Thursday, February 23, 2012

Dignity On The Cheap-Rick Reaches For The Big Nightstick

Dignity On The Cheap-Rick Reaches For The Big Nightstick

Several years ago, I had the misfortune of having a run-in with a New York City Traffic cop. It may have scarred me for life.  It certainly closed my mind to the unique allure of Rick Santorum.

Let me start with a confession.  The registration on my car was expiring, and I made the mistake of renewing on line.  I got an online confirmation, but the renewal sticker hadn’t arrived (by snail mail) prior to the expiration date.  Being foolish, and needing to drive the car, I printed out the email from the Department of Motor Vehicles, which clearly and unambiguously stated the registration’s new expiration date, and taped it into the windshield.  I parked the car on the street sometime after 11PM, and went to bed.

The following morning, we went out to the car to find $69 worth of disgusting orange and black paper defiling my car.  At approximately 3:00 AM some courageous public servant with a flashlight was going up and down city streets looking for murderers and people with expired registrations.  He or she found my humble Honda.

I’d like to say the story ended there, and I wrote the check, vowed to know better next time, and went on with the day.  But fate would take one more unhappy turn.  For whatever reason, after pulling out (and watching a transporter beam immediately place a car in the spot we vacated) we realized we had left something in the apartment, so we parked the car at a meter, pumped in coins, and made a short pit-stop.

In the twenty minutes that elapsed a second angel in blue fouled my windshield with her putrescence.  I saw the ticket, I saw the traffic cop, and ran over to show her the renewal pasted into the windshield. Right above the regular registration!!!  Look, please?  She was unmoved.  I begged.  She refused to look.  I felt a shot of adrenaline flow through my body the likes of which I hadn’t experienced since watching the opening scene of “Jurassic Park”, where the nice raptor pulls the gamekeeper into the cage for an evening snack.   I think I might have actually drooled with anger, and probably teetered very close to incarceration (in front of my children) until my wife literally pulled me back. Let’s not forget who has the big nightstick.

I had buried that incident until I read yesterday’s Times, and Thomas Friedman’s excellent piece about the ongoing tragedy in Egypt.  At the urging of Egypt’s “minister of planning and international cooperation”, Mubarak crony Fayza Abul Naga, 43 people, including 16 Americans, will be tried on the absurd charge of bringing money into the country to promote democracy.  So much for Arab Spring and the aspirations of a new generation.  Abul Naga, “demonstrates the tendency to look for dignity in all the wrong places — to look for dignity not by building up the capacity of Egypt’s talented young people so they can thrive in the 21st century — with better schools, better institutions, export industries and more accountable government. No, it is the tendency to go for dignity on the cheap by standing up to the foreigners.”

The more I watch this campaign, with the increasing level of sheer noise, the ever-escalating and sometimes bizarre accusations, the more I’m reminded of both the traffic cop, and Abul Naga.  There is no vision for the future, just a standing up to the foreigners.

Rick Santorum is now immersing himself in this “dignity on the cheap.”  Seemingly lacking in ideas beyond creating a contemporary theocracy, he drives his poll numbers and the enthusiasm of his followers with an antediluvian game of “which one of these is not like the others?” At every stop, he reminds his listeners that Obama is not like them, that Obama doesn’t share their values, that his faith is not theirs, of “having a phony theology”.  Santorum’s spokesperson says Obama pursues “radical Islamist policies”.  A couple of days ago, Santorum said Obama had a hidden eugenics program.  I could go on (in fact, I could go on almost indefinitely) but Santorum has gone beyond the ritual “Obama is a lousy President” to something far darker and conspiratorial.  Obama isn’t just wrong. Obama is The Other.

Does Santorum really believe that?  It looks like he does.  But what does Santorum really want?  I asked a very conservative friend who prays for a one-term Obama Presidency.  He said he wouldn’t vote for Santorum.  To his way of thinking, Santorum was a small-minded small-time politician, and as much a statist as Obama.  My friend wanted less government and fewer rules. Santorum didn’t want less, he just wanted to be in charge so he could make the rules.

