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Monday, June 27, 2011

Shock Doctrine: 'Emergency Finance Managers' and the Right-Wing's Power Grab



Shock Doctrine: 'Emergency Finance Managers' and the Right-Wing's Power Grab

Emergency financial managers are being put in place by democratically elected governors throughout the country.

The onslaught of radical policies from the wave of Tea Party-supported right-wing state politicians swept in in the 2010 elections has been nearly overwhelming. Nearly every state that saw a Republican takeover of the statehouse or legislature has faced attacks on collective bargaining, immigration, reproductive freedoms, or health care. New power grabs have popped up constantly, and copycat bills have sprung up in their wake as if an official playbook has been passed around the country.

But one of the nastiest moves has been the institution, by Michigan governor Rick Snyder, of an “emergency manager” over several cities in his state, as well as the Detroit public school system. This manager has the unilateral authority to fire officials, close schools, void union contracts, and assume total control over areas declared to be in a financial state of emergency by the state.

And it looks like the idea is spreading.


In March, the Michigan legislature passed an update to state law that gave emergency financial managers expanded powers over cities and school districts facing financial distress. The provision drew protests immediately, with thousands converging on the capitol on March 16, the day the law was signed. Unions and community organizations recognized the law as a threat, not just in the cities where emergency financial managers were imposed, but around the state, where unions would be pressured to make concessions in order to keep a financial manager from being imposed on them. Since financial managers have the power to wipe away a union contract with a pen stroke, the unions are left with an impossible choice—concede great chunks of hard-won benefits and wages, or risk losing it all.

Ed Brayton at the Michigan Messenger wrote:

“While opponents of the law were organizing their efforts, the Emergency Managers already in place wasted no time in putting their newly gained powers to use. Robert Bobb, who was at the time the Emergency Manager for the Detroit Public Schools, announced on April 15 that he would use his authority to void union contracts and his office immediately sent layoff notices to all 5,466 members of the teachers union. The very same day Joseph Harris, the emergency manager in charge of the city of Benton Harbor, issued an order stripping all authority from elected boards in that city, including the city council. That order would provoke massive opposition and bring the attention of the national media to the realities of the new law.”

Benton Harbor is 92 percent African American and 42 percent of its population lives below the poverty line. Helping those people doesn't seem to be in the job description of the financial manager, who has cut off support for an innovative local gardening program that helped the city's food-insecure residents sustain themselves. Apparently food isn't one of the “core services” that Snyder's spokeswoman told the Lansing State Journal were being preserved by the emergency managers.

As for the schools, the claim is that “failing” schools will be fixed by allowing for-profit charter companies to take them over. But that claim doesn't hold up under scrutiny. Recently, the Rachel Maddow show highlighted one Detroit school that was far from failing. Young mothers were not only graduating, but graduating with honors and going on to college from the Catherine Ferguson Academy, yet the emergency manager targeted the school for closure anyway. News that it would remain open as a charter school was bittersweet at best, since the for-profit company taking over the school specializes in "strict discipline academies" for students with legal problems. Teachers have already been informed that their wages will be cut.

Innovative public education programs like the Ferguson Academy aren't profitable, but they are an example of the good that public education can do. And the local food program, which promoted community self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship, was far less costly than tax breaks for big business. That these programs help people do exactly what conservatives want them to do—pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make a better life for themselves and their families—is further evidence that the ideals of "success” and “efficiency” touted by the new radical right are actually just cover for their real agenda: consolidating their own power.

A lawsuit filed Wednesday, June 22 challenges the emergency manager law. Again, from the Michigan Messenger:

“This is an infringement on basic democracy,” said plaintiffs attorney John Philo of the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice. “It really is an experiment in a new form of government — one person rule.”

The complaint alleges that the law, “violates the rights of local voters by attempting to delegate law-making power and the power to adopt local acts to unelected emergency mangers, by suspending the rights of local electors to establish charters and to elect local officials, and by imposing substantial new costs and expenses upon local municipalities without providing new revenue.”

The law is so extreme, the plaintiffs say, that it “establishes a new form of local government, previously unknown within the United States or the State of Michigan, where the people within local municipalities may be governed by an unelected official who establishes local law by decree.”

Even if the people did vote on an official, it should be noted, there's a difference between voting for a mayor, say, and an official with near-unlimited powers. Even Snyder's office realized that it would be unseemly to make Detroit Mayor Steve Bing the emergency manager of his city or even its school system. That might be too much power for one individual.

One Michigan blogger grimly joked:

“I see in Michigan’s future: EFMs declaring war on other EFMs. And the citizenry of one city being told to fight the citizenry of other cities. to protect the turf and honor of our noble EFMs.”


Pennsylvania has been a quieter front in the war on working people, overshadowed by Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and even its neighbor New Jersey. But it has its own bill working its way through the legislature that would update existing legislation and consolidate state control over a city, in this case the capital city of Harrisburg.

Act 47, the Financially Distressed Municipalities Act, has been on the books for a while in the state, and was developed to help Pennsylvania's cities recover from financial stress. But the plan put forth under the act for Harrisburg is quite different from earlier plans for other cities in the state (including Pittsburgh, Scranton, Reading and Johnstown).

Michael Wood, of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, explained that the plan for Harrisburg would dictate the sale of particular city assets and eliminate much of the separation of powers between elected leadership, requiring staff to be shared between city council, mayor, controller and treasurer. This is a change from the usual recommendations, which Wood said include taxing commuters as well as making changes to union contracts and city services.

But on top of the existing powers under Act 47, a group of state senators have put forward bill 1151, which would allow the state to appoint a three-person board to run Harrisburg if the plan isn't enacted, stripping power from the elected city council. The bill also gives the state the power to renegotiate union contracts for the city's public employees, including police and firefighters. Wood wrote in an email:

A 'doomsday' proposal like the one put forth by Senator Piccola, where the state takes over management of the city if the Act 47 plan is not adopted, has not been considered before -- and reflects a distinct departure from previous state policy regarding helping out distressed communities. The plan seems likely to be restricted to only the City of Harrisburg, due to some of the specifics in the bill."

Piccola is the senator who represents Harrisburg, and, Wood noted, is a main supporter of school voucher programs. Pennsylvania's public education is already suffering budget cuts of roughly $1 billion—around $8 million in Harrisburg alone.

Wood, who grew up not far from Benton Harbor, Michigan, noted that the push for emergency control over Harrisburg looks much like what's happening there, particularly in demographics. “The cuts of state aid for schools is felt most directly by the state's poor urban and some rural schools,” he said, “State aid is based on district wealth (or lack of wealth), so the poorest schools get the most state aid. When the cuts are handed down, these same districts take the biggest share.”

As in Michigan, it's notable as well that the budget cuts handed down by the governor actually increase the likelihood that Harrisburg, and other cities around the state, will require further financial help, thus pushing them further into dependence on the state government and whatever requirements it—and the conservatives at the helm—dish out.


A story about right-wing power grabs just wouldn't be complete without an appearance by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. Walker's become the poster boy for conservative overreach, and rumors have been swirling that he's planning his own emergency financial manager plan.

Walker denied it, but Rick Ungar at Forbes wrote in April that Wisconsin progressive activists were reporting a plan to be introduced in the legislature that would give the governor the ability to appoint a financial manager if a municipality failed a financial stress test. The bill, they said, would be very similar to Snyder's in Michigan.

Ungar wrote:

“Walker’s plans give further credence to the notion that the efforts of the GOP governors with Republican majorities in their state legislative bodies are part of a coordinated plan to enforce a right-wing agenda designed to not only destroy state, county and municipal employee unions, but to take control of local governments by replacing elected officials with appointees, both corporate and individual, of the state’s highest executive officer.”


Naomi Klein, in her book The Shock Doctrine, explained the way radical right-wing economists have used the shock created by an emergency, natural disaster, or coup d'etat to impose their preferred policies of privatization, deregulation, and slashing social services on countries around the world. Those economists, of course, came from right here in the USA—starting with the University of Chicago's Milton Friedman.

She opens the book with New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where a natural disaster somehow became an excuse to privatize the schools and bulldoze public housing.

The hurricane that's hit Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida is the same hurricane that's hit the world—financial crisis, ongoing recession, debt and a lack of tax revenue. The response, of course, has differed in different places, but Klein's point is that the Friedmanites were ideologues in search of a crisis they could exploit to put in their preferred policies—and if that required working with dictators, so be it.

