Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

12 December 2018

How Our Two Parties Lost their Souls

[For the dire portent of Putin’s high-fiving the Saudi Crown Prince, click here. For updated advice on how to drive on the Sun’s power alone, or without fossil fuels, click here. For a 2018 Thanksgiving Message, click here. For a list of links to recent posts in reverse chronological order, click here.]

The post-midterm news is all agog with speculation. Who are the Democrats who just won an historic House victory in the midterm elections? What do they stand for? Are they progressives like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez? Or are they “moderates” just trying hang on to their jobs in deep red states, like Senator Jon Tester in Montana? What will they do, and where will they go?

To answer these questions, you have to remember a little history. In the past two generations, both parties have moved dramatically to the right, and both have abandoned many of their core principles. The chief causes of the shift and abandonment were three: (1) the massive influence of Fox’ gossip-propaganda on the electorate; (2) the impact of third-party candidates like Ross Perot and Ralph Nader; and (3) the Clintons’ famous principle-free “triangulation”—getting to “yes” by moving ever closer to the other side, in their case the far-right side.

Paradoxically, the big shift to the right really took off with Bill Clinton’s first election as our president in 1992. Really? Bill Clinton, a Democrat? Bear with me, and I’ll show you how.

Bill handily defeated the late George Herbert Walker Bush, aka “Senior Bush” or “41.” Bill was hardly a household name at the time. He was a national unknown. He had never served in Congress or the federal government. His only experience in public office was in Arkansas, a state not known, then or now, as a powerhouse of presidential politics. In rising from the unknown South, Bill became Jimmy Carter redux, but without Jimmy’s sterling character.

So how did Bill win? Ask most anybody—and especially any agit-prop master at Fox—and you’ll get the conventional wisdom. Bill beat Senior Bush because Bush promised “Read my lips: no new taxes!” in his campaign and later raised taxes as president. Senior Bush, they say, had gone against the grain of a vast public revulsion against taxes. So he lost.

That’s the popular legend, repeated endlessly by Fox and today’s GOP. But that’s not what really happened at all.

The main cause of Senior Bush’s 1992 defeat was Ross Perot’s third-party candidacy. Perot got 19% of the general-election vote, and two-thirds of it came from Republican-leaning voters. In other words, Perot’s third-party run gave Bill Clinton an extra 6.3% margin in popular vote without voters ever knowing who he was.

Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist and the gossip-pundits at Fox all drew a consistent lesson from Senior Bush’s loss. Raise taxes, they warned, and you will French-kiss the death’s head of politics.

But that was precisely the wrong lesson. Senior Bush had lost a second term not because he raised taxes, but because he rashly and foolishly had promised not to. His making that promise juiced Ross Perot’s third-party candidacy, which was based primarily on fiscal discipline and balanced budgets. It gave Republicans who valued fiscal discipline and balanced budgets no place else to go. At that time, there were a lot of those Republicans.

As we now know from the encomiums after his death, Senior Bush was a decent, (except for the Willie Horton ad) honorable and principled man. Most of all, he was experienced and practical. Fiscal discipline and balanced budgets were at the core of his being as a New Englander by birth and an old-school Republican.

So when the chance came to balance budgets for real, by raising a few taxes and cutting some spending in a reasonable balanced-budget compromise with Democrats, Senior Bush took that chance. He would have had to have a personality and character transplant to do otherwise.

His mistake was not doing the reasonable, prudent and practical thing. It was having promised to do otherwise during his campaign, under the influence of rabid political “operatives” like Gingrich, Norquist and the gossip-mongers at Fox.

The ironies don’t stop there. Who got the credit for the balanced budgets that Senior Bush’s reasonable compromise with Democrats had made possible? None other than Bill Clinton, who had little or nothing to do with the compromise. Bill never stopped bragging about the fiscal surpluses and strong job growth that occurred on his watch, although Senior Bush, not he, had been mostly responsible for creating them.

There’s a little phenomenon in economics that American voters, deluded by Fox and others, seldom get straight. We’ve got a big, complex economy. So effects in it don’t follow causes immediately. There’s nearly always a lag. It takes most of a year for changes in a federal budget to appear on the streets, so the lag is measured in years, not months.

Economists use a simple, single-syllable, Anglo-Saxon word to describe this phenomenon: “lag.” Nevertheless, the agit-prop masters at Fox fool the public about it every time. They get the public to believe that responses in a continent-wide economy of 320 million people occur immediately. They don’t.

So Bill Clinton got credit for the surpluses and strong economy that Senior Bush’s fiscal discipline had created. Just so, today the mindless narcissist Trump gets credit for President Obama having dug us slowly and painfully, over a decade, up and out of the Great Recession after the Crash of 2008. The lag between cause and effect in macroeconomics is tailor-made for liars and propagandists, and they exploit it relentlessly.

But even that doesn’t end the ironies of the handoff from Senior Bush to Bill. Fox and GOP operatives endlessly emphasized Senior Bush’s foolish campaign promise, rather than his sound and beneficial tax policy as president. They also blamed Perot’s third-party candidacy, which had siphoned off GOP voters with promises of fiscal discipline and balanced budgets, for putting a (gasp!) Democrat in the White House.

