her message.”
Many do, and Brent Budowsky at The Hill argues that Clinton is doing all the right things:
Clinton is making political reform one of the cornerstone issues in her campaign for the White House. She has begun a frontal assault against the widely unpopular Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, which would allow the wealthiest Americans to buy elections and dominate policymaking in Washington by spending unlimited money, often in secret, on political campaigns.
By taking this bold position and calling for a national movement supporting a constitutional amendment to achieve this goal if necessary, Clinton is offering presidential-level leadership to give voice and support to the powerful feeling of a large majority of Americans that dramatic change is urgently needed in the corrupted ways that Washington does business.
I have long argued that the conservative majority of Supreme Court justices has poisoned our politics and corrupted our democracy through decisions that have, on the one hand, given the wealthiest Americans the power dominate our democracy and, on the other hand, taken away from poor and middle-class Americans vital protections for their right to vote – the heart of what truly makes America exceptional.
The Citizens United decision that Clinton will fight to reverse is one of the most unpopular decisions in modern judicial history. Poll after poll has proven that majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents agree with progressives, populists and Clinton that this reprehensible decision should be reversed.
By putting these matters at the center of her campaign, Clinton becomes the champion of a better future, a more just society and a fairer and more prosperous economy in which all Americans can move ahead without any being left behind. In her call for change and reform by overturning the heinous Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, Clinton is supported by a majority of Republicans, independents and Democrats.
For the Clinton campaign and populist progressives, this cause opens the door to a game-changing national movement that could include grassroots movements in every state that allow ballot initiatives to mobilize, organize and turn out voters to elect Democratic candidates for the House, Senate and statewide office.
Hillary Clinton has had her first big moment of the 2016 campaign. The spirits of progressive populists have been lifted.
But he’s still worried:
I am a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton for president, but here is my warning to her: American voters don’t want to be sold a “new Hillary,” which is reminiscent of an earlier politician whose handlers invented the term “new Nixon.” They want to be trusted enough to be let into the world of the REAL Hillary, informed enough about her vision and plans for America to believe their lives will be made better if she is elected president, and inspired enough to make the metaphysical leap that is the heart of presidential politics and conclude that the first woman president would also be a good and potentially great president. …
The great question about Clinton, which is widely shared and could ultimately derail her aspirations, is this: Clinton has conquered the barriers of sexism, but can she conquer the barriers of calculation, caution and cadres of consultants who appear to endlessly whisper in her ear to tell her who she is and what she stands for?
Politico reports that people are taking bets on that:
Hillary Clinton sounded like a woman on a mission after her long drive into the heartland: “There’s something wrong,” she told Iowans on Tuesday, when “hedge fund managers pay lower taxes than nurses or the truckers I saw on I-80 when I was driving here over the last two days.”
But back in Manhattan, the hedge fund managers who’ve long been part of her political and fundraising networks aren’t sweating the putdown and aren’t worrying about their take-home pay just yet.
It’s “just politics,” said one major Democratic donor on Wall Street, explaining that some of Clinton’s Wall Street supporters doubt she would push hard for closing the carried-interest loophole as president, a policy she promoted when she last ran in 2008.
“The question is not going to be whether or not hedge fund managers or CEOs make too much money,” said a separate Clinton supporter who manages a hedge fund. “The question is, how do you solve the problem of inequality? Nobody takes it like she is going after them personally.”
Indeed, many of the financial-sector donors supporting her just-declared presidential campaign say they’ve been expecting all along the moment when Clinton would start calling out hedge fund managers and decrying executive pay – right down to the complaints from critics that such arguments are rich coming from someone who recently made north of $200,000 per speech and who has been close to Wall Street since her days representing it as a senator from New York.
Everyone knows what’s going on here:
In the words of Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, a veteran of Bill Clinton’s White House who now advises Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist hedge-fund manager and donor: “The fact is that any Democrat running for president would talk about this. It’s as surprising as the sun rising in the east.”