We shouldn't be surprised, then, to see those policies being imposed here at home in the name of financial emergency. Klein notes that it's not always war or natural disaster that creates crisis:

"...if an economic crisis hits and is severe enough--a currency meltdown, a market crash, a major recession--it blows everything else out of the water, and leaders are liberated to do whatever is necessary (or said to be necessary) in the name of responding to a national emergency.”

Klein made the link between that radical economic policy and dictatorships, usually violent ones, where a single person or small group used power consolidated by that same shock technique to control the population. Obviously, the same type of violence is not being used in the states that are considering emergency manager legislation, but there's no question that the “shock” of the ongoing recession is being used to push through policies that were quite different from the campaign-trail promises of the Republicans in power.

While the emergency financial managers are being put in place by democratically elected governors with the blessing of democratically elected legislatures, they represent a consolidation of power that may be unprecedented in this country and is certainly undemocratic.

Local groups are organizing against these measures on the ground, particularly in Michigan, but the real problem is figuring out just where the next copycat bill will arise.

Sarah Jaffe is an AlterNet editor and a freelance writer.

Friday, June 24, 2011

GOP Plan for Social Security/Medicare: Let Them Die Sooner: TSTB


Rand Paul

Is Rand Paul as dumb as he sounds?

Updated: Today

Is Rand Paul as dumb as he sounds?
Sen. Rand Paul

Here, via Oliver Willis and Steve Benen, is a clip of Sens. Al Franken, Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul discussing a bill that would help prevent senior hunger:

As Sanders and Franken explain: If we make sure old folks have money for and access to adequate nutrition, fewer of them will need to be hospitalized or placed in nursing homes. Because Medicare would pay a lot more money for hospitalization or nursing home care than it would cost to make sure these old folks don't go hungry to begin with, this program is cost-effective in addition to being humane.

Here is Rand Paul's rebuttal: "It’s curious that only in Washington can you spend $2 billion and claim that you’re saving money." Then he went "hyck hyck hyck" and looked sort of smug. When the basic idea -- sometimes spending a bit of money now saves a lot of money later! -- was explained to him again, his response was to say something about the government being bad, and to suggest that if this insane magical spending-to-save thing is true, why not spend a ZILLION dollars feeding old people? (The cheapest option, I guess, would just be to not pay for old people to eat or go to the hospital at all, and to let them die in their homes and be buried in pauper's graves, but it is maybe rude to suggest that that is Paul's "plan.")

Rand Paul is either presenting a misleadingly simplistic argument because he knows it will appeal to dumb conservatives (only a big-city liberal would think you could save money in the future by spending it wisely in the present!) or he's actually as dumb as I have always said he is.

He's obviously some combination of willfully obtuse and dimwitted, but how much of his dimwitted is calculated?

Like, for example, when he said he wanted to shut down the Department of Education because of "the idea of somebody in Washington deciding that Susie has two mommies is an appropriate family situation," he was obviously being an inflammatory bigot asshole, probably because he thinks his constituents are backward hicks who eat that kinda shit up. But does he also not actually know what the Department of Education does? Because they have no say in curricula!

And oh, also, when he said he would filibuster every budget that wasn't balanced, was he just making stupid and unrealistic promises because, again, he has no respect for the intelligence of Kentucky voters, or did he actually not understand that senators can't filibuster budgets?

The fact that he had no idea what happened in Harlan County is proof of his being incurious and ideologically sheltered, not necessarily dumb, but his criticism of the Americans With Disabilities Act showed that he doesn't know what the Americans With Disabilities Act does.

I vote dumb. There's obviously lots of pandering involved, but this guy really seems like Ron Paul's Patrick Kennedy, you know?

  • Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon. Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene More: Alex Pareene

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Inner Secrets of the Right Wing Echo Chamber


Brave New Films has provided, with Bernie Sanders, a clear deconstruction of the origins and process of the conservative disinformation propaganda machine. It's scary.

June 21, 2011 |

If you have been paying attention to television, radio, newspapers, the Internet, various talk shows, including the batch on Sunday morning, you have heard two words repeated a lot; so often that there is actually the sound of an echo. Word one is collapse ... collapse ... collapse; word two is bankrupt... bankrupt ... bankrupt. Can you guess why these words are repeated over and over (and no, this is not about the Greek economy)?

Rather, these words are being used and reused to describe the persistent disinformation that, if successful, will impact millions of people, probably even you, who are reading this. Did you guess right? The first message is: "We must raise the retirement age or the economy will collapse." And two: "Social security is bankrupt."

These two statements have been repeated thousands of times in and on American media. Yet there is not one scintilla of evidence that either one of these statements is accurate. But they have lodged themselves into the mainstream of American thought, constantly repeated by corporate media, as if they are obvious truths.

How does this happen? Since the 1970's the conservatives in this country have developed a very powerful propaganda infrastructure, that is currently heavily funded by guess who? Right, the Koch brothers. It goes like this: large amounts of money a la Koch brothers are given to conservative think tanks where well-paid staffers develop position papers. The think tanks release the position papers pushing conservative ideas, then an army of publicists place the pundits from those very think tanks for media appearances to promote the ideas, repeating the talking points. The corporate media parrots these positions as if they're fact; conservative politicians (funded by the Kochs and other conservative donors) embrace and promote the same talking points, as if they're fact. This is the nature of the echo chamber. When it is fully operational, the same points are made in many media appearances, in every kind of media until the ideas become the conventional wisdom.

But you really need to watch how this works in action. Robert Greenwald's Brave New Films has produced a groundbreaking investigative piece, which focuses on the cottage industry, largely funded by the Kochs, whose sole purpose is to turn fringe ideas into mainstream policy arguments. In BNF's investigative work, they found documents and interviews that illustrate a vast industry of spokespeople, front groups, think tanks and elected officials, which have built a self-sustaining echo chamber.

The video “Echo Chamber” highlights the onslaught on Social Security as just one example. The Koch echo chamber on Social Security begins with think tanks like the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation and Mercatus Center at George Mason University and the Reason Foundation, which owe their founding and achievements to Koch backing. These think tanks take their $28.4 million in Koch funding and produce more than 300 position papers distorting the purpose and effectiveness of Social Security.

And so it goes. But watch the video. It's well worth it. And short and digestible.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The 3 Wings of the Republican Party: The Crazies, the Corporatists ... and Democrats



The 3 Wings of the Republican Party: The Crazies, the Corporatists ... and Democrats

Democrats must endorse progressive principles again and hammer home the distinction between the party that cares about everyday Americans, not just the wealthy.

Today's Republican Party has three wings: the psychiatric wing, the corporate wing, and the Democrats.

The first wing, the psychiatric wing, is defined by severe psychological and intellectual impairments, exemplified by the inability to read a birth certificate. Sarah Palin's recent foray into American history, replete with her description of Paul Revere as the man who rang alarms, bells, and buzzers to signal his support for the Second Amendment years before there was either a United States or a Bill of Rights, provides an example of the kind of "gaffe" that is, in fact, psychologically meaningful. This level of intellectual dysfunction, equally common in the pronouncements of Michelle Bachmann, once disqualified a candidate for high office. That was until the "lamestream media" decided to turn elections into reality shows, where the only real criterion is celebrity (defined as the state of being or becoming famous), and where commentators may poke occasional fun but no longer communicate to the public the seriousness of intellectual deficits in someone running for high office who would actually have to make decisions in which "facts" occasionally matter. (The dangerousness of that level of media indifference to reality should have been a lesson of George W. Bush's tenure in office, but things have sadly only gotten worse since then.)

This is the wing of the Republican Party that most endangers the party's chances to turn a dismal economy into an electoral victory in 2012, because it is so far to the right of mainstream America that you can see Russia from its porch (even if it locates that porch in Minnesota). The problem for the Republicans is that this wing of the party constitutes such a large percentage of GOP primary voters that it is hard to imagine any nominee emerging from the primaries without having had to produce so many general election campaign ads for the Democrats that President Obama may well defy political gravity and get re-elected no matter how high the unemployment rate drifts.

The second wing is the corporate wing, also known as the wing-tip wing. Once the home of moderate Republicans such as Bob Dole, this wing used to be slightly to the right of the American center. Its advocates held beliefs now seen as "quaint" by modern-day wing-tips (e.g., that humans evolved the same way other animals did, that a fertilized egg does not hold property rights any more than an omelet does, and that cutting the jobs of hundreds of thousands of teachers, police, and firefighters does not reduce unemployment).

