CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — More than a thousand miles from the labor tumult in Wisconsin — where his name shows up on the signs of protesters and a liberal blogger impersonating him got through to the governor on the phone and said “gotta crush that union!” — the real David H. Koch was greeted rather more warmly here Friday when he officially opened a new cancer research institute bearing his name.
Mr. Koch, a billionaire who is perhaps best known for his family’s contributions to conservative causes, got a standing ovation from scientists, Nobel laureates and politicians of various political stripes as he opened the new David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which he gave $100 million to help build. And in a brief, and rare, interview, Mr. Koch, 70, spoke of his hopes for the new center, his prostate cancer and the prank call heard around the world.
“It’s a case of identity theft,” Mr. Koch said of the call in which the liberal blogger got through to Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, drew him out about his plans to weaken unions and posted a recording of the call on the Internet, making news and embarrassing the governor. Mr. Koch, whose company, Koch Industries, had given major campaign support to Governor Walker, among other conservative candidates and causes, added, “I didn’t even know his name before this brouhaha erupted.”
Mr. Koch joked that the call could cause him problems. “I was thinking to myself, ‘My God, if I called up a senator or a congressman to discuss something with them, and they heard ‘David Koch is on the line,’ they’d immediately say, ‘That’s that fraud again — tell him to get lost!’ ” he said with a laugh
Mr. Koch said that only a relatively small portion of his giving goes to politics and public policy — most, he said, goes to cancer research, followed by cultural and educational institutions.
But he said that he felt he had been vilified for his support of conservative causes, which have ranged from opposition to the health care bill and pushing for small government and low taxes, to questioning whether climate change is caused by humans. He and his brother Charles are known, on the left, as the billionaires who bankrolled the public policy and citizen action groups that helped cultivate the Tea Party.
“I read stuff about me and I say, ‘God, I’m a terrible guy,’ ” he said. “And then I come here and everybody treats me like I’m a wonderful fellow, and I say, ‘Well, maybe I’m not so bad after all.’ ”
The new institute here is taking an innovative approach by uniting cancer scientists and engineers under one roof — an approach that the institute’s director, Tyler Jacks, who is also the David H. Koch Professor of Biology, said should yield results.
“Engineers are more problem-solvers; cancer scientists tend to be more discoverers,” Dr. Jacks said in an interview. “And the combination is actually extremely powerful.”
“So we have engineers who are interested in nanotechnology, for delivering cancer drugs more effectively and more specifically to cancer cells — that’s an engineering problem,” he said. “We have other engineers who are interested in building new devices that can monitor the state of an individual’s health more sensitively and more continuously — imagine implantable sensors that would allow you to know whether your disease is in remission or undergoing relapse. Again, that’s an engineering problem.”
In his speech at the opening ceremony, Mr. Koch warned that government spending cuts could impede cancer research. And he urged donors to fill the gap.
“The National Institutes of Health, and the National Cancer Institute in particular, are facing serious cutbacks in their funding due to the massive deficits the federal government is incurring,” he said in his speech, in a tent outside the seven-story building. “If the cutbacks happen, it will significantly diminish the level of research that can be carried on at the Koch Institute. I earnestly ask you to do all you can to help maintain the superb research at the Koch Institute at its maximum level.”
Mr. Koch is tied with his brother Charles as the fifth wealthiest American in Forbes magazine’s most recent ranking, and came in 45th in the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of donors who gave the most in 2010. Stacy Palmer, the editor of the Chronicle, said that Mr. Koch was unusual in the wide range of his philanthropy, which supports cancer research, the arts and the public policy sphere.
His roles do not always fit neatly together.
His gift here means that one of the biggest donors to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, home to some of the top climate scientists in the nation, is an owner of a company that Greenpeace called “a kingpin of climate change denial.”
Koch Industries — which owns oil refineries, pipelines and consumer brands like Dixie cups and Lycra — responded that “it is Greenpeace that is the denier here — denier of any rational and honest dialogue on the underlying scientific debate regarding climate change.”
And while he has become a major financier of cancer research around the country, one of his companies, Georgia-Pacific, which produces formaldehyde, has been trying to convince the government not to list formaldehyde as a human carcinogen. Koch Industries said it would respect and comply with any new governmental regulation.
Mr. Koch said that he and his brother had not decided how much money to spend to influence the 2012 elections.
“Our main interest is not participating in campaigns, the presidential campaign or the Congressional or senatorial campaigns in 2012,” he said. “Our main interest is in policy — in particular, seeing the federal government spending reduced, hopefully in a sustained way, so that our country does not go bankrupt.”
IN 2008, A LIBERAL Democrat was elected president. Landslide votes gave Democrats huge congressional majorities. Eight years of war and scandal and George W. Bush had stigmatized the Republican Party almost beyond redemption. A global financial crisis had discredited the disciples of free-market fundamentalism, and Americans were ready for serious change.
Or so it seemed. But two years later, Wall Street is back to earning record profits, and conservatives are triumphant. To understand why this happened, it's not enough to examine polls and tea parties and the makeup of Barack Obama's economic team. You have to understand how we fell so short, and what we rightfully should have expected from Obama's election. And you have to understand two crucial things about American politics.
The first is this: Income inequality has grown dramatically since the mid-'70s—far more in the US than in most advanced countries—and the gap is only partly related to college grads outperforming high-school grads. Rather, the bulk of our growing inequality has been a product of skyrocketing incomes among the richest 1 percent and—even more dramatically—among the top 0.1 percent. It has, in other words, been CEOs and Wall Street traders at the very tippy-top who are hoovering up vast sums of money from everyone, even those who by ordinary standards are pretty well off.
