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.