As labor and Dems face 2010, get ready for GOP populist pitch
By Roger Bybee
As we move into 2010, things don’t exactly look rosy for labor’s political program.
Progress on genuine healthcare reform and the Employee Free Choice Act has hardly been encouraging. If progress has been thwarted despite the most Democratic president in hearly half a century, a suposedly veto-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate, and a whopping 257-178 majority in the House, what will happen to labor’s program if the Democrats lose dozens of seats in the mid-term elections this November?
But Democratic wisemen like Robert Shrum assure us that the Republic Party is simply the party of "No" and suffers from severe fractiousness among right-wing elements that alienate young people, independents, and suburban moderates. Combined with its Tea Bag allies, the GOP offers no coherent programs or ideas. The Right presents only preposterous shots at Obama and menacing images of gun-toting members outside presidential speeches.
The fact that the Tea Baggers’ mood of sustained outrage at the government resonates with a broad swath of people–without regard to specific programs, just the widespread sense of pain among poor and working people–is untroubling to the voices of conventional wisdom. But Dr. Marcia Angell of Harvard Medical School offered a far more insightufl diagnosis of tthe frustration behind the Tea Bag phenomenon and why it has commanded attention:
I think people are a worried about a loss of equity in their homes, a loss in value of their retirement funds, job security and unemployment, and the fragility of health insurance…. I think Americans are suffering. There’s a sort of free-floating anger and distress…there’s a kind of inchoate rage, and there’s almost nothing coherent about it.
But this blind, formless rage may find a vulnerable target with the Democrats’ approach to health care. A fundamental weakness remains with the basic premise of the Democratic approach–subsidizing insurers so Americans can buy defective and inadequate policies that will still remain unaffordable. As former Cigna executive Wendell Potter and others have warned, this approach risks igniting a vast popular backlash against the Democrats.
WORST OF BOTH WORLDS
Specifically, the Democratic healthcare strategy embodies the worst stereotype of Big Government –compelling people to buy a defective product–with the worst of Big Business’s greed and ability to grab government subsidies. This will create an inviting target for Republicans bright enough to recognize this glaring weakness and duplicitous enough to proclaim that they intend to crack down on major corporation along with Big Government.
Enter Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, a boyishly handsome, unfailingly polite, and politically shrewd. Ryan, a native of Janesville, Wis. which is still reeling from the effects of a devastating GM shutdown represents a southeastern Wisconsin district wracked by unemployment and major plant closings from one end of the district to the
THE PAUL RYAN EXPRESS
But Ryan has managed to incorporate criticism of Chrysler’s move of jobs from Kenosha to Mexico along with his more conventional anti-government pitch.
While Ryan has been out-ranked and upstaged by GOP leaders like the snarling, perma-tanned Minority Leader John Boehner and the dazed, ditzy Eric Cantor, his time may soon be coming soon.
As Thomas Frank notes, Ryan is working on concocting a blend of populism that will combine sharp but disingenuous criticism of Big Business with an attack on the real target, government’s potential cpaacityy to serve as the collective voice of the people.
The ever-artful Ryan penned a December Forbes article titled provocatively, "Down with Big Business." As Frank relates,
The tone Mr. Ryan takes in his Forbes article makes him sound like the Jacobin of Janesville. He savages "crony capitalism," pausing to note the "resentment" it is inspiring.
He depicts the Troubled Asset Relief Program, better known as TARP, as a well-intentioned measure that has become "an ad hoc, opaque slush fund for large institutions that are able to influence the Treasury Department’s investment decisions behind-the-scenes." [Ryan voted for the TARP].
He complains about lobbying, offers the obligatory denunciation of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, and bemoans the economic disasters befalling small companies while the rescued banks enjoy "record profits."
….But the problem seems not to be that government made poor decisions over the past year; it’s that government made any decisions at all. Government, in Mr. Ryan’s view, is alternately the tool and the terror of big business, doing one firm’s bidding as it crushes another one.
The solution is to get government out of the game altogether, and Mr. Ryan fondly recalls the great deregulatory campaigns of the past eaving out the embarrassing story of how he and his colleagues overturned Glass-Steagall and then watched the banking industry explode in a fireball of freedom).
Like Newt Gingrich and his pollster pal Frank Luntz in 1994 in developing the headlines for "Contract with America," (this was classsic "bait and switch" at its most galling: the headings had a strong, sensible populist tone, while the content of each section was hard-Right economics.
Sixteen years later, Ryan is trying to fashion a new version of Republican politics that simultaneously taps resentment against corporate greed and arrogance with resentment against Big Government’s failure to stand with the little people.
RYAN A PRO AT BEING ‘SINCERE’
"All that will matter will be the sincerity of the emotion, and if Mr. Ryan’s essay is any indication, this is a job Republicans can do as well as any Code Pink activist," Frank states.
However, having seen Ryan’s impact from a closer angle, we should recognize that Ryan is absolutely superb at projecting sincerity even when he means it least. If Ryan helps the Republicans to re-formulate their message, the now-smug Democrats may be licking some severe wounds after Election Day 2010.
As Rich Trumka has just warned, the Democrats seem to be "inviting a
repeat of 1994" when working class voters stayed home or were swayed by Gingrich’s pseudo-populism.