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.
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Mitt Romney speaking in Tempe

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.

“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.

Lemann writes: “When the country was dominated by large, established institutions, workers were, often implicitly, guaranteed job security and comfortable benefits. In the new economy, these arrangements were eroded, which put pressure on the political system to pick up the slack.”

And so, with government increasingly delegitimatized and too broke to pick up the slack, and the new “transaction economy” fully out of the cave, we are in effect offered two referendums. One is on Obama and his faltering promises to sustain traditional giveaway politics, or at least to gentle the transition. The other referendum is on Romney — a swaggering, chin-high version of the scary new financial order that is disrupting the lives and security of millions of Americans.

As drama, the first Romney-Obama debate was worthy of a play by G.B. Shaw. A dazzling new superman suddenly marches onto the stage after artfully vague premonitions of his force and heroic rhetoric. Obama’s averted-eyes bafflement was the perfect foil, echoed by Lehrer’s befuddlement. Suddenly, all those “large parts of the American psyche” were there in bright lights. The easy dismissals of this hard new politics as just being a rich guy helping the four-homes folks were less comforting as the evening's drama progressed.

Such moments of clarity are rare in American politics, and I suspect the stage lights will soon be dimmed and revert to conventional bromides. But we suddenly glimpsed the brave new world of takeaway politics.

No such thunderclap moments in the state’s race for governor, where magical thinking about a revived economy solving all our problems prevails on both sides. Takeaway politics in Olympia turns out to be mostly a matter of hiring some efficiency experts from Virginia Mason or Toyota. Meanwhile, the roaring “Amazon economy” of Seattle will lift the state’s boats, avoid the need for tax increases and make all well.

If there is a baby elephant in state politics, it’s the domination of our agenda by House Speaker Frank Chopp, who has cowed Democratic governors and kept imposing his agenda of generously funding social services, his pride and joy.  When Rob McKenna talks about capping most state spending at 6 percent growth, shifting the surplus to education, that’s his code for going after Chopp’s priorities.  His gamble would be that he can find majorities with legislative Republicans and reform Democrats chafing under Chopp’s heavy hand.

If McKenna manages to surprise and get elected, at least there would be that fight in Olympia. The outcome would have more to do with how much Chopp has worn out his welcome than with how much moxie McKenna can muster. With Inslee, I doubt there would be much fight over this issue, any more than there was under Govs. Locke and Gregoire. 

The great issues in American politics take a long time in coming to a boil. Sometimes they get a tryout run in the states, such as Wisconsin. During that time of transition, there is a chronic crisis and deadlock, which we have now. What normally happens is a new leader emerges who can frame the issues in a new way, appealing to a broad center and transcending the polarized terms of the debate.

Normally, a forerunner (like Barry Goldwater or Al Smith) first makes the case in too-unsettling terms and loses the battle in a winning war. Romney, desparate to turn around his faltering campaign, had to come out of hiding. I see him playing that forerunner role and losing, and Obama facing a bedeviled second term, vacillating between clinging to the old order or trying, Clinton-like, to define a new settlement. A similar version of this seems likely in Olympia.


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