Perhaps the biggest political question in 2010 is whether the American people will blame the nation’s mess on the long-term impact of Ronald Reagan’s “government is the problem” ideology (and on his successors from the Bush Family) – or on Barack Obama for not solving enough of the problems in less than two years.
The Republicans hope that public impatience with Obama will work to their advantage, while the Democrats must pray that the voters will recognize that the mess developed over several decades and that it makes little sense to hand power back to the party that dominated those years of national decline.
While most smart money is on the American people’s famous lack of historical memory (thus favoring the Republicans), there is a case to be made that it was Reaganism – a combination of anti-government ideology at home and tough-guy policies abroad – which led to many problems that America now faces.
Over the past 30 years, Reaganism and its spinoffs under George H.W. and George W. Bush caused or contributed to: Deregulation of corporations, union-busting, tax cuts for the wealthy, a shrinking middle class, lost manufacturing jobs, unprecedented federal debt, unbridled Wall Street greed, bubble-and-bust cycles, the worst recession since the Great Depression, two unfinished wars, erosion of civil liberties, environmental degradation, and a continued dependence on fossil fuels, especially foreign oil.
Yet, many U.S. pundits suggest that the American people are up in arms, Tea Party-style, against Big Government, that they want more unrestrained capitalism, less regulation of Wall Street banks, continued freedom for health insurance companies to operate as they wish, more tax cuts tilted toward the well-to-do, reductions in social programs like Social Security and Medicare, more belligerence toward enemies abroad – in short, more Reaganism.
So far, however, this analysis has not been confirmed by election results, including those on Tuesday. To the surprise of many pundits, a relatively conservative blue-collar district in Pennsylvania, which voted against Obama in 2008, elected Democrat Mark Critz to fill the seat of the late Rep. John Murtha, a Democrat who used government programs to get his constituents jobs.
Granted, other special elections and primaries have delivered other messages about what American voters want. Conservative Republican Scott Brown won in Massachusetts to fill the seat of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, although his victory may have been more a rejection of his over-confident Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley, than a referendum on Reaganism v. Obama’s “change you can believe in.”
In other states, incumbents and party-backed candidates have lost primaries to insurgents, from the defeats of Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pennsylvania, to the victories of Tea Partier Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pennsylvania. Also, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a conservative Democrat criticized for her pro-corporate positions, was forced into a run-off in Arkansas by Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.
However, the Critz victory in Pennsylvania – combined with Sestak beating party-switcher Specter in the state’s Democratic primary and Lincoln’s troubles in Arkansas – suggest that many voters may not be looking for a retreat to Reagan’s anti-government ideology but rather want pragmatic efforts by government to address the nation’s 30-year economic and fiscal decline.
Organized labor, in particular, played important roles in some of the recent election results, as union workers try to recover after three decades during which Reaganism was dominant. In a recent conversation, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told me that he traced the sharp decline in good-paying jobs for average Americans to Reagan’s anti-union policies.
“It was like night and day,” Trumka said, regarding how the fortunes of organized labor and its members turned with Reagan's election in 1980.
Though the rightist Tea Party movement has received lavish coverage from both the right-wing media and the mainstream press, the recent election results also don’t prove that Americans are eager to dial the clock back to days even before Reagan, to the laissez-faire capitalism of the early Twentieth Century, policies that led to the Great Depression.
It’s even less clear that Americans favor a more distant trip back into the past – to the Andrew Jackson-era battles over the rights of “sovereign” states to “nullify” federal laws, a struggle that both in the 1800s – and later in the 1960s – gave cover to white racists opposed to granting blacks and other minorities their civil rights.
The Tea Partiers bristle at suggestions that they are racist, but their excessive hostility to President Obama and their neo-Confederate attitudes about states’ rights have created a reasonable suspicion that many Tea Party activists don’t like the idea of a black man in the White House and favor putting racial and ethnic minorities “back in their place.”
Tea Party favorite Rand Paul, the son of libertarian Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, fed those suspicions after winning Kentucky’s Republican primary. In interviews, Rand Paul indicated he was opposed to the part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that required restaurants and other businesses to serve blacks.
After offering a theoretical defense of owner rights and doubting the constitutionality of that section of the law, Paul was asked by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, “How about desegregating lunch counters?”
While not answering the question directly, Paul suggested that he would place the rights of an owner over the rights of a customer.
Paul: “Well, what it gets into then is if you decide that restaurants are publicly owned and not privately owned, then do you say that you should have the right to bring your gun into a restaurant even though the owner of the restaurant says 'well no, we don't want to have guns in here,' the bar says 'we don't want to have guns in here because people might drink and start fighting and shoot each-other.'”
