Matt Stoller is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. You can follow him at https://twitter.com/matthewstoller and he can be reached at stoller at gmail.com.
Even authoritarian systems require legitimacy to retain the support of the governed, and the new authoritarian America is no exception. Since 2004, the brilliant public journalism advocate Jay Rosen has been asking, what is the point of a political convention? No news is made, yet over 15,000 journalists show up, ostensibly to cover the pomp. But everyone knows that coverage isn’t so much the point; these conventions trade shows for the political class, where party insiders, journalists, politicians, celebrities, corporate types, and lobbyists mingle to organize political hierarchies. The public is simply irrelevant, a mass of jeering and cheering message imbibers or apathetic and cynical former citizens, people who are unseen behind their TV screens. The only fresh elements are protesters, and they are met by a police state, lest they disrupt the insider deal-making.
In fact, elections, over the past few years, have become mechanisms for sustaining the legitimacy of this political class, not contests designed to be won by either side. Neither side would ever admit to not trying to win, at least publicly. Privately, political consultants will count their winnings happily after each election, regardless of the outcome. So the way to see the lack of competitiveness now is to examine the moves that both parties are not making.
The Republicans have a clear strategy to win, which they are not using. Obama is liked but unpopular, seen as a pseudo-honest lightweight who can’t govern, even as the GOP are considered more competent but downright evil. In politics, you have to get more votes than the other guy; you don’t have to prove you’re an angel. You can even change the voting universe, rather than persuading people of your merits. And indeed, a small but significant minority of Obama voters don’t really want to vote for Obama, they are unenthusiastic but feel they have to pick the lesser evil. They can be pushed into apathy. So the Republicans’ best strategy would be to dampen enthusiasm for Obama among these voters, while pulling a few weak Obama voters over to their side with a populist campaign. Would it be dishonest for Republicans to promise populist policies they have no intention of following through on? Sure! Has that ever stopped them before? Of course not! Remember George W. Bush and compassionate conservatism? Now that was some artful lying. The Republicans were really trying to win that time. This time, not so much.
If the Republicans were interested in winning, you’d see a very different campaign. Here are ten ironclad arguments you’d see. These are arguments the Republicans could make, but aren’t.
1) The Tax Cheat Administration – When the Obama campaign brought out Bain and tax avoidance, the GOP would have gone after health care czar Tom Daschle ‘s tax cheating and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner tax problems. Daschle didn’t pay over $120,000 of taxes, and had to withdraw from consideration for the cabinet. Yet Obama still used him as a health care czar, even as he was on the payroll of big law firms. And Geithner’s problems were worse. As Neil Barofsky noted in Bailout, Geithner’s tax problems weren’t simple mistakes, they were more ominous than that, and revealed someone willing to cheat to keep a few more bucks. Geithner hadn’t been paying his full amount of taxes for several years. This was discovered, and he paid back taxes. But at first, he only paid back taxes for the years the statute of limitations hadn’t expire, keeping his tax cheat winnings for prior years. Only when prodded by the administration did he make up the full amount.
2) Obama Doesn’t Keep His Promises to You – During the 2008 primary, Obama promised to renegotiate NAFTA. He didn’t. Obama also promised to raise the minimum wage, and index it to inflation. He didn’t. The NAFTA promise is especially powerful, because anti-NAFTA sentiment cuts across party lines, and Obama pretty clearly was lying in 2008 when it emerged that his campaign economist Austan Goolsbee had assured the Canadians that Obama did not intend to honor his campaign promises.
3) Obama Administration, Brought to You By Wall Street – The Obama administration has very few high level Treasury officials who don’t have significant experience in large too big to fail banks. His chief of staff Bill Daley came from JP Morgan, an Jack Lew came from Citigroup. The revolving door argument is a natural television advertisement. The Republicans even cut an ad to portray Obama this way, but never put any real dollars behind it.
4) Obama Administration’s Handling of the Foreclosure Crisis – The Obama administration said that its main housing program would help 4 million homeowners. It came nowhere close. Recently, we’ve learned that the entire premise of the administration’s housing efforts was based on helping the banks, or “foaming the runway”, as Geithner put it, rather than stopping foreclosures. This is directly at odds from what the administration presented to the public. This is particularly significant in certain swing states, like Florida, Nevada, and Ohio. The Republicans could simply make this a broken promise argument, and again, the ad writes itself.
5) Inequality Skyrocketing Under Obama – Growth of inequality is higher under Obama than under Bush. This is because Obama reflated financial assets and not housing assets, and has compounded that by legalizing fraud among elite financial actors. The lack of prosecution angle isn’t just an ad that writes itself, it was an Academy Award winning documentary (Inside Job).
6) Obama Administration Is Corrupt – The examples here are numerous. There was the secret deal with pharma to spend money on elections if pharma got certain multi-billion dollar concessions in Obamacare. There’s the pay to play revolving door, such as Peter Orszag going to Citigroup after running OMB. In the first chapter of Bailout, Herb Allison essentially offered a bribe to Neil Barofsky if he’d go easier on Treasury around TARP. This is corruption. It’s not hard to prove.
7) Obama Pushing Offshoring of American Jobs – The massive Trans-Pacific Partnership, or NAFTA on steroids, is a global secret deal to subordinate American sovereignty to international tribunals of private corporate lawyers and offshoring whatever jobs are left in America. I’m not kidding. It’s that bad. And it’s being negotiated right now.
8) Subversion of the Rule of Law – This is everything from refusing to prosecuting Wall Street bankers to having a kill list to destroy real estate law through the mortgage settlement. Any number of eminent lawyers or thinkers could, or has, made this point.
9) Suppression of Dissent – The administration’s DHS collaborated with local and state law enforcement to get rid of Occupy encampments.
10) Endless war – Obama’s national security apparatus has been keeping us in Afghanistan, at higher troop levels, than Bush did.
These arguments, if put into widespread play, could keep voters at home, or even shift some groups away from Obama. And because of outside SuperPACs, none of these arguments have to be made by Romney himself, there are a host of groups that could make them. Though you might think it would be appallingly hypocritical if the Republicans made these arguments, when has that ever stopped them before? It isn’t honesty and integrity preventing the GOP from going there. Or if it is, then one would have to concede that the Republicans are running a principled campaign, on plutocracy. More likely, the answer is that winning the race isn’t as important as ensuring that the political class is protected from democracy.
The Republicans don’t want to discuss tax cheating, offshoring, corruption, inequality, dissent, the rule of law, endless war, or Wall Street criminality. They’d rather lose. It’s not that they want to lose in 2012, it’s just that they aren’t going to go after every vote. It’s the same reason no one talks about how Romney is a flip-flopper anymore, or points out that Romney is the architect of Obamacare, or was a moderate Republican governor in Massachusetts. Those arguments are worse for the political class, and better for the public. And that is how elections operate in authoritarian America. The secondary goal is to win the election, the primary goal is to keep the public out of the deal-making.