Monday, September 24, 2012

Mitt Meets Fala

Mitt Meets Fala

For those of you who may have been in a land far far away over the last couple of weeks, Mitt Romney was caught on tape having a fireside chat with his People; hedge funders, investment bankers, folks who can write an eight figure check without any decimal points. 

The topic was the “47 percent”-those moochers who pay no income taxes; slovenly users who have made dependency a goal in life and are totally outside the electoral reach of Mitt’s message of economic growth through additional benefits to his friends and campaign contributors.

That Mitt thought the thoughts should come as no surprise to anyone.  Is there anything in Mitt’s history or current Republican Orthodoxy that doesn’t confirm that, for better or worse?  That he spoke those thoughts was equally plausible-he was among his peers and friends. 

But, that he believed them was a little more off-putting, because the dirty little secret is that not only does the despised 47% have all those scurrilous Obama supporters, but a lot of conservatives as well, including veterans and seniors.  It also has more than a few millionaires. 

For Mitt Romney, this was the most revealing moment of his campaign.  It tells you, in just a few sentences, how clueless he really is about the demographic challenges facing this country.  He is not just a buttoned-up aristocrat.  He is also someone who has lived so long in a bubble of his own beliefs that he no longer recognizes the reality around him.

His campaign reflects this; after the excitement and intellectual vigor that Paul Ryan was supposed to inject, the net is that Romney still believes he’s entitled to the office and still campaigns that way.  No detail, lots of negativity.

So, the Romney people saw the 47% as a tactical issue, not a substantive one.  They did a little bit of flailing, first, a small back-pedal, then a doubling down, then throwing in an “Obama the redistributionist” video from 14 years ago, and then an expression of how Mitt wants to represent all of us.  They are all words without much weight. I doubt there is a thinking person in the country, left or right, who has any illusions about Mitt’s world view. It’s pretty darn narrow.

But Mitt’s time with the shrimp and tenderloin set reminded me that not every aristocrat is tone-deaf to the sounds of anyone less fortunate than they are.  Nor is this the first time that we have had a debate over entitlements, taxes, and the role of the social safety net.

FDR had fought this battle and won it.  The electorate who brought him to power, and, later gave him even greater majorities in the House and Senate, understood that the Republican policies of the 1920’s had not only benefited the wealthy at the expense of everyone else, but had played a key role in the catastrophic failure that followed.  And Hoover’s devotion to dogma following the crash, fairly or not, fed the perception that he, and his backers simply did not care about the wide-spread suffering.  Still, throughout FDR's term in office, Republicans continued to rail against “socialism” and do their best to obstruct what they could.  They became reflexively anti-Roosevelt, isolationist, and increasingly critical, to the point of pettiness.

And, it started to work.  The recovery was slower than people wanted.  WPA and NRA helped, but didn’t fundamentally change things, and in 1937 we had another recession.  The 1938 midterm elections brought 72 new Republican members to the House and six to the Senate.  Roosevelt did manage to win re-election in 1940, but in 1942 with American now fully engaged in a war that wasn’t going particularly well, the GOP picked up 47 seats in the House and 8 in the Senate.

The 1944 election looked as if it was going to be competitive.  The GOP nominated Thomas Dewey, a renowned Governor and former prosecutor, and he pushed an agenda that included criticism of supposed inefficiency and corruption in Washington, and Communist influences in Roosevelt’s Administration.  There were other subscripts are well: Roosevelt the imperial dictator, and Roosevelt the sick old man.  The last part was certainly true.  By 1944, Roosevelt was wearing down, and already was suffering from the serious hypertension that would lead to his death by stroke.  There was talk that this time, Roosevelt would lose. 

Then, a little bit of serendipity entered into Roosevelt’s charmed political life.  An obscure Congressman accused Roosevelt of sending a destroyer back to the Aleutian Islands to retrieve his dog, Fala.  Roosevelt gave explicit instructions to his campaign that no-one should respond to it: he was saving this bit of small-mindedness for himself.

On September 23, 1944,  at a meeting of the Teamsters, FDR gave a speech that remains one of the best tactical performances ever.  Read it in full and you can see that very little is new in politics, not the least of which is pure talent.  Here are some of its choicer moments, in chronological order, still resonant as if they were written today.

“I got quite a laugh, for example - and I am sure that you did - when I read this plank in the Republican platform…."The Republican Party accepts the purposes of the National Labor Relations Act, the Wage and Hour Act, the Social Security Act and all other Federal statutes designed to promote and protect the welfare of American working men and women, and we promise a fair and just administration of these laws."

“But, you know, even those candidates who burst out in election-year affection for social legislation and for labor in general, still think that you ought to be good boys and stay out of politics. And above all, they hate to see any working man or woman contribute a dollar bill to any wicked political party. Of course, it is all right for large financiers and industrialists and monopolists to contribute tens of thousands of dollars - but their solicitude for that dollar which the men and women in the ranks of labor contribute is always very touching.”

“They are, of course, perfectly willing to let you vote - unless you happen to be a soldier or a sailor overseas, or a merchant seaman carrying the munitions of war. In that case they have made it pretty hard for you to vote at all - for there are some political candidates who think that they may have a chance of election, if only the total vote is small enough.”

“(A)lthough I rubbed my eyes when I read it, we have been told that it was not a Republican depression, but a Democratic depression from which this Nation was saved in 1933 - that this Administration this one today - is responsible for all the suffering and misery that the history books and the American people have always thought had been brought about during the twelve ill-fated years when the Republican party was in power.”

And, finally, we get to the main event:

“These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don't resent attacks, and my family doesn't resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him - at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars- his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since.”

The crowd went wild.

History does tend to repeat itself.   Happy anniversary, FDR and Fala.