Matt Stoller is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. You can follow him on twitter at http://www.twitter.com/matthewstoller
If you picked up a newspaper in DC this week, it would have been hard to avoid noticing that a bizarre and irrelevant spat is consuming much of the insider political media and top political officials. Earlier this week, a corporate lobbyist named Hilary Rosen tweeted a vague insult at GOP Presidential nominee wife Ann Romney. Rosen said that Romney had never worked a day in her life, and so could not credibly speak to the economic concerns of women. The Republicans demanded an apology. Rosen refused. Obama advisors like David Axelrod and Jim Messina then weighed in on Romney’s side. Eventually, Rosen caved to the pressure and apologized. This is why.
By the end of Thursday, the most prominent voices in Washington had weighed in, including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the first lady, Michelle Obama, and the president himself, who said that there is “no tougher job than being a mom” and that anyone who thinks otherwise “needs to rethink their statement.”
Just what is going on? How did one mildly annoying tweet from a corporate lobbyist who isn’t working on a political campaign come to dominate the electoral coverage for days for the office of the most powerful political position in the world?
Political scientist Tom Ferguson has noted that there are always two elections at work concurrently in America, a public election that voters see, and a hidden election where funders operate in shifting coalitions to pull the levers of power. In this case, it’s the very triviality that is on display that speaks to what is going. Rosen, a corporate lobbyist who represents or has represented copyright interests, for-profit colleges, and BP, is fighting with David Axelrod, who has made money from the nuclear industry, and Anna Romney, who rides expensive horses bought by her husband’s private equity millions. This is staged kabuki between powerful millionaires, none of whom can credibly speak from recent experience on economic struggles.
The 2012 election, in other words, is at this point a completely empty enterprise, bereft of substance, or integrity. This is new to our era, reminiscent of the late 19th century electoral landscape which was dominated by policy consensus around corruption and plutocracy while electoral contests were organized around “bloody shirt” smear campaigns. Populism intruded briefly, but there’s a reason that time period was known as the time of the robber barons. It’s increasingly analogous to our time.
In 2003-2004, a large Democratic field and George Bush bitterly debated questions of war and peace. In 2007-2008, both parties saw significant debate between multiple candidates in which they argued about a whole set of questions, from war to civil liberties to the financial crisis. The financial crisis was probably determinative in 2008, with the lead seesawing between the two candidates until John McCain “suspended” his campaign. There was a substantive amount of deceit, of course, in previous contests, and it’s true that many of the promises were not real. But at least the candidates had to debate in a way in which their words had to bear some resemblance to the world in which voters resided. But this time, there is literally no relationship between the reality of the policy questions and the political debate.
Yesterday, I pointed out that income inequality under Obama is actually worse than it was under Bush, and that the trend of increasingly inequality has accelerated. One might think that the Presidential race would be the time to debate, even if it’s only in some sort of fake manner, questions about these kinds of problems. Wouldn’t the Republicans be able to succeed, even cynically and dishonestly, by highlighting policy failures leading to this?
For instance, at the same time as the Rosen spat occurred, this week we also saw a report from the Inspector General of TARP that Tim Geithner’s Treasury Department has simply not implemented a $7 billion program intended to help families hardest hit by foreclosures. That could have been a scandal of sorts, with the Republicans attacking the administration for incompetence and the administration making arguments about its economic stewardship. The major problem facing our economic structure is the collapse of the housing finance system, with 96% of mortgages at this point backed explicit by government. Yet, no debate, nothing. It’s millionaire kabuki. There are now murders happening around the foreclosure crisis. Nothing. No pressure from the left, or the right.
Major policy initiatives, such as the JOBS Act eliminating accounting requirements for companies using public equity markets, are now bipartisan, beyond debate. AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka is apparently “personally outraged” by that bill, but he can’t help but argue how Barack Obama is the President for the middle class. The Democratic campaign will center in at least some part on tax justice and economic fairness, with the Republicans decrying class warfare. Yet, the data on inequality betrays that this narrative is completely disconnected from substance, from reality. Without an debate over the policies that led to this endpoint, it’s hard to figure out whether the 2012 election matters. Since Obama is still taken seriously when he promises to redress inequality immediately after signing the JOBS Act, this debate can’t happen.
Politics can matter, though it doesn’t always. Sometimes it matters a lot – FDR was an important President, because he was able to use the policy space opened up by the depression. He did not have to be the nominee, but he was. Richard Nixon pursued different policies than Hubert Humphrey, and Jimmy Carter was a different policy animal than Ronald Reagan or Ted Kennedy. Sometimes that difference is meaningful, but not structural. Huey Long as Senator pushed through deposit insurance. Rep. Alan Grayson was able to insert a Federal Reserve audit in Dodd-Frank, which somewhat opened up the central bank to the public. Senator Howard Metzenbaum and Jesse Helms were personally responsible for an killing enormous amount of legislation. This year, renowned foreclosure fighter Lisa Epstein is running for Clerk of the Court in Palm Beach County, a position with a surprising amount of power. Were she to win, she would be able to join other people in similar positions, like Jeff Thigpen in North Carolina, John O’Brien in Massachusetts and Curtis Hertel in Michigan, and change the contours of the foreclosure crisis in her locality.
This is not to say that politics is the only route to social change, it certainly is not. And this is not a “your vote matters” argument. It doesn’t always matter. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. What is striking is how little pressure is coming from the populace, towards the political elites in both parties. The Republicans have a bitter class divide within their party, but they have quickly clamped down on the populists in their midst. Meanwhile, Barack Obama can give stump-speeches on his support for the middle class with a straight face. Until this dynamic changes, and someone or something forces a real debate that reconnects substance and politics, our American decline will continue. Until then, the debates in DC will happen behind closed doors among powerful interests, and the public will only witness a fierce kabuki performance over Hilary Rosen’s tweets.
UPDATE: Rosen’s original comment was on CNN, the dispute was largely carried out over Twitter. And yes, this is the dumbest correction of all time.