Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

September 23, 2008

The Bailout of Abominations?

Filed under: 2008 elections,Conservatives,Economy,GOP,Jacksonian Era — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:40 am

The nasty, mendacious creativity of the present, cornered GOP really does seem to know no bounds. The near economic collapse that occurred on their watch, fostered by their ideology and their mismanagement, Republicans have decided to blame on poor non-whites. “Loaning to minorities and risky folks is a disaster” that Congress should have warned the lenders about, they were saying on Fox News, as though someone forced the financial industry to go out and make all those sub-prime loans and sell them to each other.  (“Allow under pressure of furious lobbying” would be the more appropriate verb phrase for Congress’s attitude toward virtually unrestricted lending lately.) A century or so ago GOP jurists called those kind of bad deals “freedom of contract,” and unlike the 19th-century workers whose complaints were usually rejected, our modern financiers actually did have a choice when they made these bad bargains. For instance, they had the choice of actually requiring proof of borrowers’ source of income, a standard that I gather had been largely abandoned by many lenders.

This latest conservative meme is a breathtakingly yet typical effort to project and racialize systemic, top-down economic failures — it’s only those people who go bankrupt, lose their homes, etc.

Of course, lots of ordinary middle-class Republicans and business page columnists, raised on the small government gospel, are suffering tremendous cognitive dissonance at sight of their party engineering what must be dollar-wise the largest public invasion of the private sector in American history. GOP leaders have naturally seen in their followers’ confusion a chance to spin more fantasies and try to turn the responsible efforts of others to clean up the mess they have made into one more desperate political ploy. Here’s Ed Kilgore, writing in The Democratic Strategist:

Every Democrat should read Patrick Ruffini’s post from yesterday at NextRight. He is, I strongly suspect, perfectly reflecting the game that Republicans, including Team McCain, want to play with the Paulson Plan:

Republican incumbents in close races have the easiest vote of their lives coming up this week: No on the Bush-Pelosi Wall Street bailout.

God Himself couldn’t have given rank-and-file Republicans a better opportunity to create political space between themselves and the Administration. That’s why I want to see 40 Republican No votes in the Senate, and 150 in the House. If a bailout is to pass, let it be with Democratic votes. Let this be the political establishment (Bush Republicans in the White House Democrats in Congress) saddling the taxpayers with hundreds of billions in debt (more than the Iraq War, conjured up in a single weekend, and enabled by Pelosi, btw), while principled Republicans say “No” and go to the country with a stinging indictment of the majority in Congress….

In an ideal world, McCain opposes this because of all the Democratic add-ons and shows up to vote Nay while Obama punts.

History has shown us that “inevitable” “emergency” legislation like the Patriot Act or Sarbanes-Oxley is never more popular than on the day it is passed — and this isn’t all that popular to begin with. All the upside comes with voting against it.

Ruffini is exactly right about the politics of this issue, especially for Republicans. Think of this as one of those periodic votes on raising the public debt limit. It has to pass, of course, but there’s zero percentage in supporting it for any one individual. The speculative costs of the legislation actually failing are completely intangible and ultimately irrelevant, while the costs it will impose are tangible and controversial from almost every point of view. For McCain and other Republicans, voting “no” on Paulson without accepting the consequences of that vote is the political equivalent of a bottomless crack pipe: it will please the conservative “base,” distance them from both Bush and “Washington,” and let them indulge in both anti-government and anti-corporate demagoguery, even as Democrats bail out their Wall Street friends and big investors generally.

Josh Marshall has links to more material in this vein here.

So, to go historical for a second here, current Republicans apparently want to turn the Paulson bailout plan into the new “Tariff of Abominations,” a policy of theirs that they hope will reflect even worse on their opponents. The fabled Tariff of 1828 was a Democratic-originated bill that their hated enemy President John Quincy Adams signed into law. Adams was then furiously denounced for signing it in the ensuing campaign, which he lost, especially by tariff-hating southerners who had no choice (by their proslavery lights) but to keep supporting Democratic candidate Andrew Jackson whatever his northern allies had done. The traditional stories that this was all a plot by Martin Van Buren to allow Jackson to run as both pro- and anti-protection, and that the bill was intended to fail, are now thought to be somewhat mythical. (Wikipedia seems pretty good on the topic, or you can read Frederick Jackson Turner about it on Google books.) If the Tariff of 1828 was a Van Buren plot, it was a little too clever. Jackson would probably have won anyway, John C. Calhoun-led South Carolina would soon try to destroy or hamstring the Union over the issue, and the enmity of many southern Democrats for Van Buren would burn for decades, eventually getting him thrown out of the presidency.

