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

05 November 2009

The Obama “Referendum”


One of the strangest things about our country is how we use the echo chamber of mass media to tell ourselves things that just aren’t so. For two generations we told ourselves that private business is the good fairy and can do no wrong, while government is the wicked witch that does no right.

Our government just singlehandedly saved us (and the global economy) from a second Great Depression. The people who actually caused the collapse—greedy and stupid bankers on Wall Street—are already acting like pigs at the trough again and threatening to throw a second derivatives party. Yet as dumb and selfish as they are, and as infuriated as we all are about their unjustified compensation, we still believe them when they decry a “government takeover” of finance and autos.

The so-called “Obama referendum” in the recent election is just like that. Two Republicans won governorships, not unexpectedly. So all of a sudden the whole country is turning away from a President who’s grappling with the broadest, deepest set of problems in half a century and is just starting to hit his stride.

The sky is falling! Karl Rove is riding it down on our heads once again! Pay obeisance to our best-known college dropout and American apparatchik! Abandon all hope and prepare to re-enter our “Soviet period,” with “political operatives” running not just our Department of Justice, but the economy, too!

What bunk! The causes of the Democratic losses in New Jersey and Virginia were not hard to see. And they had little to do with a resurgence of discredited Republican ideology.

New Jersey was the easiest to understand. Former Wall-Streeter and Goldman Sachs executive John Corzine tried to use his immense personal wealth to buy political office for a third time. A few months ago, some 44 New Jersey notables, including three mayors, a state legislator and several rabbis, were indicted for corruption in one of the largest and most appalling sweeps in recent history.

Corzine’s loss reflected a simple, basic anti-incumbent surge: “throw the bums out.” Anyone who can’t understand why a rich man who represents Wall Street in what may well be the nation’s most corrupt state suddenly became unpopular in this year of all years has been keeping his head in the sand.

The proof of this analysis is Michael Bloomberg’s near-loss in New York City. Despite his enormous ego and his recent romp in the gutter of racism, Bloomberg had been doing a pretty good job in a difficult time. He spent more of his own considerable personal fortune (reportedly $ 90 million) to win than anyone worldwide had ever spent on municipal office anywhere. Yet Bloomberg nearly lost to a lackluster candidate who never gained much traction and whose chief claim to fame was being an honest man and the object of Bloomberg’s brief foray into racist demagoguery. That candidate (William C. Thompson, Jr.) was so astounded by his near victory that his concession sounded like a victory speech.

Why did Thompson nearly win? Simple. He rode the populist wave of revulsion and anger at rich men from Wall Street who buy elections as if governing us rubes is their own personal entitlement. Thompson also tried to ride the “throw the bums out” train that always runs in hard times. He almost succeeded. Corzine’s loss and Bloomberg’s near-loss show that train still runs in the twenty-first century, despite our media echo chamber and a punditocracy obsessing over every blip in the polls. Duh!

Virginia is harder to explain, but not much. An experienced, savvy campaigner with statewide name recognition (the state’s attorney general) beat a state senator, Creigh Deeds, who was virtually unknown outside his district and a poor candidate and lackluster campaigner. Virginia has been red for forty years, the President’s astounding win there a rare anomaly. Deeds, who is white, apparently was unable to rekindle the enthusiasm that Barack Obama generated among African-Americans and the young of all races. Turnout in Virginia among the 18-29 set dropped by 50%, as compared to one year ago.

In addition, there was probably some backlash among Northern Virginia’s “Beltway Bandits,” who make their living sucking on the federal government’s capacious teats. Lately their share of the milk of government contracts has lessened while places that need help much more (Michigan, Ohio, and Detroit) get their fair share. So the white-collar folk in Northern Virginia voted their economic interests.

Low youth turnout in an off-year election, a poor candidate, and local economic changes among voters who live off government largesse—these are hardly the pillars of a second Republican Revolution.

If you want to see the immediate future of American politics, look a little further north—beyond Virginia, Manhattan, and even New Jersey. Look to upstate New York. There the Rush Limbaugh faction of the GOP threw its moderate candidate overboard and anointed a right-wing extremist. Fed up like all moderates with extremism masquerading as reason, the moderate promptly endorsed the Democrat, who won. That was in a district that had sent Republicans to Congress for over 100 years.

If there’s one thing that Republican extremists do well, its “public relations” and “spin,” which my generation knew as propaganda. They have “spun” these off-year election results into a glittering cloth of lies. But that cloth won’t wear. Increase Rush’s $ 400 million pay to a billion and he’d still be a stupid blowhard who knows nothing of substance but is highly skilled at telling entertaining lies.

After the disasters of 2000 – 2008, the people get it. All but 20% see Rush for what he is: a skilled propagandist for the rich—the fat cats’ Goebbels. What happened in New Jersey and New York was a revolt against the rich from Wall Street and their forty-year pack of lies. What happened in Virginia was a local return to form in a place whose economy depends upon government employment and government contracts.

If these by-year elections offered any general lessons at all, there were two. First, let Rush continue to lead the GOP over a cliff, and we might unlearn our poisonous economic fairy tales sooner than anyone expects. Second, the President and the Democrats have to reconnect with the youth and African-American voters who helped put the President in the White House—without losing women, who were and are his core constituency [search for “positive”].

The President hasn’t done much in the latter direction because he has strategic vision and exquisite timing. There is still a year before the 2010 elections. By then employment and youth’s prospects for jobs will be turning up. So the major lesson of Tuesday for Democrats is an important but narrow one: pick candidates for contested seats that are better known and better campaigners than Creigh Deeds.

And for God’s sake stop anointing alumni of Goldman Sachs. Instead, groom people with real-world experience, including our many returning veterans. Ever hear of Jim Webb?

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