Paul continued: “Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant? These are important philosophical debates but not a very practical discussion.”
Maddow responded: “Well, it was pretty practical to the people who had the life nearly beaten out of them trying to desegregate Walgreen's lunch counters [during the civil rights movement] despite these esoteric debates about what it means about ownership. This is not a hypothetical, Dr. Paul.”
In a later interview, Paul criticized Maddow for asking the question. He also issued a statement saying he would not seek to repeal the Civil Rights Act.
However, Paul’s emphasis on owner rights gets to a central political question facing the country: Should the federal government do what it can to advance the nation’s “general welfare,” whether that means addressing social injustice (like segregation or other forms of discrimination) or alleviating economic pain (like high unemployment and lack of health care)?
The suspicions that Tea Partiers harbor racial and other prejudices also have been fed by the failure of many on the Right to object when President George W. Bush was claiming his unilateral authority to declare anyone he wished an “enemy combatant” and then denying basic rights such as habeas corpus.
It’s true that some libertarians did criticize Bush’s power grab, but many of today’s right-wing activists didn’t seem to mind as long as Bush was negating the rights of Muslims.
Indeed, two of the recurring Tea Party themes have been to claim that Obama was born in Kenya and that he is a secret Muslim, false racist-tinged claims that have been cheered at Tea Party rallies. There’s also the wacky stuff about Obama as the anti-Christ, as Hitler, as a Communist, as pro-terrorist, etc., etc.
Arguably, this anti-Obama hatred derives in part from his race, though it’s also true that President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton experienced ugly personal attacks in the 1990s, especially from the emerging right-wing powerhouse media, from the likes of talk show host Rush Limbaugh.
The Republican Party learned from the Clinton years that the “politics of personal destruction” works, as long as the themes are amplified enough through a dedicated media echo chamber. Many people end up believing what they hear if it is repeated often enough, even if the allegations lack any evidentiary support.
So, in 1993-94, Limbaugh and other right-wing media personalities pounded away at the Clintons, with suggestions that they were murderers and drug traffickers who ran a kind of Third World regime in Arkansas, a theme that amazingly spread beyond right-wing crazies into traditional conservative outlets like the Wall Street Journal and into centrist and even liberal publications, from The New Republic to The New Yorker.
When I was working at PBS “Frontline,” there was internal pressure to adopt this odd conventional wisdom that Arkansas was Haiti and Clinton was its Baby Doc. Some national journalists even fancied themselves as risking their lives by daring to travel to Arkansas to report on Clinton’s “crimes.”
As silly as much of this was, the dark suspicions about Clinton played an important role in the 1994 congressional elections. The Right – energized by its newfound media clout – turned out its voters in big numbers, while the Left, which lacked an effective media and had become disillusioned by Clinton’s cautious centrism, sat back.
The result was a resounding Republican victory, with House GOP leader Newt Gingrich’s “revolutionaries” seizing control of Congress. Limbaugh – for his work as the Republicans’ “national precinct chairman” – was made an honorary member of their House caucus.
In the following years, the Republicans successfully pressed for more and more “free trade” and more deregulation (aided and abetted by Clinton and other pro-corporate Democrats). For instance, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, which knocked down the Depression-era wall built to separate Main Street’s commercial banks from Wall Street‘s speculators, was backed by Clinton’s Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers and was signed by Clinton.
The rapidly growing right-wing media, which added Fox News in the mid-1990s, expanded exponentially during the Clinton era. But liberals and progressives continued to ignore the widening media gap, somehow hoping that the mainstream press might reverse its rightward drift and resume its more serious role during the days of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate in the 1970s.
Though Clinton did succeed in reducing the ranks of the America's poor and amazingly eliminated the Reagan-Bush-41-era budget deficits – even creating a surplus – the media asymmetry insured that Clinton’s Vice President Al Gore would have a difficult time keeping the White House in Democratic hands.
By then, the New York Times and the Washington Post had joined the fun in distorting or misquoting Gore’s words to make him into a delusional braggart. It was clear to nearly every working journalist that the smart career play was to trash Gore and to fawn over Republican George W. Bush.
To make matters worse for Gore, some on the American Left decided to show their pique over the centrist Clinton-Gore policies by backing third-party candidate Ralph Nader, who adopted the slogan that there wasn’t “a dime’s worth of difference” between Bush and Gore.