I am guessing any serious effort to boomerang the Bush administration’s bailout against the Democrats or to help John McCain will also turn out to be a little too clever. It might help soothe the aching heads of some in the GOP base, but the Bush brand of Republicans-as-irresponsible-rich-people is a little too well-established by now. That’s what a lot of Republican voters I know seem to like about them.

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August 29, 2008

Vice Grip

Filed under: 2008 elections,Democrats,GOP,Past campaigns,Presidency — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 7:33 pm

. . . on the media’s imagination, blogosphere included.

Finally, we come to the sense-shattering climax of Veepstakes 2008. It does give the TV & blog people something to talk about, at least until the hurricanes hit. I don’t mean to be a killjoy. I have long been a fan of Joe Biden, despite his serial hopeless presidential candidacies, and choosing him was a nice, low-key way to address Obama’s East Coast Catholic and foreign policy flanks. And with this Sarah Palin pick, we finally have our 49th & 50th states represented on a national ticket (if we count Obama for Hawaii). Of course, I have not looked to check that North Dakota, Idaho, Rhode Island, and such have been covered, but we now can rest assured that Delaware and Alaska are in the bag.

Yet I would lose my political historian’s license if I did not emphasize just how little vice-presidential picks matter, electorally speaking. Voters vote for president, the top, nation-embodying office, and always have, even back in 1796 when only local electors were actually running.

Now, the fact that the Veep might have to assume the main office, we should take seriously. [Something McCain, apparently, does not take seriously.] The Whigs wished they could have had a do-over on that John Tyler pick, and the Radical Republicans nearly succeeded in doing Andrew Johnson over. Yet electorally, and barring presidential death, it has almost never been a big thing. Lyndon Johnson and John Nance Garner brought some Texas-style political muscle to their respective tickets, yeee-haawww, but Texas was still a Democratic state back then.

The example that seems to hang over the veep-stakes in recent times has been Missouri’s own Tom Eagleton from 1972. While the Democrats’ craven handling of that episode certainly did not help McGovern in November, the idea that a 49-state, 23-point pulping like 1972 could truly hinge on a momentary running mate snafu is the kind of thing that only a pundit could actually believe. Let’s just say there were some larger forces at work.

In most other presidential elections, even objectively disastrous picks have just not mattered. Dan Quayle, anyone? Take Dukakis running mate Lloyd Bentsen’s celebrated pantsing of Dan Quayle in 1988.

It became “one of the most famous moments in US political history” (per the YouTube caption) and entered the permanent cultural lexicon, all the way to getting referenced in children’s Christmas specials. Yet it hardly saved the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket, or even made any difference at all as far as I can tell. Perhaps a non-Quayle would have helped Bush père a bit more in 1992, but I am really just saying that to be nice.

1992 may only be the second-best example of why running mates don’t matter very much. The best one is probably 1836. Martin Van Buren’s controversial veep pick was Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky, a national hero in some circles for allegedly killing Tecumseh and fighting to keep the post offices open on Sunday. Suffice it to say that Johnson turned out to have some serious negatives. In a country where only white men could vote, and where questioning racism in any way drew vilification and mob violence, Johnson was exposed as having lived openly with an African-American woman named Julia Chinn and the couple’s two mixed-race daughters, whom Johnson educated and married off to white men. The Whig press, really still just proto-Whig at this point, heavily publicized Johnson’s private life and clucked that such race-mixing was the inevitable result of Democratic slumming and demagoguery. The U.S. would be seen as a “national of mulattoes” if Van Buren and Johnson were elected, one newspaper warned. A racist political cartoon was published depicting the Johnson family at home. [For an excellent article on the incident, see Thomas Brown, “The Miscegenation of Richard Mentor Johnson As an Issue in the National Election Campaign of 1835-1836,” Civil War History 39 (1993): 5-30.]