I found that very striking.  I thought of the traffic cop who took joy in using her crabbed empire to cause unwarranted pain, and the former postman turned martinet drill instructor Corporal Himmelstoss in “All Quiet On The Western Front.”   In a rare moment of rest, the soldiers he abused talk about him and conclude, “It's not only Himmelstoss, there are lots of them. As sure as they get a stripe or a star they become different men, just as though they'd swallowed concrete.”

Swallowed concrete, dignity on the cheap?  Do we need a Himmelstoss? Does Rick get the big nightstick?


Friday, February 17, 2012

What Froggy And Dolly Know About The GOP Primaries

What Froggy And Dolly Know About The GOP Primaries

When my children were little, one of their favorites was “Froggy Gets Dressed.”  It’s the story of a frog who desperately wants to go out and play in the snow with his friends, even though Mom and Dad are bedded down and trying to hibernate for the season.  Frogs don’t play in the snow-they go to sleep.

Froggy keeps trying and trying-he puts on hat and coat and boots and scarf and mittens and he charges out the door, but each time he hits the surface his Mom yells “Froggy, did you forget to put on your….?” And sure enough, Froggy did, so down he goes, takes everything off, puts on the missing article of clothing, gets dressed again, and returns to his pals, until Mom repeats “Froggy, did you forget….”

I think we may have hit a Froggy moment in this year’s GOP primaries. Too many times changing clothes.  Once again, Mitt’s star has gone into eclipse, and back into the coat closet we go, rummaging through discards and the latest fashions. Rick Santorum is now the outerwear du jour. 

Dolly Parton said “it takes a lot of money to look this cheap”.  But she’s Dolly Parton-she gives us what we expect and honestly, what we want.  Both she and Elizabeth Warren (full disclosure, I'm a fan) have been on Jon Stewart in the last few weeks, and I’m happy to report that there’s still no confusing them.

To an extent, we expect and even want a little Dolly Parton in every election.  We know these folk don’t really believe everything they say, much less say everything they believe.  It’s part of the hokum, the bumper stickers and the funny hats-a willing suspension of our disbelief, because honestly, we really don’t want to see Dolly without her makeup. 

But,  in this election cycle, there’s been a bizarre tendency among the GOP front-runners to do or say something that seems incredibly revealing.  Newt wants to build a moon-base.  Rick Perry says Turkey is the enemy.  Bachmann thinks vaccines cause autism. Romney really enjoys firing people.  My kids (who, sadly may have grown out of the Froggy era) would call this “creepy.”

Santorum, after months of stolid performances, may have just had that moment.  He doubts the role of women in the military “because of their emotions” and thinks they are better suited to the home. And he not only opposes contraception, but has expressed his willingness to use the power of the Presidency to impose his socially conservative values-including that one.  In that, he seems to have a friend in Darrell Issa, who is holding hearings on contraception-stag hearings (no women invited).  And now he's weighing in on universal public eduction-he's against it.

In the general election, these positions might make him radioactive.  On contraception,  a Pew study (done in the aftermath of  Mr. Obama’s very poor choice of battles with the Bishops) shows that only 8% of the electorate sees birth control as morally wrong.  Even among Catholics, the number is only 15%.  But Santorum does think it wrong, and is ready to make his beliefs the law of the land.

Of course, we aren’t in the general election yet, and as Froggy would point out, Rick (or Mitt, Newt or Ron) can’t go out to play until they are properly dressed.  That means getting the nomination, a process much more difficult than anyone imagined. As Larry Sabato happily pointed out earlier this week, love of Mitt remains an acquired taste, and it’s going to be a long slog.  Ron may be a bit out of the mainstream, and Newt may have pushed the self-destruct button one too many times, but it doesn’t seem like anyone is going anywhere for now.  The Fab Four are going to continue.