This sort of thing has ripple-effects:
The liberal group MoveOn, which is working to draft Warren, on Wednesday pointed to an earlier statement insisting that it wouldn’t back down on encouraging Warren to run.
And the calls of hypocrisy came swiftly from the Republican National Committee: “It’s hard to take Hillary Clinton seriously when she charges over four times what the average person makes to give a 90 minute speech, and when the Clintons’ own income has exceeded the CEO pay she now decries. There are clearly no limits on phoniness and hypocrisy for Clinton’s campaign,” said spokesman Michael Short. …
There are persistent doubts, even among past Clinton supporters such as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, about whether Clinton will go very far in reining in tax policies and compensation practices that favor the rich. … De Blasio, her former Senate campaign manager, who has so far declined to endorse her for president, will keep his voice in the debate by heading to Iowa on Thursday. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders – who is also considering a presidential bid – told Bloomberg he was not convinced by Clinton’s recent language.
And so it goes:
Anyway, say senior financiers, any grumbling comes from those who do not understand political reality or who are predisposed to oppose Clinton. They take refuge in the idea that Clinton’s rhetoric is more reflective of political necessity than some deep-seated animosity toward the wealthy.
“Basically this is a Rorschach test for how politically sophisticated people are,” said one Democrat at a top Wall Street firm. “If someone is upset by this it’s because they have no idea how populist the mood of the country still is. And what she said is just demonstrably true. People at the top have done well and those at the bottom not so well.”
“The fact is,” the Democrat added, “if she didn’t say this stuff now she would be open to massive attacks from the left, and would have to say even more dramatic stuff later.”
Ah, that explains it. This is a test for how politically sophisticated people are, but Matt Taibbi calls her idealist porridge is not too hot, not too cold, but just fake enough:
“There’s something wrong,” she told a crowd of Iowans, “when hedge fund managers pay lower taxes than nurses or the truckers I saw on I-80 when I was driving here over the last two days.”
Oh, right, that. The infamous carried interest tax break, the one that allows private equity vampires like Mitt Romney and Stephen Schwartzman to pay a top tax rate of 15 percent while all of the rest of us (including the truckers Hillary “saw” – note she didn’t say “hung out with Bill and me over chilled shrimp at the Water Club”) pay income taxes.
The carried interest loophole is an absurd, completely unjustifiable handout to the not merely well-off but filthy rich, and it’s been law in this country for about three decades.
Raise your hand if you really think that Hillary Clinton is going to repeal the carried interest tax break.
Still, people buy it:
Newspapers and news sites ever-so-slightly raised figurative eyebrows at the tone of Hillary’s announcement, remarking upon its “populist” flair.
This is no plutocrat who plans to ride to the White House upon a historically massive assload of corporate money, the papers declared – this is a candidate of the people!
“Hillary’s Return: Her Folksy, Populist Re-Entry,” proclaimed Politico. “Populist Theme, Convivial in Tone!” headlined the Los Angeles Times. “Hillary Lifts Populist Spirits,” commented The Hill, hook visibly protruding from its reportorial fish-mouth.
Taibbi expected this and knows what comes next:
In presidential politics, every time a candidate on either the left or the right veers in a populist direction – usually with immediate success, since the American populace is ready to run through a wall for anyone who makes the obvious observation that they’re being screwed by someone up above – it takes about two or three days before the “Let’s let cooler heads prevail!” editorials start trickling in.
These chin-scratching op-eds arrive on time every time, like clockwork. They declare that populism is all well and good, and of course a necessary strategy for getting elected, but the “reality” is that once in office, one has to govern.
And since the people are a stupid, angry mob, these op-eds say, and don’t know how to govern themselves, the politician will have to abandon the populism sooner or later.
Then there’s another kind of “cooler heads” editorial. This one makes note of the candidate’s populist rhetoric, and maybe even applauds it as good solid political strategy.
But then the editorialist quietly reassures us that these speeches are all a pose, and that once in office, the candidate will revert back to being the shamelessly bought-off creature of billionaire interests he or she always has been.