Today's wing-tips, in contrast, are defined by three articles of faith.

The first is that whatever ails you (whether budget deficits, unemployment, or kidney failure), the solution is tax cuts for the rich.

The second is the belief (this one true) that whatever ails them can be fixed within any two-year election cycle by an infusion of venture capital from the Chamber of Commerce, Wall Street, Big Oil, the Pharmaceutical lobby, or whosever interests could be served or threatened by some piece of legislation. These venture firms now require a controlling interest of 51 percent of an elected official (whether Republican or Democrat), but the futures market for political votes seems to be the only market that is working efficiently in America today. (Word has it that Larry Summers considers the deregulation of the commodities market for politicians one of his signal achievements, although to give credit where credit is due, he had an assist from the Roberts Court in its Citizens United ruling, which held that money need no longer be exchanged under the table, and reaffirmed that money is speech, making political payoffs a high form of rhetoric.)

The third belief that defines the wing-tips is that deficits present a grave threat to our way of life -- except when Republicans are in power, at which point deficits are deficit-neutral. This deep and abiding concern with deficits (under Democratic administrations) stands in sharp contrast to their relative indifference to unemployment, which they consider a luxury good consumed by people with too much time on their hands (after all, they're unemployed), whose "whining" is really annoying to lawmakers, lobbyists, and Washington pundits who want to get on with the real business of cutting budgets, and who have more important things to worry about than people who, for God's sake, can't even keep a job now, can they.

These are the Paul Ryan and John Boehner Republicans, whose virtue is that they seem genuinely to believe what they are paid to say. Some of them, like Ryan, can even do so with earnest looks on their faces (something Boehner has not mastered, even while smearing his mascara). This is an impressive feat, given that what they have been saying lately is that they would happily throw their own grandmothers under the bus, although they know this will never come to pass because they don't believe in public transportation (hence the absence of buses, ergo the safety of grandmothers).

The Wing of Icarus

And that brings us to the third wing of the Republican Party, the Democrats. Their standard-bearer, President Obama, has proven himself perhaps the strongest potential challenger to Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination if he decides to join the debates, having established his conservative bona fides on a wide range of social and economic issues:

  • Deporting more immigrants and breaking up more families than George W. Bush (or to put it in more business-friendly language, increasing U.S. "exports" of poorly documented human capital).
  • Coming out in support of expanded off-shoring drilling just before the BP catastrophe in the Gulf; repeatedly touting production of a mythical substance (seen only, legend has it, by industry executives) as "clean coal" (widely believed to be found in the Fountain of Youth); and calling for the building of more nuclear plants, which the Japanese have shown to be a safe complement to offshore drilling (perhaps with the hope that water contaminated with radioactive materials discharged into the ocean might prove useful as a dispersant for oil).
  • Extending the "Hyde Amendment" to allow GOP lawmakers to exclude abortion coverage from even private health insurance.
  • Cutting 120 billion in taxes for the rich while proposing billions in cuts to "entitlements," such as home heating subsidies to people who are poor or elderly.
  • Making sure the nation's largest banks remained solvent so they could continue to foreclose on the homes of millions of Americans, whose tax dollars supported the multi-million-dollar bonuses of the executives who continue to refuse to renegotiate their mortgages.
  • Saying virtually nothing as Republican governors and state legislators around the country attack organized labor (e.g., remaining almost entirely mum on the Wisconsin law stripping workers of the right to negotiate their contracts).

But that's just the president. We can't blame the party whose name he never utters for the actions or inactions of its titular leader, who prefers to remain "post-partisan."

So with nearly 15 million Americans unemployed and millions more working two and three jobs just to get by to feed their family, how are the Democrats saying they're going to solve the problems of ordinary people?

Consider the following five-point statement of conservative economic principles from ABC's This Week a couple of Sundays ago, which concisely describes what conservatives believe the Obama administration should do to solve our nation's economic ills, and how the Democrats responded to it:

  • Our effort now ... should be to get the private sector, to help them stand up and lead the recovery. [T]he government is not the central driver of recovery.
  • Now, we must live within our means.
  • We've got to rely on government policies that are trying to leverage the private sector and give incentives to the private sector to be doing the growth. And ... so ... these tax cuts ... will continue over the rest of this year.
  • Put in place this regulatory review in which all of the major agencies are going to go through, find any outmoded regulations, ones that are excessively costly for their benefits, find ways to streamline.
  • The free-trade agreements, trying to increase exports, which are rising at 15 percent annual rates.

So there you have all the elements of the ineffectual conservative Republican response to a severe recession bordering on a Depression: let the private sector lead and the government step out of the way; cut the budget, exercise austerity, and "live within our means;" use tax cuts as the primary stimulus to get the economy moving again (because they worked so well under the Bush administration); eliminate excessive regulations on businesses, because we all know that excessive regulations are what threw us into the Great Recession and are what are hindering the business community's ability to create economic growth; and implement free-trade agreements so the sticky fingers of the invisible hand of capitalism can work its wonders across international borders, just as it has done for the millions of Americans who once had manufacturing jobs, but just don't understand the fine points of the theory of comparative advantage in economics (by which countries with the "comparative advantage" of having the 2/3 of the world's workers who are willing to work for less than $2/day get jobs as factories in the U.S. shut their doors).

Surely this was an easy target for a Democratic counter-attack. After all, this is Hoover economics, all of which has been thoroughly discredited, if not by the Great Depression, more recently by the Bush administration and the Great Recession that capped off that glorious eight-year period of economic growth during which we managed to double the national debt and crash the economy at the same time.

So what was the Democrats' response?

Actually, that was the Democrats' response. This statement of conservative economic principles was actually from the Chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisors, Austan Goolsby.

To his credit, Goolsby, one of the smartest, clearest-headed, plainest-speaking progressive economists around, looked very uncomfortable having to recite Hoover's plan for economic recovery (actually, Hoover was substantially more proactive and progressive in his vision as the economy sank into the abyss), and he announced his decision to resign the next day, I suspect out of a sense of futility and disgust that there's not much he can do with both of Uncle Sam's hands tied behind his back.

Who Misplaced the Democratic Party?

So how did we get to this point, where Democrats in Washington are looking increasingly difficult for the average American to distinguish from Republicans, as the two parties focus with equal fervor on how to find $50-60 billion in budget cuts after passing twice that amount in tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires and then wring their hands that the deficit is out of control ("there's gambling in this establishment!")?

At first it looked as if the Democrats were graciously going to accept Paul Ryan's gift (Medicare cuts that poll about as well as Wall Street bankers, particularly with a voting public of which 40 percent are age 55 and older, who punished the Democrats in large numbers in 2010 for helping finance health care reform with promises of cutting hundreds of billions of cuts in Medicare "waste." Ryan and his party's insistence on a draconian form of "austerity" for older voters, the majority of whom live on less than $20,000 a year, would have placed the differences between the parties in stark relief -- and might well have won the Democrats back the House. Now, however, for reasons that are impossible to fathom, Democrats are unilaterally disarming in advance of negotiations again, making clear that they plan to let the Republicans off the hook by "putting Medicare on the table," as if seniors will either understand or care which party seems to be selling them out more (or more efficiently) in what will become a he said-she said that is completely avoidable.

One could point to many factors that have led the Democrats to occupy the center-right wing of the GOP, but three are among the most important.

First, apologists for the president and the Democrats rightly claim that their hands are tied: the Republicans just won't let them pass any legislation that might move the economy forward, so their only tools are ineffectual ones such as tax cuts and exhortations to the business community to invest.

But what this account leaves out is that this state of affairs is entirely of the Democrats' creation. Had the White House and the supermajorities the president started out with for two years simply done what the voters asked them to do -- and what the House actually did do with remarkable speed in 2009 -- the Democrats' hands would not be tied today.

Voters were terrified when the president took office, and they were looking for him to do something dramatic -- anything -- that might turn things around, just as voters had done with FDR 75 years earlier. The economy was hemorrhaging ¾ of a million jobs a month, the Dow had dropped by over half, and credit was impossible to obtain.

