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Romney and the new era of 'takeaway politics'

The presidential race is fascinatingly close to the bone of American politics in transition. A look at three elephants in the room, suddenly visible to the anxious voters.

Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney DonkeyHotey/Flickr (Creative Commons license)

“This election is activating large parts of the American psyche,” observes Nicholas Lemann in a seminal portrait of Mitt Romney in a recent New Yorker.  He notes that the voters, after the financial crisis and other disillusionments, are longing for “a big fix, a new social compact.”

These hard-to-articulate, unconscious yearnings are making this a fascinating election, in large part for its openness to extremism on the GOP side, its mood swings, and its highly changeable candidates like Romney. (Who knew he was that other Mormon, Jon Huntsman, all along?) There are big elephants in the room, rarely named but deeply felt. Some of them even roam in our state politics.

Let me introduce two of these elephants.

The first is a sense that we are moving from the long postwar boom to a difficult new order. Robert Samuelson captures this well in his description of a “giveaway politics” that is now shifting to “takeaway politics.” This is the American version of the European collapse of the welfare state.

In the era of giveaway politics, Samuelson writes, speaking of 1960-2010, federal spending on “payments to individuals” (entitlements, food stamps, medical care) rose from 26 percent to 66 percent, of the budget and yet the tax burden, as a percent of GDP, only rose from 17.8 percent to 18.5 percent. This free lunch was made possible by factors that no longer apply: strong economic growth, plenty of young people paying taxes to support old folks, and a drop of military spending from 52 percent to today’s 20 percent of federal outlays.

That produced a spoiled electorate, as well as carefree politicians who loved doling out the goodies.  Those habits will be hard to break.

And today? A stalled business sector. Extremely high public debt (now 70 percent of the economy, up from 40 percent four years ago), baby boomers retiring and shifting the income demographics, and little remaining opportunity to shift more dollars from defense spending. Politicians now must take away benefits.

This has produced, writes Robert Merry in The National Interest ($), an era of transformational politics, replacing a crumbling Old Order. Its elements: a reversion to an earlier, Jeffersonian/Jacksonian tradition of distrusting large federal government and its cronyism; disillusionment with FDR-style constituency groups that have a permanent stake in government programs; and a sense of paralysis in a government that “can’t seem to get at the problems of our time because too many entrenched interests possess the power to prevent it.”

Understandably, politicians don’t want to run on a candid platform of austerity and castor oil. Romney shifts attention away from painful “takeaways” to the libertarian joys of an untrammeled economy. Obama dwells on the moral satisfactions of a communal vision, in which “citizenship” sustains for a few more years the old vision of enlarged government, and taxing the wealthy keeps giveaway politics rolling along.  (At the state level, it is the rainbow of revived economic growth that recharges the treasury in Olympia, with only a few painful cuts needed.)

The second elephant in today’s politics is the emergence of the new American economy, one based not on large manufacturing organizations like George Romney’s American Motors, but on the financialized economy where Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital flourishes. One could sense this “new man” stepping forward with a scary confidence in the first presidential debate. The boardroom bully of “creative destruction” rudely waved aside the crumbling old order personified by the baffled Jim Lehrer.

Lemann’s account of Romney's rise traces this transformation to a 1970s version of the seismic shift in American culture in the 1960s. In both cases, a younger, impatient group of people transformed the older more traditional group. In the 1960s, the revolt was about politics, culture, dress, identity politics and music. In the 1970s, the insurrection was about ways of doing business. Instead of the traditions of prudence, stability and duty to employees and community, we developed a sector that moved vast assets around at great speed and risk, on a global stage. Seattle’s Boeing and defense economy buffered us from such stark change.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Oct 9, 8:49 a.m. Inappropriate