So it was with Hillary this week. Just days after she came out shaking a fist to an announcement routine that transparently read like a medley of Elizabeth Warren’s greatest stump hits, the press started with their “cooler heads prevail” pieces.
Then there was James Kirchick in the Spectator:
Americans, unlike Europeans, do not hate the rich. We want to be them, not soak them. Perhaps the winning strategy for Hillary, then, is to quit the unconvincing pose of being one of the little guys and stop apologizing for and explaining away her wealth. That, after all, would be the American way.
Americans actually like rich people. That’s why we elected Mitt Romney. No, wait… we didn’t? And then there are those folks on Wall Street, who amuse Taibbi:
Yes, back to that, the carried interest issue. Promising, and then failing, to repeal the carried interest tax break is fast becoming a Democratic tradition, so much so that I’m beginning to wonder if not fixing this problem is an intentional move, designed to ensure that Democrats always have something to run on in election seasons.
In both the 2008 and 2012 election cycles, Barack Obama either decried the tax “trick” or overtly promised to close the loophole.
Obama’s remarks about carried interest pretty much always sound exactly like Hillary’s remarks this week. He gave a Rose Garden speech in 2011, in advance of his race against Romney, in which he rejected “the notion that asking a hedge fund manager to pay the same tax rate as a plumber or teacher is class warfare.”
But Obama and the Democrats never really did anything about the loophole, even when they had the power to do so. And if you go back, you will find “cooler heads prevail” pieces popped up every time the president mentioned carried interest.
“Carried Interest and the Limits of Populism,” an Washington Examiner piece from last year, was typical: it noted that the tax break “sounds” unfair, but that if you look at the details, you’ll find that such incentives are really at the core of capitalism and are what make America work, etc.
Expect more of this:
It doesn’t matter that these op-eds usually come in the conservative or centrist press. They’re part of a psychological cycle, designed to make voters think that the things that they really want, like tax fairness or prosecution of white collar crooks or ends to wars or illegal surveillance or torture or whatever, are just pie-in-the-sky aims that inevitably perish when they run into the “reality” of governance.
And that brings things back to T. S. Eliot:
The campaign season is a time of promises. Election and subsequent rule, we are to understand, are a time of disappointments, coupled with the behind-the-scenes repayment in favors for financial support – usually described to us using more gentle names like “pragmatism” or “reality.”
Editorialists like to talk about the two things, ideals and reality, as totally separate and distinct. Idealism, the stuff of campaign promises, is usually pooh-poohed as “purity politics,” while the cold transactional politics of Beltway deal-making and incremental change are usually applauded as “pragmatism.”
On the campaign trail, reporters (and I’ve seen this with my own eyes) have a clear bias against idealistic candidates, and often bombard them early in the campaign with “This candidate can’t win in the general election” pieces.
So it was with Howard Dean and even Mike Huckabee, where reporters for some reason worried on behalf of voters about the fact that the candidates’ idealistic, populist rhetoric was so sincere that it might turn off the big-money wings of their own parties, making them non-viable and “unserious” going forward.
Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, falls the shadow, and so it is with Hillary Clinton:
At launch she talked a streak of anti-elitist rhetoric that was taken seriously for a few days, until the punditry took the temperature of her populism and declared to it be the right kind: the fake kind, the purely strategic kind.
The cognoscenti even seemed to applaud Clinton for sounding enough like Elizabeth Warren to preclude the necessity of the actual Elizabeth Warren running for president, Warren being the wrong kind of populist, the real kind.
The punditry should embrace the real idealists and hammer the fakes. Instead we get this sleazy process in which the fakes are called smart and yet still allowed to market themselves as the real thing. It would be nice, for once, if we did things in reverse.
Lots of things would be nice, but it’s best to remember how Eliot opened that 1925 poem:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar…
That should have been on the cover of Time this week – but maybe that only applies to politicians. The rest of them are just fine.