Now, it’s not as if we have wasted the last few months, twenty debates, and tens of millions in negative advertising.    We have learned at least two things.

The first is the unifying GOP mantra remains Mr. Obama is the worst President in history.  When it rains, it’s his fault, while a sunny day is related to policies that one of them (with Ronald Reagan’s assistance) enacted in the 80’s.  This trope will continue on a daily basis though the balance of the 21st Century.  And the second is that there’s no such thing as “too conservative”.  The more outré you are, the more likely you are to get a bump in the primary polls.

Of course, when the winner pivots to the general election, “outré” has its pitfalls.  In a primary, when a politician announces he wants to cut the tax rate to 15%, and the next one yells “I’ll do 14!!!”, the eyes start the glaze over.  It’s no different than when they get into bidding wars over who would be tougher on illegal immigration, or who would strip-mine Central Park.  Just noise, like Dolly Parton’s warm up band, and maybe you go out to the concession stand until the main event starts. 

But contraception?  That makes you stop, turn around, and go back to your seats.  Dolly just showed up without her makeup on.  And Rick has a problem with contraception; it leads to all types of aberrant behavior.   Anyone going to try to out-do Rick on that one? 

Now Froggy was what pollsters would call a likely voter.  He was motivated.  Up and down he went, putting on and taking off his clothes, until one last time his Mom yelled, “Froggy…did you forget to put on your…”  And Froggy looked down, let out a huge “ooops”, his green face turned red, and back he went to change.

But, by the time he pulled everything off, Froggy was too pooped.  He went to bed, like all good frogs do in the winter.

A lesson to us all. 


Saturday, February 11, 2012

Valentine's Day Wishes and Whatever Became of Jon Huntsman?

Valentine’s Day Wishes and Whatever Became of Jon Huntsman?

There’s a wonderful old Tom Lehrer ditty “Whatever Became of Hubert” which tells the sad tale of Hubert Humphrey, once an esteemed Senator from Minnesota, then relegated to the non-descript job of Lyndon Johnson’s Vice-President.  He must have felt kinship to one of George Steinbrenner’s limited partners, who once was quoted as saying, “nothing is more limited than being one of George’s limited partners.”

For some reason, the composer of “Poisoning Pigeons in The Park” came to mind after Rick Santorum destroyed Mitt Romney in Missouri, Colorado, and Minnesota.  I understand Missouri (cultural conservatism) and even Colorado (strong anti-government sentiment). But Minnesota?  Where former Governor and all-round Minnesota Nice Tim Pawlenty endorsed Romney and campaigned for him?  The place where Mary Tyler Moore turned the world on with her smile?  And Mitt won Minnesota in 2008, nearly doubling McCain, who was a distant second.  Just how does a bilious ex-Senator from Pennsylvania who lost his last election by 18 points, and by all contemporary accounts, was neither loved nor admired in either chamber during his time in Washington, kick Mitt hard, three times, in the same evening?

The Romney people, cool cats though they may be (some apparently meditate before a DVD of Romney’s hair, perfect and unruffled in a breeze) are searching for answers.  I think I may have found one. 

Blame Jon Huntsman.  It’s really his fault.  Before Mitt was dubbed the “Massachusetts Moderate” Huntsman was out there sounding reasonable, and calm, and speaking with deliberation and intelligence about foreign affairs, and bringing the country together to solve big problems. Huntsman is, in practice, distinctly right of center (somehow, “Utah Liberal” doesn’t have the same alliterative ring) and if Republican primary voters had actually taken the time to look at his views, they might very well have found a genuine, consistent conservative. But for various reasons, including the sin of serving in the Obama Administration, they didn’t, and Huntsman was relegated to the single digits, and then the possible role of Secretary of State in a Romney Administration.  Huntsman, not Mitt, defined the left flank, and needless to say, utterly failed.