An Affecting Scene in Kentucky

Old Kinderhook’s problematic image down south was not improved by the controversy, but he won the election anyway, carrying Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Virginia, and other states not known for their open-mindedness on racial matters. Looking at the map, Johnson’s unorthodox living arrangements may have hurt Van Buren as much with northern bluenoses, also usually racists, as it did with southerners. At any rate, Van Buren was hardly doomed even by such a catastrophic pick as Johnson.

Andrew Sullivan’s take on the Sarah Palin pick seems about right. Ruth Rosen’s too, in a less happy vein:

Sarah Palin is the inexperienced woman Sen. John McCain has chosen as his running mate, hoping that she will attract the vital female vote. It’s the worst kind of affirmative action, choosing a person he barely knows, who is completely unprepared to assume any national office. It’s like nominating Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court.

You might even say it is the Republican version of affirmative action, where any member of the underrepresented group will do as along as they espouse GOP orthodoxy.

McCain’s “bold” move would also seem to be based on a fairly puerile piece of political analysis, as well: that disgruntled female Hillary supporters are so disgruntled they would now vote for any woman, even if she was only second place on the ticket and agreed with them on no issues. This seems based on typical old white guy assumptions about the narrow, shallow motivations of women and minorities seeking equality in votes and jobs.

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August 26, 2008

Conventionalities

Filed under: Democrats,Music,Political culture,Political Parties,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 10:33 pm

This is the first week of classes here, so I hope this will cover up the fact that I really don’t care to watch the national party conventions. I loved them as a kid; it interrupted the reruns and even as late as 1980, unexpected stuff still occasionally happened at the conventions. Or it seemed to. It was kind of a “no Santa Claus” moment for this young politics fan to realize how empty of real decisions or actual information the conventions are. The media finally cottoned on to it, too, only to make matters worse by turning themselves into the political equivalent of Olympic judges — the floor exercises, I guess — minutely but mechanically critiquing the performance of each predetermined movement. (For the record, I gave up the Olympics around 1980, too.) Also, the Democratic Convention coverage suffers from an even worse case of Never-Ending-Sixties & Seventies-itis than John McCain’s foreign policy. Basically the media waits around for something that happened before to happen again: Mayor Daley, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Eagleton, Liberal Avenger Ted Kennedy, anything.

I will catch up with the online videos of some speeches later, but for now let’s recall an actually suspenseful Democratic Convention of 1844, with They Might Be Giants:

Thanks to the earlier commenter who reminded me of this song. It’s not a bad account except for the line about Martin Van Buren being an abolitionist, probably the most positive publicity the Used-Up Man has had in 150 years. The lyrics appear below for the use of other historical rock critics.

They Might Be Giants,
“James K. Polk”

In 1844, the Democrats were split
The three nominees for the presidential candidate
Were Martin Van Buren, a former president and an abolitionist
James Buchanan, a moderate
Lewis Cass, a general and expansionist
From Nashville came a dark horse riding up
He was James K. Polk, Napoleon of the Stump

Austere, severe, he held few people dear
His oratory filled his foes with fear
The factions soon agreed
“He’s just the man we need
To bring about victory
Fulfill our manifest destiny
And annex the land the Mexicans command”
And when the poll was cast, the winner was
Mister James K. Polk, Napoleon of the Stump

In four short years he met his every goal
He seized the whole southwest from Mexico
Made sure the tariffs fell
And made the English sell the Oregon territory
He built an independent treasury
Having done all this he sought no second term
But precious few have mourned the passing of
Mister James K. Polk, our eleventh president
Young Hickory, Napoleon of the Stump

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August 22, 2008

The Regal Splendor of the Would-Be Presidential Palaces

Filed under: 2008 elections,Media,Past campaigns,Political culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 10:48 am

TPM and other center-to-left blogs are having a wonderful time with the story that has spun out of John McCain’s inability to remember just how many houses he and his wife own. (Start here and read up from there.) It has become a humorous way to highlight both the Republican candidate’s age and just how super-wealthy he and his wife actually are, to a degree that will surprise many voters who only know McCain from his maverick-esque talk show appearances. The count appears to be up at least eight luxury homes, but many more if you count separate dwelling units, and many many more if you use the spaces that most middle-class American families live in as your units.