Had the White House not chosen to cut the stimulus package almost in half from the size suggested by virtually all competent economists and then larded it up with $300 billion in tax cuts they already knew were inert because they had been the staple of Bush economics for the last eight years, and had the president simply foreshadowed to the American people that it might take two or three more shocks from the paddles of deficit spending to get the blood circulating again in an economy whose heart had stopped, the president and his party might not have led the average American to conclude (with a little help from some unanswered creative story-telling from the other side) that the stimulus was a failure (instead of having to argue the counterfactual that had they not half-stimulated the economy with their half-stimulus we would likely have gone into a second Great Depression).

Second, by running scared and adopting Republican talking points on economics, Democrats have created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Listening to the same pollster-industrial complex that advised them in 2002 to support George W. Bush's trillion-dollar unfunded bloodbath in Iraq, Democrats have joined with Republicans in offering massive giveaways to millionaires and billionaires and then telling working and middle class Americans that the sky is falling and we (they) have to tighten our (their) belts. Democrats inside the tightened beltway (with the exception of a strong contingent in the House and a dozen or two Senators) appear to have become convinced by the new conventional wisdom in Washington, that Americans aren't really concerned as much about jobs as they are about the deficit.

If you stop and think about it for a moment, that notion is absurd on the face of it. Is it really possible that Americans who have lost their jobs or fear losing them are more worried about an abstraction -- the budget deficit in Washington -- than about the realities of their lives -- that they face a budget deficit around their own kitchen table at the end of every month when they're trying to pay their rent or make their mortgage payment on their rapidly depreciating home?

And as it turns out, this view is as mistaken empirically as it is intuitively.

Can a pollster who believes or wants to show that Americans are as or more concerned about the national debt than jobs or the economic insecurity they face every day write questions in such a way as to get what he or she is looking for? Sure. Does this reflect what working and middle class Americans feel as they watch their economic security disappear? Not in a million years.

Consider the following statement about budget deficits, which began a message that beat a tough deficit-focused, budget-cutting message taken straight from the mouth of John Boehner with a large national sample by over 30 points with the general electorate and by an even larger margin with swing voters: "The best way to reduce the deficit is to put Americans back to work. There are 14 million Americans who've lost their jobs through no fault of their own, and they'd be happy to be paying taxes again instead of drawing unemployment insurance."

Put this way, there is nothing the other side can say that can beat this message. And that's on an issue -- budget deficits -- that's supposed to be the Achilles heel of Democrats and progressives.

What we have witnessed in the last several months is a phenomenon described in a classic book nearly 20 years ago by the political scientist John Zaller. What Zaller discovered is that public opinion tends to follow the lead of party leaders and pundits, as partisans turn to their own leaders and trusted sources for cues on what they should think and feel about the central questions of the day. Normally, when the two sides offer competing views, the 40-45 percent of voters on each side follow the lead of the "opinion leaders" on their side of the aisle.

But when leaders on one side are voicing a strong opinion -- in this case, the Republicans arguing that the sky is falling on the economy because of deficits, tax and spend liberalism, and over-regulation of business -- and the other side is either silent or echoing GOP talking points -- the average voter hears what sounds like a consensus and starts to mouth it.

Then pollsters start to pick up in their polls precisely the view they have been promulgating and elites have been putting into the minds and mouths of ordinary citizens, rendering elected officials all the more afraid of bucking what is now the conventional wisdom. And the result is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So now both the president and Congressional Democrats are making the same mistake Democrats chronically make: When the going gets rough, adopt GOP talking points. Unfortunately, that's bad politics and bad policy. It's bad politics because no one is going to believe that a Democrat is as serious as a Republican about cutting spending, especially the kind of "discretionary spending" (a term that if Frank Luntz didn't make it up, he should have) that disproportionately hits working and middle class people and the most vulnerable. It's bad policy because, as Nobel-Prize-winning economist after economist has told us, GOP plans for "economic growth" will kill hundreds of thousands of jobs, and if you really want to restore "business confidence," the best place to start is by putting Americans back to work and restoring consumer confidence.

You can't create robust growth by frightening or impoverishing everyone but the upper 1 percent, who spend the smallest percent of their income, if you want to sustain demand.

Americans need a choice again between two parties, not between two strains of Hoover Republicanism. The more Democrats offer them the latter, the more they will both sink the economy and blur any distinctions left between the parties. Frankly, if the question is, "Who can do the better job slashing programs to finance tax breaks for the rich?" I would vote Republican. If you want trickle down, vote for people who really believe in it, not the ones who say they believe in it when they are too frightened to say what they really believe.

Three Wings, One Air Supply

That brings us to the third reason so many Democrats have created a third wing of the Republican Party: because they're competing for the same corporate money, which leads them to support the same policies. The major difference between Republicans and Democrats is that virtually all of the Republicans are quite comfortable being bought because it fits their ideology, whereas most of the Democrats who are beholden to one industry or another are conflicted about it -- but not conflicted enough to pass a fair elections bill when they had the chance last year that might have taken away some of the advantages of incumbency but restored integrity to our electoral system.

From the standpoint of voters across the political spectrum, who overwhelmingly endorse statements such as, "It's time we returned to government of, by, and for the people, not government of, bought, and paid for by big corporations," or (in reference to the tax cuts to the rich), "In tough times like these, rich people ought to be giving to charity, not getting it," they have no idea where to turn, because neither party seems to be standing up anymore for working and middle class Americans, let alone for least fortunate among us. What they hear from Democrats are talking points like the following from a Senate press release, which is indistinguishable from the disingenuous pabulum coming from the other side, and does little more than reinforce the conservative economic message: "It's time for Republicans to join Democrats to cut spending in a smart, responsible way that reduces our deficit while creating American jobs, not destroying them."

In other words, let's cut our way to growth.

Somewhere Ronald Reagan is smiling.

The Democrats are at a crossroads. They can continue to populate the third wing of the Republican Party, fundamentally accepting the premises of Reagan's narrative about government the way Republicans from Eisenhower through Ford accepted the premises of Roosevelt's New Deal. If they choose that course, they will continue to marginalize, antagonize, and demoralize not only their base but the vast majority of swing voters, who don't give one whit about ideology but simply want someone to represent their interests and values -- most importantly, the idea that America ought to work again for people who work for a living.

Alternatively, they can return to progressive principles, starting by articulating for themselves as well as the American people what those principles are. (Personally, I have no idea what it means to be a Democrat anymore, other than to "talk about jobs," as if talking about them will somehow magically create them, while searching for compromises with Republicans at each successive "budget crisis" -- this time the debt ceiling -- that will endanger even more jobs.)

If they choose to endorse progressive principles again, they will need to hammer home the distinction between the party that cares first and foremost about working and middle class Americans, those who want to join the ranks of the shrinking middle class, and the small businesses that create two-thirds of all new private sector jobs for working Americans; and the party that cares first and foremost about the rich and well-connected, the big corporations that ship American jobs overseas and rake in massive profits without sharing that prosperity with their workers, and CEOs, Wall Street bankers, and their bloated bonuses.

That would be a change we can believe in. But the Democrats would have to mean it this time.

Drew Westen, Ph.D. is a clinical, personality, and political psychologist and neuroscientist, and Professor in the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The right really, really wants Obama to be their version of Jimmy Carter


Barack Obama

The right really, really wants Obama to be Jimmy Carter

The right really, really wants Obama to be Jimmy Carter
AP/Bob Daugherty
Jimmy Carter in 1978

On Wednesday, The Weekly Standard's Jay Cost likened President Obama's current political predicament to what Jimmy Carter faced at roughly this same point in his single term in office, when Carter delivered his "malaise speech." It's a pretty flimsy parallel, and if you're interested in why, Jonathan Bernstein did fine job picking apart Cost's argument.

What's interesting is how often we hear this from the right -- the idea that Obama's presidency represents the second coming of Carter's. Cost isn't even the first to invoke the "malaise" speech. Rush Limbaugh did it a year ago, claiming that Obama's message to the nation after the Gulf oil spill was "almost verbatim" what Carter had said back in 1979:

I tell you, it's second term of Jimmy Carter! And it's liberalism 100% through and through. Jimmy Carter, 1979, July 15th, gave the same speech.

Not that Rush was the first to go down this road, either. For instance, a week before that, Fox News' website ran a piece titled "Barack Obama = Jimmy Carter?" in which Jon Kraushar argued that a recent Obama speech on the economy was eerily similar to the "malaise" speech:

The apt comparison between Obama’s speech on the economy and Carter’s is that “a crisis of confidence” persists today. There is the same anxiety that in Barack Obama we have another Jimmy Carter—a self-righteous ideologue who is in over his head, championing policies that are not only unpopular but also destructive.