Not only did GOP operatives help Bill take credit for the fiscal discipline that once had been a core principle of Republicans. They also, ipso facto, began the GOP’s abandonment of that principle. In a mere decade, the GOP’s fiscal discipline had degenerated so badly that then Vice President Dick Cheney could lean over Dubya as president and advise: “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.”

Thus did the GOP allow a fringe position (“never raise taxes”) to overtake a core principle of Republicanism throughout most of the twentieth century: fiscal discipline and balanced budgets. Once that vital dam burst, a flood of fringe positions on such things as incarceration, immigration and foreign policy followed quickly. Now we have a Republican Party with no discernable core principles at all, just an increasingly senile and forgetful leader’s narcissistic whim.

Something similar happened to the Democrats with Bill. He was wicked smart, with emphasis on the “wicked.” He knew he had gotten away with stealing credit for Senior Bush’s fiscal discipline. He could see clearly the direction in which the GOP and the country were going, under the influence of Fox, Gingrich and Norquist: toward the crazy right.

So what did Bill do? Did he lead the country back to sanity? Did he find some Democratic core principles to which to hold fast?

Not hardly. Bill’s ambition led him to do the easy thing that would make him popular. He “triangulated.” He went easy on taxes, and hard on welfare and crime. He downsized and privatized part of the vast federal workforce. And so he succeeded in stealing a bit of the GOP’s right-wing thunder.

The GOP operatives could see clearly what he was doing. They despised him for it. But so did many Democrats. They began to wonder what was happening to their safety net, racial justice, their environmental research and regulation, and their government-sponsored scientific research (which had been declining since Nixon’s time). They began to wonder what had happened to Democrats who believed that a key goal of our government, as expressed in the preamble to our Constitution, is to “promote the general welfare.” Progressives in the party began to look for alternatives.

And so it went. After the Monica Lewinski affair, after the impeachment of but GOP failure to remove Bill, Bill failed to throw his still-considerable Democratic influence behind Al Gore, the first national-scale pol to sound the alarm about global warming. Progressives became disenchanted with Bill’s slippery character, his waffling on principle and his “triangulating.” Some followed the siren song of Ralph Nader’s small third-party candidacy, which took enough support from Al Gore to allow our Supreme Court to steal the election from him.

Arguments whether Nader’s candidacy was decisive continue to this day. But one thing is indisputable: Gore would have gotten more votes if Nader had not run.

Nader’s 2000 run, of course, was just a precursor to the much stronger and better-run campaign of Bernie Sanders in 2016. It was the first dawn of discovery among Democrats that the party had lost its way.

The controversy over the effects of Nader’s 2000 run also had its reflection in 2016. Could Bernie Sanders, who had a similar but far more coherent and forceful economic message, have stolen Trump’s thunder and won the White House if nominated?

There are Dems who can argue both sides of this question furiously, just as they can the impact of Nader’s run. But some things at least are plain as day. Bill’s “triangulation” had nothing to do with core principles; it was all about political expediency. The same can be said about Hillary’s fifteen-point plans, her support for Dubya’s War in Iraq, and her pandering to Wall Street. Whatever you can say about her, you can be sure her core principles were weak, fuzzy or non-existent. You have to have core principles before you can compromise them reasonably.

What all these things tell us, including Senior Bush’s and Bernie Sanders’ losses, is that both parties have lost their way. They now stand for little more than the naked ambitions of their leaders. The GOP is in an even worse position than the Dems because both its leaders and its rank and file have abandoned their wills and consciences to a single erratic old man’s ambition.

Paradoxically, the Dems are in better shape precisely because they have as yet chosen no clear leader. They can choose one as they rediscover their core principles. And they should choose only that basis.

In the next essay, we examine those core principles. They are no fifteen-point plans. Although they never rule out reasonable compromise, they provide no scheme for triangulating. They are a handful of simple, powerful principles, central to our uniquely American brand of democracy, that can attract strong nationwide support, especially now.

The Dems’ economic core principles have been consistent since the Great Depression and the New Deal. Their social ones have been consistent ever since Nixon’s vile Southern Strategy drained the Dems of bigots and white supremacists.

All the Dems have to do is rediscover their principles’ rightness and power, and they can find their souls and their way again. For the GOP, now in thrall to a monster, it will take a lot more soul-searching and a lot more time.

Footnote 1: The term “agit-prop” comes from World War II and the Cold War. It stood for “agitation-propaganda,” used as tools for inciting and motivating the “masses” in totalitarian states like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the former Soviet vassal states. I use the term here to emphasize that Fox today is doing exactly what these former totalitarian agencies once did, albeit more cleverly and with a more modern, lighter touch, as exemplified in this brilliant comparison of bits lauding Trump and belittling Obama for doing exactly the same thing.

The disregard that purveyors of agit-prop have for truth and consequences has not changed one bit from the last century’s totalitarian government agencies to privately-owned Fox today. The term “news” belongs nowhere in this context.

Footnote 2: Perot also opposed NAFTA, which he said would cause “a great sucking sound” of jobs draining to Mexico. But the rightness of that prediction would take most of four decades to prove itself, let alone to the average voter. Perot was, first and foremost, a successful and well-respected businessman and CEO, whom the prospect of endless deficits and debt deeply offended. As for the effect of his candidacy on Senior Bush’s loss, see this recent explanation [set the timer at 5:20] by James Baker III, once a close confidante, advisor and Secretary of State for Senior Bush.

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