So, when all the GOP heavyweights decided, for whatever reason, that 2012 was not going to be their year, and Huntsman was shown the door, we were left with a virtual bayou of red.  Mitt knew it.  How does one distinguish oneself as sufficiently carmine to win the hearts and minds of the GOP Primary voter?  Where on the spectrum can you go?  There’s Brick Red (solid, makes you think of the Indianapolis, heartland, good Conservative values, very anti-union).  And there’s Tuscan Red (all wrong, if you think of it, Tuscany is in Italy, making it so…. European).  There’s Cardinal (that could work, with Mr. Obama stepping squarely into a self-made mess).  There’s also “Lust” (let’s skip that, out of deference to Newt).  Fuchsia and Cerise?  Not a chance, for obvious reasons.  Scarlett might work for Santorum-he’s the kind of guy you think might go for branding of sinners.  Wine and Burgundy are both nice dark reds, but they do tend to conjure up both France and California, hotbeds of socialism and anti-Americanism.  “Flame” is not so bad-shows passion for eradicating every last vestige of infectious Obamaism.

This problem with hue and tint wasn’t the only concern Mitt had.  The routs in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri also came at a particularly infelicitous time, because this weekend is CPAC, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (sort of like a grim Woodstock for the Right).

For Santorum and Gingrich, this is the festival of free love with red-blooded Americans spewing red meat.  But, what’s a Mitt to do when, let’s be honest, his past does tend towards the dangerously pastel?  Well, you can enthusiastically repudiate your entire record, but, this is a very tough crowd, and that type of absolution is only granted for sins of the flesh and pocketbook.  You can rail at everything Obama (but they have already replaced the elevator music at the Marriott Wardman Park with a continuous loop of Fox).

You need something fresh and bold, so Mitt’s crack staff went into a huddle, and some of the best minds in the country dug down deep.  They even sent an aide off to the local Neiman Marcus to shop for lipsticks.  With the mission to buy only American, she eschewed Chanel and L’Oreal, and headed straight for the Clinique counter.   One hour, and several hundred Super Pac dollars later, she came back with “All Heart”, “Fire Berry”, “Rich Red”, “Whoppin Watermelon”, “Plum Nude”, “Warm Raisin” and “Baby Kiss”.  For fairly obvious reasons, some of these were discarded quickly.  “All Heart” and “Baby Kiss” were put away for different events (somehow, CPAC didn’t seem to be the right venue).

Visuals clearly just weren’t going to work.  Time was running off the clock, and Mitt was scheduled to speak.  It was too late to assemble a focus group, so they told him to ad lib.  He took a deep breath, looked out at the skeptical crowd, and pronounced himself “severely conservative.”

“Severely Conservative?”  Not great.  Not selling either the CPAC folk, nor good for the wider electorate.  It does sound a little like a Milk of Magnesia ad.  Back to the drawing board in the Romney war room.  Life was so much better when he wasn’t the only lefty. 

Whatever Became of Jon Huntsman?  Has anyone heard from him?


Saturday, February 4, 2012

George Orwell, Mitt Romney, and Vinnie

George Orwell, Mitt Romney, and Vinnie

In 1933, well before the successes of books like 1984 and Animal Farm, George Orwell published the wickedly subversive  “Down and Out in London and Paris”.

Orwell’s book is a tragi-comedy.  Witty, awful, with great self-knowledge, oddly tolerant, it’s the (fictionalized) first-person story of poverty in two of the world’s great cities.  Time on “the spike” in England, where the broke and the broken were pushed from one shelter to another, in an endless, daily movement of the ragged, hungry, and unwashed.  In Paris, his time as a “plongeur”-a gopher and scullery maid of sorts, washing endless stacks of dishes (and washing down endless bottles of wine) in overheated restaurant kitchens while watching the “finest” food being prepared. 