Nor was Kraushar the first. Basically from the moment Obama took office, conservative media outlets have been relentlessly playing the Carter card, whether the topic is the economy or foreign policy. Take this editorial from the conservative Washington Times back in January, just after the Egyptian uprising began:

As Egypt’s regime totters on the verge of collapse, President Obama is looking less like Ronald Reagan and more like the Gipper’s predecessor, Jimmy Carter. The turmoil in Egypt is markedly similar to the revolution that gripped Iran 33 years ago. Egypt may be to Mr. Obama what Iran was to Mr. Carter.

Or this from a blogger at Red State when Obama delivered his Middle East speech at the State Department last month:

Charges that President Obama was the taller, suaver, better-looking version of the bitter, shrunken commie-sympathizing Jimmy Carter seemed a bit of a stretch. President Obama’s Middle East speech changed all that.

It’s official: President Obama is Jimmy Carter II.

Or this from Bahukutumbi Raman at Forbes. writing about Obama and North Korea back in May 2009:

During the U.S. Presidential primaries last year, I had expressed my misgivings that Barack Obama might turn out to be another Jimmy Carter, whose confused thinking and soft image paved the way for the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran....

The defiant action of North Korea in testing a long-range missile with military applications last month, and its latest act of defiance in reportedly carrying out an underground nuclear test on May 25, can be attributed--at least partly, if not fully--to its conviction that it will have nothing to fear from the Obama administration for its acts of defiance

And on and on it goes.

Now, it's true that Obama's rise in 2008 in some ways called to mind Carter's in 1976 -- especially when it came to devising smart primary season strategies (Carter by recognizing that recent reforms had shifted all of the action away from the convention, and Obama by targeting and racking up massive margins in small and mid-size caucus states). This is something I wrote about myself at the time.

But it's not hard to see why the right has been so intent on maintaining the comparison throughout Obama's presidency. It serves two purposes: stirring the passions of the GOP base and encouraging a negative association among swing voters.

To the conservative masses, the name "Carter" is a virtual curse word -- a symbol of everything they despise about the Democratic Party and liberalism in general.

Why the venom? Part of it has to do with the fact that Carter's presidency really was unsuccessful, and that it ended with painfully high unemployment, inflation, and interest rates, not to mention a prolonged hostage crisis. So they know that things were bad under Carter and that he was a Democrat, so therefore (in their view) his presidency serves as a model of what happens when Democrats control Washington.

Just as important, though, is the role Carter must necessarily play in one of the right's favorite past-times: Reagan mythologizing. The Gipper can't be America's savior if the president before him wasn't such so unspeakably terrible that that the country's very survival was in doubt.

So playing up the Obama-as-Carter concept help fill the GOP base with resentment and hostility, which translates into increased activism and turnout at the polls. Swing voters, meanwhile, don't need the mythology, but they too recognize -- either from memory or from what they've heard -- that Carter's term has become the modern standard by which failed presidencies are measured.

What's interesting here is how far the right's Carter caricature is from reality. Yes, he wasn't successful as president, but in their telling, this is usually because he was a radical, European-style socialist president -- just like Obama. But Carter, at least when he was president, was actually a very conservative Democrat, who often had as much trouble with his own party's members of Congress as with Republicans. I wrote about this a few months ago:

But the bigger issue was simply that Carter's entire presidency was a fluke. He was the only Democratic candidate in 1976 to fully grasp the significance of that year's massively expanded primary and caucus calendar; the party's more logical White House prospects still believed the old rules -- which allowed candidates to hold back until late in the primary season or just before the convention and still win -- still applied. By the time they figured things out, Carter had sealed the nomination -- with only 40 percent of all primary voters backing him and without the support of many of the party's traditional coalition components.

Those who only know Carter by his modern-day caricature (our first socialist president!) may not realize that his domestic economic policies were conservative and often hostile to organized labor and key Democratic interest groups. These groups and their members had, in most cases, never liked Carter in the first place and would have blocked his nomination if they'd known how to. Thus, the Democrats were split for almost all of Carter's presidency, ultimately leading to Ted Kennedy's 1980 primary challenge to the president.

To his credit, Cost seems to recognize this. In a follow-up post Friday morning, he noted Carter's struggles with his own party and conceded that Obama isn't facing anything like this. Then he argued that there's actually a better parallel: Obama isn't Jimmy Carter, he's actually ... Michael Dukakis.

  • Steve Kornacki is Salon's news editor. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki More: Steve Kornacki

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Neocons Trade Medicare for War

June 14, 2011 at 20:54:28

Neocons Trade Medicare for War

From Consortium News

For decades now, America's neoconservatives have pushed for higher military spending and baited their political opponents as being "soft" on whatever the enemy-of-the-day was: Moscow, Nicaragua, Cuba in the 1980s; al-Qaeda, Iraq, Iran, Libya in recent years.

The neocons happily smeared Americans who opposed the huge Pentagon budgets, tagging them as anti-American or disloyal. They were people who would "blame America first," as Ronald Reagan's neocon Ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, famously declared.

The neocons, who first rose to prominence under Reagan in the 1980s, also put fiscal responsibility in the back seat whenever the trade-off was more military spending. Indeed, Reagan's first budget director, David Stockman, has traced the origins of today's budget crisis, in part, to the neocon insistence on bloated Pentagon budgets.

Last year, in a New York Times op-ed entitled "Four Deformations of the Apocalypse," Stockman said one of those "deformations" resulted from the fact that "the neocons were pushing the military budget skyward."

Back then, however, Reagan could appease Washington's political factions, from Republicans wanting more tax cuts to Democrats defending social programs, by running big deficits. Reagan did target "welfare queens" and other unpopular groups for budget cuts but he essentially papered over the ideological differences with massive borrowing from foreign countries.

Today, however, as those deficits reach a crisis point, hard choices are finally being forced on the American political system. Yet, the neocons retain their place of extraordinary influence in Washington and are determined to keep military spending "skyward."

To do that, today's neocons are ready to make trade-offs that would shrink the social safety net for millions of Americans, including senior citizens whose lives depend on Medicare. For instance, Sen. Joe Lieberman, one of the leading neocons in Congress, has proposed raising the eligibility requirement for Medicare from 65 to 67.

While Lieberman suggests the change is a modest one, what it means for many Americans is that they will either face exorbitant fees from private insurers after turning 65 or go without insurance altogether and hope their health holds up for another two years.

As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has noted , "Not every 65- or 66-year-old denied Medicare would be able to get private coverage -- in fact, many would find themselves uninsured. So what would these seniors do?

"Well, as the health economists Austin Frakt and Aaron Carroll document, right now Americans in their early 60s without health insurance routinely delay needed care, only to become very expensive Medicare recipients once they reach 65.

"This pattern would be even stronger and more destructive if Medicare eligibility were delayed. As a result, Mr. Frakt and Mr. Carroll suggest, Medicare spending might actually go up, not down, under Mr. Lieberman's proposal."

Life or Death

But let's state this predicament more directly: What does it mean for a 65-year-old to postpone needed medical treatment and then get emergency care for acute problems once he or she finally qualifies for Medicare two years later? It means the person is going to survive in a much reduced condition -- or die.

A person who postpones treatment of a chronic illness like diabetes, hypertension or cancer can expect to face surgery, amputations, incapacity or early death. In other words, the neocons are willing to trade your health and your life for their higher military spending.

Like the old explanation of how the Nazis eliminated one group after another, you might say that the neocons first came for the welfare queens and since you weren't a welfare queen, you didn't protest; then they came for the people who needed subsidized housing or food stamps and since you weren't one of them, you stayed silent; and now they are coming for those of us who need Medicare and -- by now -- we are so divided and deluded that our protests can be overridden and ignored.

But why, you might ask, are the neocons so determined to maintain U.S. military spending at record levels -- even as the United States spends nearly as much on war and armaments as the rest of the world combined? Why must that spending be protected even at the cost of vital services for Americans?

On one level, the answer is self-interest. Many of the top think tanks, lobbying shops and law firms -- where prominent neocons earn fat salaries when they're not working in the government -- get gobs of money from military contractors, either as generous donations or hefty fees. It's never wise to bite the hand that feeds you.