Interesting piece. One thing we agree upon: the economy is changing. But I'm not sure the financial manipulations of Bain represent a sustainable path for growth; in fact, I'm pretty sure it doesn't. It's allowed a tiny slice of people to become fabulously wealthy. I'm pretty sure that, if Romney described THAT vision in his next Etch-A-Sketch moment, he'd lose support across the country. I think David paints with much too broad a brush. Describing every redistributive element of the American economy as a "giveaway" is pretty close to Romney's "47 percent" comment, which as a factual description of "dependency" has been pretty well debunked. The truth is, in the past 30 years the economy has become less redistributive no matter which party was in power. Arguing that this trend should be accentuated, rather than questioned, seems the wrong path to me.

pianoboy

Posted Tue, Oct 9, 9:48 a.m. Inappropriate

James Stimson a political science professor from UNC has written a book called Tides of Consent. In it he shows with well done studies and interesting regression analysis of surveys and voting patterns that decisions in elections come on the margins from a group he calls Scorekeepers. These are not idealogues but people who pay enough attention to say things are going well or we need a change. Unfortunately a lot of folks don't care and don't pay attention. However, the marginal effect keeps working. I will vote for Obama because I believe in the future, but Brewster is right that we have an unpleasant message staring us in the face. Cut back on what you expect.

MelBSea

Posted Tue, Oct 9, 10:39 a.m. Inappropriate

Soundbites and cliches are tiresome yet effective in summing up all the angst. Too many folks riding in the cart; too few pulling and paying for the cart. Romney's "47%" may be closer to accurate than his critics lament. There is no such thing as a 'free lunch'. Trillions wasted on New Deal, Great Society, War on Poverty, welfare, food stamps, etc. $16,000,000,000,000+ national debt. America deserves more Romneys and fewer Obamas.

animalal

Posted Tue, Oct 9, 10:42 a.m. Inappropriate

David,

I think you are seriously over-thinking and analyzing this election, but for the sake of argument, lets proceed on your idea of "takeaways".

Give Romney 100% of the Washington State vote, then take away women and men who won't support him because of his positions on reproductive rights.

Then take away voters who believe that rich folks like Romney should pay more taxes. Say, to support things like PBS?

Now take away all those folks who find Romney's and the Republican Party position on immigration disgraceful.

Takeaway all those voters who work hard, but find themselves either included in or in sympathy with, the "47 percent".

Then takeaway those voters who find his neo-con sabre rattling a prelude to another war and more Trillion dollar disasters.

Take all THOSE takeaways, and you get what Romney is likely to get,
about 42% of the vote in Washington State.

Plus you don't have to read the New Yorker or Robert Samuelson on the blogs.

Ross

Posted Tue, Oct 9, 1:35 p.m. Inappropriate

The big opportunity for Mr Obama is if he can come up with a plan to avoid the fiscal cliff. This is his opportunity to show leadership and to get his own party lined up with him.

Mr Bernanke's term ends Jan 31, 2014, which is less than 16 months away. The big unknown for whoever is the next president is how many trillion dollars more of US federal debt can the Fed put on its books? And what happens when that point is reached? We will be at the point where the Fed Chair, the Fed governors and whoever they pay attention to (China, investors in general) call the shots, not Congress or the President. If Obama wins and can reappoint Bernanke or someone who goes along with buying trillions, then Obama may be able to get through his term without making hard choices. But if Obama wins but he can't get Bernanke to stay, then he will likely have to face hard choices sooner, before his term is over.

sjenner

Posted Wed, Oct 10, 3:25 p.m. Inappropriate

"The second elephant in today’s politics is the emergence of the new American economy, one based not on large manufacturing organizations like George Romney’s American Motors, but on the financialized economy where Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital flourishes."

a convenient myth.

The USA is still the top manufacturing country in the world.
http://www.aei-ideas.org/2011/01/the-demise-of-america’s-manufacturing-sector-has-been-greatly-exaggerated/

"the financialized economy" gave us WaMu.

no jobs there- kick the sand back, look somewhere else.

meanwhile, Boeing is still the number 1 exporter in the USA.

the manufacturing economy, the one that WaMu replaced, is giving us things like Janicki, in Sedro Wooley, which now has over 500 employees.