Mitt, obviously, hasn’t spent too much time “on the spike”.  But he has been cleaning Newt’s clock.  He squished Newt in Florida and Nevada, using a potent combination of aggressive debate tactics, carpet-bombing Superpac ads, and Newt’s unique talent for self-immolation. Mitt has a great organization, a mutual admiration pact with Ron Paul, the support of the GOP establishment, and infinite amounts of cash.  In the thrilling words of the track announcer in Secretariat’s surreal victory in the 1973 Belmont, “he is moving like a tremendous machine.”

Are we done?  Well, Rick is still scowling, and Newt’s making noises about fighting all the way, maybe even to an exciting floor fight at the convention, but the GOP hasn’t had a good open mike demolition derby since Ford beat back Reagan in 1976.  It’s just not their way anymore.  So, it may be all over,  except for the obligatory platform smorgasbord of right wing social engineering, Mitt’s polished acceptance speech, and the balloon drop.

Lest you were concerned that this march towards the inevitable would give me nothing to do with my spare time over the next several months, Mitt has thoughtfully come to the rescue, with his comment that “he’s not concerned about the very poor.”

A gaffe!!!! And, even though it’s pretty clear he meant something different, the story has gone viral, with the usual condemnations, editorials, and criticism by his opponents (Newt, in particular, seems unusually aggrieved at Mitt’s lack of compassion for the less fortunate.)  Romney had to issue a ritual “I misspoke”.   And give a silent prayer of thanks for the Susan B. Komen Foundation.

His critics say this fits into the caricature of Mitt as the inconsistent, insensitive son of a famous politician, who grew up in wealth, became a corporate raider, made a quarter of a billion dollars, in part by looting pensions and throwing people out of work, and now takes home, in retirement, $20 Million per year at a preferential tax rate.

This is unfair. Mitt is perfectly in synch with his party, and, certainly on the subject of the poor, Mitt has been consistent in his past statements.  It was his “misspoke” correction that was incorrect. He’s been saying for some time that the poor do have a safety net (although Mitt intends to thin it out a bit) and the rich don’t need help (although he will give it).  Mitt’s target is the broad swathe of the electorate that is the working and middle classes, and that’s a good electoral strategy. He says he wants to help them.

In an odd sort of way, that brings us back to where we started, Orwell’s London and Paris.  The social policies of Orwell’s England were shaped by the sense that poverty was a moral failing that needed stern rules and a punitive approach.  All four current GOP aspirants certainly agree with that, and it has been a staple of GOP politics for two generations.  What is different here is that, really for the first time, the GOP has turned that contempt (in policy positions, obviously not openly) beyond the poor towards the working person.  There isn’t a single economic initiative embraced by the GOP that does anything for any group other than the wealthy.  Their proposals involve pushing cuts to basic services, reductions in Social Security and Medicare, attacks on public workers, pensions and the collective bargaining process, all while cutting taxes on the “job creators.”  The GOP strategy is essentially Bain writ large-the gains are up-streamed to capital, while the pain is shared amongst the non-equity stakeholders, who get to fight it out for the leftovers.

Can it work?  We aren’t talking about the economic consequences-whether a zero tax rate on the affluent will produce a geyser of cash for everyone else. That's a different conversation.  Politically, can GOP expand the disdain society feels for the non-working poor to include tens of millions of those who do work?  Does setting some groups of the non-affluent against other groups of the non-affluent win elections?

Well, for an answer to that, I turn from Orwell to sports talk radio.  Last Fall, I heard a Vinnie call in.  He wanted to talk about a local bond issue for a taxpayer-financed stadium.  Vinnie knew what he wanted.  "We need that stadium."  But Vinnie didn't want to pay for it, and said "no more taxes, not one cent more".   The host replied, "but we need the stadium".  Vinnie repeated himself, "no more taxes".  But Vinnie is a big sports fan, and he wants a new stadium, so finally, after sputtering, he came up with the answer.  “Take it from the teachers."

It can work.