Plus, when the neocons rotate back into government -- as they hope to under a new Republican president in 2013 -- they want to control a robust military that can shove around global adversaries. What's the fun in having to negotiate?

Some neocons also are deeply committed to the interests of Israel and see the proper role of the U.S. military as taking down Israeli adversaries that are beyond the capability even of the top-notch Israeli Defense Forces.

While Israel is capable of thrashing the Palestinians in Gaza or blasting apart Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, it couldn't reach out hundreds of miles and eliminate Muslim enemies like Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Libya's Muammar Gaddafi or Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That requires the nonpareil U.S. military.

Getting Iran

And, with Hussein now gone and Gaddafi under siege, that leaves Iran as Israel's pre-eminent threat, and it is not within easy range of Israel's air force. So, some neocons are quite open about the need to maintain high levels of U.S. military spending in case Israel decides to attack Iran and its nuclear program.

The Washington Post, which has evolved into the neocons' flagship newspaper, has warned that any significant reduction in the U.S. military budget would jeopardize the power needed to confront Iran and other "rogue" states.

In a Tuesday editorial praising Defense Secretary Robert Gates for chastising NATO allies over their reduced military spending, the Post also noted that President Barack Obama was sliding in a similarly dangerous direction.

The Post editors wrote: "Despite an ongoing war in Afghanistan and the growing threat from rogue states such as Iran, Mr. Gates noted, European defense spending has fallen 15 percent since 2001, even as that of the United States has doubled.

"The American portion of NATO defense spending, which hovered around 50 percent during the Cold War, is now 75 percent." Mr. Gates rightly blamed European governments for being "apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.'"

The Post continued: "The secretary's sermon was well-justified. But we couldn't help wondering if the assembled European ministers would find some irony in his lessons. The Obama administration, after all, is pressing for big defense cuts of its own -- up to $400 billion over the next dozen years, on top of savings of a similar amount already identified by Mr. Gates.

"That will mean, the Pentagon chief said in a speech last month, 'a smaller military' that 'will be able to go fewer places and do fewer things.'"

Beyond criticizing the notion of limiting the Pentagon budget, the Post chastised Obama for withdrawing U.S. strike aircraft from the Libya campaign and for considering a significant draw-down in the 100,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan.

The Post cited, nervously, "some reports suggesting that senior White House aides are again pushing to abandon the mission of creating an Afghan government and army capable of defending the country by 2014."

"It's hard to see Europeans responding to appeals like that of Mr. Gates at a time when the United States is reducing its military capabilities, scaling back its objectives [in Afghanistan] and insisting on taking a back seat during a war [in Libya]."

The Post concluded, "It may be that NATO has a dim future, but if so it's not only because its smaller members are shirking their responsibilities. It's also because its dominant member leader is eschewing its indispensable role of leadership."

Easing Out Obama

In other words, the Washington Post -- the capital's most powerful newspaper -- is rejecting any significant reductions in U.S. military spending even as vital domestic programs, such as Medicare, are under extreme pressure.

Already, the Republicans in Washington have caved to these neocon demands by sparing the Pentagon from any budget cuts as the GOP would replace Medicare with a privatized voucher system that would shift costs heavily onto the sick elderly.

As Reagan's budget director Stockman noted in another New York Times op-ed, congressional Republicans and their supposedly deficit-hawk budget chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan, backed away from challenging the neocons on military spending.

"Ingratiating himself with the neocons, Mr. Ryan has put the $700 billion defense and security budget off limits," Stockman wrote.

Ryan's surrender on military spending cuts, combined with the Right's insistence on further tax cuts for the rich, skewed the Republican budget plan toward far more severe domestic spending cuts, including ending Medicare as a government-run insurance program.

Still, between the continued high military spending and the new rounds of tax cuts, Ryan's budget would not project a balanced federal budget for nearly three decades -- and would achieve that primarily by shifting health-care costs onto seniors.

But Ryan's budget deal with the neocons is nothing new. It represents a cornerstone of the Right's alliance dating back to the late 1970s when the Republicans, the neocons and the Religious Right came together to push Ronald Reagan into the White House.

As Stockman noted then, what the neocons wanted was "skyward" military spending, which also fit with the desire of Israel's Likud leadership to take a harder line against Arab militants who then were seen as allied with the Soviet Union.

"Regime Change'

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the neocons began adjusting their strategies to focus more directly on Israel's foes in the Muslim world. A neocon theory emerged that "regime change" in places like Iraq, Syria and Iran would deprive Israel's closer-in enemies, such as Lebanon's Hezbollah and Palestine's Hamas, of financial and military support and thus enable Israel to dictate peace terms.

The early outlines of this concept for violently remaking the Middle East emerged in 1996 when a group of American neocons, including Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, went to work for Israeli Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu during his campaign for prime minister.

The neocon strategy paper, called "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," advanced the idea that only regime change in hostile Muslim countries could achieve the necessary "clean break" from the diplomatic standoffs that had followed inconclusive Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Under the "clean break," Israel would no longer seek peace through mutual understanding and compromise, but rather through confrontation, including the violent removal of leaders such as Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

The plan called Hussein's ouster "an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right," but also one that would destabilize the Assad dynasty in Syria and thus topple the power dominoes into Lebanon, where Hezbollah might soon find itself without its key Syrian ally. Iran also could find itself in the cross-hairs of "regime change."

But what the "clean break" needed was the military might of the United States, since some of the targets like Iraq were too far away and too powerful to be defeated even by Israel's highly efficient military. The cost in Israeli lives and to Israel's economy from such overreach would have been staggering.

In 1998, the U.S. neocon brain trust pushed the "clean break" plan another step forward with the creation of the Project for the New American Century, which urged President Bill Clinton to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

However, Clinton would only go so far, maintaining a harsh embargo on Iraq and enforcing a "no-fly zone" which involved U.S. aircraft conducting periodic bombing raids. Still, with Clinton or his heir apparent, Al Gore, in the White House, a full-scale invasion of Iraq appeared out of the question.

The first key political obstacle was removed when the neocons helped engineer George W. Bush's ascension to the presidency in Election 2000. However, the path was not fully cleared until al-Qaeda terrorists attacked New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, creating a political climate across America for war and revenge.

In March 2003, surrounded by neocon advisers, Bush ordered an unprovoked invasion of Iraq. Though the war had other motives besides Israeli security -- from Bush's personal animus toward Saddam Hussein to controlling Iraq's oil resources -- a principal goal of the neocons was the projection of American power deep into the Muslim world, to strike at enemy states beyond Israel's limited military reach.

Of course, the geopolitical motives were rarely mentioned publicly. Instead, the American people were fed falsehoods about Iraq's WMDs and Hussein's ties to al-Qaeda.

Neocon Failure

The neocon plan might have worked, except that the violent resistance in Iraq to the U.S. occupation soon made it clear that the neocons' grander plan of extending "regime change" to Syria and Iran had to be put on hold.

With the bloody Iraq War eroding George W. Bush's political support by mid-decade and the rise of Barack Obama in 2008, the neocons found themselves shunted out of government power centers but not out of Washington's opinion circles. The neocons also retained allies in the State Department and the U.S. military.

But the neocons needed to buy time as the Democrats gained control of the White House and Congress in 2009. So the savvy neocons conducted what amounted to a delaying action as they worked to dirty up and weaken Obama.

And the young president fell into their trap. To show his commitment to bipartisanship, Obama retained key figures from Bush's national security team, including Defense Secretary Gates and Central Command chief, Gen. David Petraeus, both neocon favorites. Obama also appointed a neocon-lite Democrat, Hillary Clinton, to be Secretary of State.

Within months, Obama found himself hemmed in by these advisers as they sought to push him toward a major escalation in the Afghan War. They did so by limiting his war options on the inside, while the neocons on the outside built elite political support for the extra troops.

In late 2009, Obama finally gave in to the Pentagon demands, but he thought he had extracted an agreement for a withdrawal beginning in July 2011. However, once he agreed to the extra troops, he found himself under neocon criticism for any actual plan to withdraw them.

Meanwhile, the Afghan War escalation alienated Obama from his liberal "base." Many disillusioned progressives sat out the 2010 congressional elections, which saw the Republicans regain control of the House and strengthen their hand in the Senate.

Now, as Obama's reelection prospects decline -- amid a struggling economy, continued Republican obstructionism and mounting criticism of his leadership skills -- the neocons can see the end of the four-year tunnel.