Its absolutely true that, just like in agriculture, it takes fewer bodies today to make the same amount of stuff, so absolute manufacturing employment has fallen.

But smoke and mirrors have not in any way replaced the making of real things.

Ries

Posted Wed, Oct 10, 6:21 p.m. Inappropriate

What a slam against House Speaker Frank Chopp, "who has cowed Democratic governors and kept imposing his agenda of generously funding social services, his pride and joy." How perfidious to take pride and joy in fighting for programs that further social justice. I love Chopp because unlike so many "bleeding hearts" who are good at towel-wringing, he knows that toughness is necessary to battle against "the other side."
Abe Bergman

Posted Wed, Oct 10, 11:40 p.m. Inappropriate

I realize there's nothing I can say to move David Brewster out of the thrall of the Bob Samuelson school of deficit hawks, who see the federal deficit as the end of western civilization. But most real budget experts across the political spectrum say by far the biggest driver of future deficits is out-of-control U.S. health care costs. If we focus on doing what every other advanced nation has already done and set global budgets to control total (notice, I say total, not just government) health care spending, we would solve the long-term deficit problem. But repealing Obamacare and "unleashing private market forces" will do exactly the opposite, which is why no other advanced nation has predominantly private market, profit-seeking health care system. Instead, the deficit hawks apparently would rather slash badly needed Social Security, Medicaid, Medicaid, food stamp, educational, and other benefits for low- and modest-income Americans than take on the for-profit U.S. corporate health care behemoth. That's what passes for political courage these days.

Posted Thu, Oct 11, 1:05 p.m. Inappropriate

I think the author has been asleep for the past 30 years. The need to expect less from government was articulated by Thatcher and Reagan in the late-70s, and was truly implemented by Clinton in the 1990s. Been there, done that.

The second point may be more germane, that politics are increasingly defined by the accumulation of wealth in a small number of hands. We really are not at a turning point just yet. When the rich/poor gap becomes violent, or when the homeless finally take over our cities, then we will be at a turning point. Mr. Romney and his friends are still comfortably sitting on their money, but that can't go on forever.

Posted Fri, Oct 12, 11:48 a.m. Inappropriate

“Takeaways” is a mildly loaded term. When, as you say, borrowing reaches a point where actual repayment is doubtful, perhaps even unlikely, a rational populace will start
thinking of two things; spending less and paying off debt. Reasonable people will also probably acknowledge is that if you raise taxes too much the economic growth we’ve been mainlining all these years will probably diminish to zero. It’s getting close to zero now. The Romney solution is likely to be some tax increases and (I hope) large decreases in federal spending. What’s the alternative? raise taxes and drive all the rich people out? send financial accounts offshore? I would argue that the “takeaways” are inevitable. We have been spending wealth that we no longer have. The dollar is held up by inertia (James Grant says, “a faith based currency”). We can inflate away the enormous debt but the result of that inflation will probably be worse than the alternative of mild tax increases and draconian budget cuts. That’s what Romney will probably try to do and it may not be that different from what Obama will do, if re-elected. There aren’t that many alternatives. The notion that we can tax our way out of this is bitterly funny.

kieth

Posted Thu, Nov 1, 2:15 a.m. Inappropriate

Frank Chopp's "pride and joy" are the things the majority of state voters also take pride and joy in: opportunity grants so poor people can go to college, health care and a tiny housing stipend if you are disabled and cannot work (so you do not DIE), health care coverage for 95% of kids in the state, affordable housing for the working poor. Not only are these "giveaways" very popular but these are things that make the economy stronger, not weaker. Poverty is really very bad for business.

Chopp's "heavy hand" and "domination of our agenda" is this little concept called majority rule. While you are waxing on about political theory, look that up. Despite Eyman's efforts that is still how our system works.

Claire

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