Still, the American voters, by a narrow margin nationally, favored Gore over Bush. However, in the key state of Florida, a combination of voting irregularities and Nader drawing off Democratic votes gave Bush a tiny lead that he was able to protect by getting five Republican partisans on the U.S. Supreme Court to shut down the state recount.
Once in office, Bush pushed through more tax cuts weighted heavily to the rich; he also advocated policies of “self-regulation” for the energy and other industries; he appointed cronies and incompetents to key jobs, such as Michael Brown to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency and later Christopher Cox to run the Securities and Exchange Commission.
After ignoring warnings before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Bush restyled himself as a tough-guy “war president” who bought into the grandiose neocon vision of remaking the Middle East through U.S. military force and “regime change.” In 2002, he quickly diverted the U.S. focus from the unfinished invasion of Afghanistan to the neocon war of choice, Iraq.
By the time Bush’s eight White House years were up, the United States was reeling, with a collapsing economy, a massive loss of good-paying jobs, a shrinking middle class, a decaying infrastructure, worsening economic inequality, tens of millions of Americans without basic health coverage, a record federal deficit, and two open-ended wars.
When inaugurated in January 2009, Barack Obama faced the biggest collection of crises for an incoming president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933. Obama’s first actions sought to stabilize the financial markets, stop the sell-off of stocks and reverse the economy’s shedding of jobs.
Rather than challenge the status quo too aggressively, Obama sought to reassure the Establishment, both in terms of domestic and foreign policies. To the dismay of some progressives, he kept on Bush’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates and appointed hardliner Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State.
Obama then struggled to pass a $787 billion stimulus measure to create jobs, though he was aggressively opposed by the Republican Party and elements of the media.
For instance, as the stock market continued to slide in February and March, commentators on General Electric’s business network CNBC trashed Obama. Jim Cramer blamed Obama for “the greatest wealth destruction” ever, and Rick Santelli came up with the idea of Tea Party protests.
Meanwhile, the American Left and progressives remained unwilling to make the kind of serious commitment in building media that could have balanced out the growing messaging asymmetry favoring the Right.
The Left’s Air America Radio was allowed to collapse while progressives clung to the consolation prize of GE allowing a few liberal-oriented shows on its other cable network, MSNBC (only after GE had failed at all other options, including trying to “out-Fox” Fox).
Some on the Left also reverted to a Nader-like insistence on political purity, pretending that the American people really wanted more radical solutions to the nation’s problems, even when polls showed a growing, media-whipped suspicion that Obama was moving too fast and doing too much.
Confronting this combination of factors, Obama often did behave timidly, wasting time and energy seeking some measure of bipartisanship from the Republicans. He also refused to demand any meaningful accountability (or even fact-finding) for the national security crimes of the Bush years, supposedly so the nation could look forward, not backwards.
While Obama’s hopes for gaining GOP bipartisanship proved quixotic, the moves angered progressives who had expected a more dramatic reversal of Bush’s policies both foreign and domestic.
Gradually, however, the economy began to turn around and Obama succeeded in enacting a health-care law that promised broader coverage for Americans, albeit the bill took longer than he wanted and passed only after taking a Republican-style approach that would require the uninsured to purchase private health insurance. Still, he received not a single Republican vote for the legislation.
Opinion polls also indicated that the American people were growing impatient with the weak economy and other domestic problems. The Republicans and the Right’s media seized on this discontent to repackage themselves as the new agents of change, yet their policies continued to represent the strategies that contributed to this 30-year American decline.
So, the question for Campaign 2010 becomes: Will the American people buy into the argument that the way to solve the nation’s problems is another big dose of anti-government Reaganism, i.e. fewer regulations on corporations and banks, more tax cuts, aggressive military actions abroad, more leeway for states to deny civil rights to minorities, and the scaling-back (or scrapping) of programs like Medicare, Social Security and the new health-care law?
For instance, will the voters of Nevada throw out Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who shepherded through the new health-care law, in favor of Republican Senate candidate Sue Lowden who favors Americans paying for their health care through bartering with doctors by offering things like chickens.
"Let's change the system and talk about what the possibilities are. I'm telling you that this works," Lowden said. "You know, before we all started having health care, in the olden days, our grandparents, they would bring a chicken to the doctor. They would say I'll paint your house."
After 16 months of a Democratic administration – battled since its start by a Republican Party and a powerful right-wing media determined to block any reforms and deny any successes – the question now before the American voters is whether to reward the GOP with more seats in Congress.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on May 21, 2010.