All the neocons have to do is continue harassing Obama for another 16 months, using their influence in Official Washington to demean any foreign policy adjustments that might win him back favor with his liberal "base."

Already, the talking points are in play if the President goes in that direction: Obama doesn't believe in "American exceptionalism"; Obama is a "declinist": Obama "apologizes" for America; he is "weak" on American power. The neocons might as well trot out Jeane Kirkpatrick's old line and accuse Obama of wanting to "blame America first."

Having fended off a challenge to their warlike foreign policy -- and to their readiness to put American troops in harm's way for geopolitical goals -- the neocons can now look forward to a Republican restoration to the White House in 2013 and getting their hands back on the levers of American military might.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at more...)

The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author
and do not necessarily reflect those of this website or its editors.

Monday, June 13, 2011

On Again, Off Again: The growing rift between Republicans and Wall Street

On Again, Off Again

The growing rift between Republicans and Wall Street.

| | web only

Do Republican leaders in Congress answer to Tea Party activists or to Wall Street? That question will be answered in the next few weeks as the debt-ceiling fight comes to a head. The choice that GOP leaders make will influence more than fiscal policy or the financial markets; it will also shape the 2012 election and reveal the true identity of today’s Republican Party.

On Again, Off Again
Wall Street has been urging Republicans to approve more government borrowing for months, arguing that it is too risky to use the debt-ceiling cap as a hostage in the budget battle. That message was delivered during a series of meetings in April between GOP leaders and top Wall Street executives and has been repeated often by the finance sector’s ubiquitous lobbyists on Capitol Hill. As Rep. Michael Grimm, a Republican from Staten Island told The Wall Street Journal: “Wall Street understands that if we default on our obligations, our markets are going to crash. … They’re doing their job and talking to a lot of members.”

So far, these pleas for prudence haven’t gotten much traction. This isn’t surprising. Wall Street and the Republican Party have long been drifting apart, and the GOP has been leaning more and more toward the Tea Party, which demands that the debt ceiling not be raised without drastic reductions to government spending.

Tea Party supporters have turned this issue into a fealty test, threatening to mount primary challenges against Speaker John Boehner and other top House Republicans if they vote to raise the debt ceiling without huge budget cuts. William Temple, chair of the Tea Party Founding Fathers, has said that his group will grade Republican members of Congress on only one issue this year: their position on the debt ceiling.

Disagreement over the debt ceiling is yet more evidence that Wall Street and the Republican Party increasingly inhabit separate worlds. Over the past 15 years, the Republican Party has become ever more dependent on downscale voters from rural and small-town America, as well as more beholden to the religious right. In contrast, the financial industry - which is largely based in the most cosmopolitan parts of blue America - has become a more complex and global business that is increasingly dominated by highly educated leaders with postgraduate degrees from elite universities.

While John Boehner grew up working in his father’s bar and got a B.A. at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan grew up as a broker’s son on Park Avenue before earning degrees from Tufts and Harvard Business School. The two top Republicans on the House Financial Services Committee - Spencer Bachus and Randy Neugebauer - were small-business men in the South before going into politics. Wall Street’s top hedge-fund managers, meanwhile, include a number of PhDs such as former math professor James Simons and the computer scientist David Shaw.

To be sure, there are plenty of hardcore conservatives on Wall Street. But most in the finance world are more pragmatic than ideological. Many Wall Street leaders saw tax increases as inevitable as the Bush presidency came to a close, and didn’t have a problem with Obama’s proposal to raise rates on the wealthy. Bankers also believe that government has an important role to play in managing the economy and making investments in education, science, infrastructure, and other areas.

Once upon a time, the Republican Party took a pragmatic view of taxes - Reagan rolled back 40 percent of his tax cuts - and saw a role for government. But those days are long gone. And the ideological rigidity of today’s GOP is unnerving to Wall Streeters who view the world as inherently complex.

In turn, with anti-elite populism surging in conservative states, Republicans see major risks in getting too close to Wall Street - even as the party quietly does the Street’s bidding on a host of regulatory issues. Many of the Republicans who backed the Troubled Asset Relief Program have now spent three years abjectly apologizing for their vote or were ousted by primary challenges from the right.

The first two years of the Obama administration did help bring Wall Street and the Republicans closer together again. But according to campaign records, there has not actually been a seismic shift of Wall Street money to the GOP. Democrats only narrowly raised less money than Republicans from the securities and investment sector in the 2010 election cycle.

If Republicans go to the brink or beyond on the debt ceiling, they will likely lose whatever ground they have regained with Wall Street amid an anti-Obama backlash. This could have big implications for fundraising in the 2012 election. After the legal profession, no industry gives more in political donations than financial services. The GOP’s disadvantage here hurt the party not just in 2008 but also in 2006 when the Democrats regained the Congress.

By taking an absolutist stance on the debt ceiling, the GOP is handing the advantage back to Democratic Party fundraisers. Wall Street may not be a haven of liberalism. But it is more likely to back a Democratic Party that wants to raise taxes on the rich and impose new regulations than to support Republicans who are crazy enough up to blow up the economy on principle.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The GOP's CIA Playbook: Destabilize Country to Sweep Back Into Power



The GOP's CIA Playbook: Destabilize Country to Sweep Back Into Power

Modern Republicans have a simple approach to politics when they are not in the White House: Make America as ungovernable as possible by using almost any means available.

Photo Credit: Fibonacci Blue
Modern Republicans have a simple approach to politics when they are not in the White House: Make America as ungovernable as possible by using almost any means available, from challenging the legitimacy of opponents to spreading lies and disinformation to sabotaging the economy.

Over the past four decades or so, the Republicans have simply not played by the old give-and-take rules of politics. Indeed, if one were to step back and assess this Republican approach, what you would see is something akin to how the CIA has destabilized target countries, especially those that seek to organize themselves in defiance of capitalist orthodoxy.

To stop this spread of “socialism,” nearly anything goes. Take, for example, Chile in the early 1970s when socialist President Salvador Allende won an election and took steps aimed at improving the conditions of the country’s poor.

Under the direction of President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the CIA was dispatched to engage in psychological warfare against Allende’s government and to make the Chilean economy “scream.”

U.S. intelligence agencies secretly sponsored Chilean news outlets, like the influential newspaper El Mercurio, and supported “populist” uprisings of truckers and housewives. On the economic front, the CIA coordinated efforts to starve the Chilean government of funds and to drive unemployment higher.

Worsening joblessness could then be spun by the CIA-financed news outlets as proof that Allende’s policies didn’t work and that the only choice for Chile was to scrap its social programs. When Allende compromised with the Right, that had the additional benefit of causing friction between him and some of his supporters who wanted even more radical change.

As Chile became increasingly ungovernable, the stage was set for the violent overthrow of Allende, the installation of a rightist dictatorship, and the imposition of “free-market” economics that directed more wealth and power to Chile’s rich and their American corporate backers.

Though the Allende case in Chile is perhaps the best known example of this intelligence strategy (because it was investigated by a Senate committee in the mid-1970s), the CIA has employed this approach frequently around the world. Sometimes the target government is removed without violence, although other times a bloody coup d’etat has been part of the mix.

Home to Roost

So, it is perhaps fitting that a comparable approach to politics would eventually come home to roost in the United States, even to the point that some of the propaganda funding comes from outside sources (think of Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times and Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.)

Obviously, given the wealth of the American elites, the relative proportion of the propaganda funding is derived more domestically in the United States than it would be in a place like Chile (or some other unfortunate Third World country that has gotten on Washington’s bad side).

But the concept remains the same: Control as much as possible what the population gets to see and hear; create chaos for your opponent’s government, economically and politically; blame if for the mess; and establish in the minds of the voters that their only way out is to submit, that the pain will stop once your side is back in power.

Today’s Republicans have fully embraced this concept of political warfare, whereas the Democrats generally have tried to play by the old rules, acquiescing when Republicans are in office with the goal of “making government work,” even if the Republicans are setting the agenda.

Unlike the Democrats and the Left, the Republicans and the Right have prepared themselves for this battle, almost as if they are following a CIA training manual. They have invested tens of billions of dollars in a propaganda infrastructure that operates 24/7, year-round, to spot and exploit missteps by political enemies.