Miraculously, the mainstream media (AP and CNN and ABC) are joining the story some, showing just a touch of shame for the DC press corps’ slavering promotion of McCain over the years. We can also hope that even some of the TV-star media types who have lavish lifestyle issues themselves may want to show their common touch by expressing some shock at the McCains’ wealth or even feel a twinge of jealousy that even they, nightly guests in every American living room, are not quite this rich. (The New York Times, however, continues to search for false equivalences. To paraphrase Steely Dan, the things that pass for objectivity I can’t understand.) What Obama really needs is for the late night comedians to pick this up.

Here is Obama hitting the theme cautiously, but reasonably well:

 

On to historical context: There is, of course, a long tradition in American presidential politics of attacking an opponent’s lavish lifestyle, especially in times of economic hardship. It will be interesting to see how badly this hurts McCain. In the past, the tactic has been most successfully used against incumbent presidents, often by opponents who were wealthier or represented wealthier interests than the candidate who was being attacked. So the forces supporting rich planter, slave dealer, and land speculator Andrew Jackson raked John Quincy Adams over his billiard table.

The most successful example from the Early Republic was the well-funded 1840 Whig campaign defining tavern-keeper’s son Martin Van Buren as a pampered aristocrat, while the country suffered through the depression following the Panic of 1837. The key document was a massive speech-turned-pamphlet about the furnishings and operating expenses of the White House, published under the title “The Regal Splendor of the President’s Palace.” Here is a little explanation from Common-Place‘s sturdy old precursor, American Heritage:

THE TIME MACHINE
1840 One Hundred and Fifty Sixty-Eight Years Ago

. . . On April 14 the Whig congressman Charles Ogle of Pennsylvania addressed the House of Representatives on the subject of Van Buren’s White House. The President had asked Congress for $4,675 to renovate the Executive Mansion, and Ogle greeted the request with a three-day tirade in which he mercilessly vilified Martin Van Buren. The packed galleries laughed and cheered as the congressman described a plumed and perfumed dandy “strutting by the hour before golden-framed mirrors, NINE FEET HIGH and FOUR FEET and a HALF WIDE,” in a “PALACE as splendid as that of the Caesars, and as richly adorned as the proudest Asiatic mansion.” Van Buren was too vain to eat “those old and unfashionable dishes, ‘hog and hominy,’ ‘fried meat and gravy,’ … [and] a mug of ‘hard cider,’ ” Ogle said. On the presidential table instead were gold utensils and “Fanny Kemble Green finger cups,” into which the President dipped his “pretty tapering soft, white lily fingers, after dining on fricandaus de veau and omlette souffle.”

The only response from the White House was a simple certification that “no gold knives or forks or spoons of any description have been purchased for the President’s house since Mr. Van Buren became the Chief Magistrate of the Nation.” Ogle published his “gold spoon oration” at his own expense, and copies that circulated throughout the country made him famous. Ogle had set the tone for the Whig campaign that was to propel Gen. William Henry Harrison, the “hard-cider man” and war hero, to an overwhelming victory in November.

The American Heritage site also has an excerpt from Ogle’s speech, in fact more of a mini-edition of it. I am getting together a pdf of the whole thing, or perhaps we can convince the AAS to do that. Compare Ogle’s lovingly detailed descriptions of “the magnificent decorations of the Presidential palace”and its grounds matching “the style and fashion of some of the most celebrated royal gardens In England” to TPM’s post “Lifestyles of the Rich and Mavericky,” which includes a realtor’s listing of the McCains’ quite regal Phoenix mansion describing its “Finest entertaining backyard in the Valley – 3 ramadas (2 w/full bar set-up), BBQ, play house, cantera stone decking, pavillion, spa, and large lap/play pool.” Another parallel is that Ogle got the information he did not make up from a proud description of the White House from the pro-Van Buren Washington Globe and an administration appropriations request. Among the sources for McCain’s detractors are a spread in Architectural Digest about one of his pads and adoring video tours of the others from Fox News and McCain’s own campaign website.

McCain’s attacks on Obama as a celebrity, including an ad that jibed “Life in the Spotlight Must Be Grand,” would be more typical of the inversionist faux-populism that has worked in past campaigns. But it’s now looking (tentatively) like it may have backfired. People who live in eight glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, I guess.

This appears to be my 100th post on this blog, so I’m glad it was accidentally a double-size special issue.

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