This vertically integrated media machine allows useful information to move quickly from a right-wing blog to talk radio to Fox News to the Wall Street Journal to conservative magazines and book publishing. Right-wing propagandists are well-trained and well-funded so they can be deployed to all manner of public outlets to hammer home the talking points.

When a Democrat somehow does manage to get into the White House, Republicans in Congress (and even in the Courts) are ready to do their part in the destabilization campaign. Rather than grant traditional “honeymoon” periods of cooperation with the president’s early policies, the battle lines are drawn immediately.

In late 1992, for instance, Bill Clinton complained that his “honeymoon” didn’t even last through the transition, the two-plus months before a new president takes office. He found himself facing especially harsh hazing from the Washington press corps, as the mainstream media – seeking to shed its “liberal” label and goaded by the right-wing media – tried to demonstrate that it would be tougher on a Democrat than any Republican.

The mainstream press hyped minor “scandals” about Clinton’s Whitewater real estate investment and Travel-gate, a flap about some routine firings at the White House travel office. Meanwhile, the Right’s rapidly growing media was spreading false stories implicating Clinton in the death of White House aide Vince Foster and other “mysterious deaths.”

Republicans in Congress did all they could to feed the press hysteria, holding hearings and demanding that special prosecutors be appointed. When the Clinton administration relented, the choice of prosecutors was handed over to right-wing Republican Appeals Court Judge David Sentelle, who consciously picked political enemies of Clinton to oversee zealous investigations.

Finally Winning

The use of scandal-mongering to destabilize the Clinton administration finally peaked in late 1998 and early 1999 when the Republican-controlled House voted impeachment and Clinton had to endure (but survive) a humiliating trial in the Senate.

The Republican strategy, however, continued into Campaign 2000 with Vice President Al Gore facing attacks on his character and integrity. Gore was falsely painted as a delusional braggart, as both right-wing and mainstream media outlets freely misquoted him and subjected him to ridicule (while simultaneously bowing and scraping before Republican candidate George W. Bush).

When Gore managed to win the national popular vote anyway – and would have carried the key state of Florida if all legally cast ballots were counted – the Republicans and the Right rose up in fury demanding that the Florida count be stopped before Bush’s tiny lead completely disappeared. Starting a minor riot in Miami, the Republicans showed how far they would go to claim the White House again.

Five Republican partisans on the U.S. Supreme Court – wanting to ensure that the new president would keep their side in control of the courts and recognizing that their party was prepared to spread disorder if Gore prevailed – stopped the counting of votes and made Bush the “winner.” [For details, see the book, Neck Deep.]

Despite this partisan ruling, Gore and the Democrats stepped back from the political confrontation. The right-wing press cheered and gloated, while the mainstream news media urged the people to accept Bush as “legitimate” for the good of the country.

For most of Bush’s disastrous presidency, this dynamic remained the same. Though barely able to complete a coherent sentence, Bush was treated with great deference, even when he failed to protect the country from the 9/11 attacks and led the nation into an unprovoked war with Iraq. There were no combative investigations of Bush like those that surrounded Clinton.

Even at the end of Bush’s presidency – when his policies of deregulation, tax cuts for the rich and massive budget deficits combined to create the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression – the prevailing message from the Establishment was that it was unfair to lay too much blame on Bush.

Shortly after Barack Obama took office in 2009, a Republican/right-wing talking point was to complain when anyone took note of the mess that Bush had left behind: “There you go again, blaming Bush.”

Getting Obama

Immediately, too, the Republicans and the Right set to work demonizing and destroying Obama’s presidency. Instead of allowing the Democrats to enact legislation aimed at addressing the financial and economic crisis, the Senate Republicans launched filibuster after filibuster.

When Obama and the Democrats did push through emergency legislation, such as the $787 billion stimulus package, they had to water it down to reach the 60-vote super-majority. The Republicans and the Right then quickly laid the blame for high unemployment on the “failed” stimulus.

There also were waves of propaganda pounding Obama’s legitimacy. The Right’s news media pressed bogus accusations that Obama had been born in Kenya and thus was not constitutionally eligible to be president. He was denounced as a socialist, a Muslim, a fascist, an enemy of Israel, and pretty much any other charge that might hit some American hot button.

When Obama welcomed American students back to school in 2009, the Right organized against his simple message – urging young people to work hard – as if it were some form of totalitarian mind control. His attempt to address the growing crisis in American health care was denounced as taking away freedoms and imposing “death panels.”

Soon, billionaires like oil man David Koch and media mogul Murdoch were promoting a “grassroots” rebellion against Obama called the Tea Party. Activists were showing up at presidential speeches with guns and brandishing weapons at rallies near Washington.

The high-decibel disruptions and the “screaming” economy created the impression of political chaos. Largely ignoring the role of the Republicans, the press faulted Obama for failing to live up to his campaign promise to bring greater bipartisanship to Washington.

Hearing the discord framed that way, many average Americans also blamed Obama; many of the President’s supporters grew demoralized; and, as happened with Allende in Chile, some on the Left turned against Obama for not doing more, faster.

By November 2010, the stage was set for a big Republican comeback. The party swept to victory in the House and fell just short in the Senate. But Congress was not the Republicans’ true goal. What they really want is the White House with all its executive powers.

However, following Obama’s success in killing Osama bin Laden on May 2 and with what is widely regarded as a weak Republican presidential field, the Right’s best hope for regaining complete control of the U.S. government in 2012 is to sink the U.S. economy.

Already, the Republican success in limiting the scope of the stimulus package and then labeling it a failure – combined with deep cuts in local, state and federal government spending – have helped push the economy back to the brink where a double-dip recession is now a serious concern.

Despite these worries – and a warning from Moody’s about a possible downgrade on U.S. debt if Congress delays action on raising the debt limit – the Republicans are vowing more brinksmanship over the debt-limit vote. Before acting, they are demanding major reductions in government spending (while refusing to raise taxes on the rich).

A Conundrum

So, Obama and the Democrats face another conundrum. If they slash spending too much, they will further stall the recovery. However, if they refuse to submit to this latest round of Republican blackmail, they risk a debt crisis that could have devastating consequences for the U.S. economy for years – even decades – to come.

Either way, the right-wing media and much of the mainstream press will put the blame on Obama and the Democrats. They will be held accountable for failing to govern.

The Republican propaganda machine will tell the American people that they must throw Obama and the Democrats out of office for stability to return. There will be assurances about how the “magic of the market” will bring back the bright days of prosperity.

Of course, the reality of a new Republican administration, especially with a GOP Congress, would be the return of the old right-wing nostrums: more tax cuts for the rich, less regulation of corporations, more military spending, and more privatization of social programs.

Any budget balancing will come at the expense of labor rights for union employees and shifting the costs for health care onto the backs of the elderly. Yet, all this will be surrounded by intense propaganda explaining the public pain as a hangover from misguided government “social engineering.”

There is, of course, the possibility that the American people will see through today’s Republican CIA-style strategy of “making the economy scream.” Americans might come to recognize the role of the pseudo-populist propagandists on Fox News and talk radio.

Or Republicans might have second thoughts about playing chicken on the debt limit and running the risk of a global depression. Such a gamble could redound against them. And, it’s hard to believe that even their most ardent billionaire-backers would find destruction of their stock portfolios that appealing.

But there can be a momentum to madness. We have seen throughout history that events can get out of hand, that thoroughly propagandized true believers can truly believe. Sometimes, they don’t understand they are simply being manipulated for a lesser goal. Once the chaos starts, it is hard to restore order.

That has been another bloody lesson from the CIA’s operations in countries around the world. These covert actions can have excessive or unintended consequences.

Ousting Allende turned Chile into a fascist dictatorship that sent assassins far and wide, including Washington, D.C. Ousting Mossadegh in Iran led to the tyranny of the Shah and ultimately to an extreme Islamist backlash. Ousting Arbenz in Guatemala led to the butchery of some 200,000 people and the rise of a narco-state. Such examples can go on and on.

However, these CIA-type techniques can be very seductive, both to U.S. presidents looking for a quick fix to some international problem and to a political party trying to gain a decisive edge for winning. These methods can be especially dangerous when the other side doesn’t organize effectively to counter them.

The hard reality in the United States today is that the Republicans and the Right are now fully organized, armed with a potent propaganda machine and possessing an extraordinary political will. They are well-positioned to roll the U.S. economy off the cliff and blame the catastrophe on Obama.

Indeed, that may be their best hope for winning Election 2012.