Second, American politicians don't care much about voters with moderate incomes. Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels studied the voting behavior of US senators in the early '90s and discovered that they respond far more to the desires of high-income groups than to anyone else. By itself, that's not a surprise. He also found that Republicans don't respond at all to the desires of voters with modest incomes. Maybe that's not a surprise, either. But this should be: Bartels found that Democratic senators don't respond to the desires of these voters, either. At all.
It doesn't take a multivariate correlation to conclude that these two things are tightly related: If politicians care almost exclusively about the concerns of the rich, it makes sense that over the past decades they've enacted policies that have ended up benefiting the rich. And if you're not rich yourself, this is a problem. First and foremost, it's an economic problem because it's siphoned vast sums of money from the pockets of most Americans into those of the ultrawealthy. At the same time, relentless concentration of wealth and power among the rich is deeply corrosive in a democracy, and this makes it a profoundly political problem as well.
How did we get here? In the past, after all, liberal politicians did make it their business to advocate for the working and middle classes, and they worked that advocacy through the Democratic Party. But they largely stopped doing this in the '70s, leaving the interests of corporations and the wealthy nearly unopposed. The story of how this happened is the key to understanding why the Obama era lasted less than two years.
The strength of unions in postwar America benefited nonunion workers, too. Unions made the American economy work for the middle class.
ABOUT A YEAR ago, the Pew Research Center looked looked at the sources reporters used for stories on the economy. The White House and members of Congress were often quoted, of course. Business leaders. Academics. Ordinary citizens. If you're under 40, you may not notice anything amiss. Who else is missing, then? Well: "Representatives of organized labor unions," Pew found, "were sources in a mere 2% of all the economy stories studied."
It wasn't always this way. Union leaders like John L. Lewis, George Meany, and Walter Reuther were routine sources for reporters from the '30s through the '70s. And why not? They made news. The contracts they signed were templates for entire industries. They had the power to bring commerce to a halt. They raised living standards for millions, they made and broke presidents, and they formed the backbone of one of America's two great political parties.
They did far more than that, though. As historian Kim Phillips-Fein puts it, "The strength of unions in postwar America had a profound impact on all people who worked for a living, even those who did not belong to a union themselves." (Emphasis mine.) Wages went up, even at nonunion companies. Health benefits expanded, private pensions rose, and vacations became more common. It was unions that made the American economy work for the middle class, and it was their later decline that turned the economy upside-down and made it into a playground for the business and financial classes.
Technically, American labor began its ebb in the early '50s. But as late as 1970, private-sector union density was still more than 25 percent, and the absolute number of union members was at its highest point in history. American unions had plenty of problems, ranging from unremitting hostility in the South to unimaginative leadership almost everywhere else, but it wasn't until the rise of the New Left in the '60s that these problems began to metastasize.
The problems were political, not economic. Organized labor requires government support to thrive—things like the right to organize workplaces, rules that prevent retaliation against union leaders, and requirements that management negotiate in good faith—and in America, that support traditionally came from the Democratic Party. The relationship was symbiotic: Unions provided money and ground game campaign organization, and in return Democrats supported economic policies like minimum-wage laws and expanded health care that helped not just union members per se—since they'd already won good wages and benefits at the bargaining table—but the interests of the working and middle classes writ large.
But despite its roots in organized labor, the New Left wasn't much interested in all this. As the Port Huron Statement, the founding document of Students for a Democratic Society, famously noted, the students who formed the nucleus of the movement had been "bred in at least modest comfort." They were animated not by workplace safety or the cost of living, but first by civil rights and antiwar sentiment, and later by feminism, the sexual revolution, and environmentalism. They wore their hair long, they used drugs, and they were loathed by the mandarins of organized labor.
By the end of the '60s, the feeling was entirely mutual. New Left activists derided union bosses as just another tired bunch of white, establishment Cold War fossils, and as a result, the rupture of the Democratic Party that started in Chicago in 1968 became irrevocable in Miami Beach four years later. Labor leaders assumed that the hippies, who had been no match for either Richard Daley's cops or establishment control of the nominating rules, posed no real threat to their continued dominance of the party machinery. But precisely because it seemed impossible that this motley collection of shaggy kids, newly assertive women, and goo-goo academics could ever figure out how to wield real political power, the bosses simply weren't ready when it turned out they had miscalculated badly. Thus George Meany's surprise when he got his first look at the New York delegation at the 1972 Democratic convention. "What kind of delegation is this?" he sneered. "They've got six open fags and only three AFL-CIO people on that delegation!"
"What kind of delegation is this? They've got six open fags and only three AFL-CIO people!"
But that was just the start. New rules put in place in 1968 led by almost geometric progression to the nomination of George McGovern in 1972, and despite McGovern's sterling pro-labor credentials, the AFL-CIO refused to endorse him. Not only were labor bosses enraged that the hippies had thwarted the nomination of labor favorite Hubert Humphrey, but amnesty, acid, and abortion were simply too much for them. Besides, Richard Nixon had been sweet-talking them for four years, and though relations had recently become strained, he seemed not entirely unsympathetic to the labor cause. How bad could it be if he won reelection?
Plenty bad, it turned out—though not because of anything Nixon himself did. The real harm was the eventual disaffection of the Democratic Party from the labor cause. Two years after the debacle in Miami, Nixon was gone and Democrats won a landslide victory in the 1974 midterm election. But the newly minted members of Congress, among them former McGovern campaign manager Gary Hart, weren't especially loyal to big labor. They'd seen how labor had treated McGovern, despite his lifetime of support for their issues.The results were catastrophic. Business groups, simultaneously alarmed at the expansion of federal regulations during the '60s and newly emboldened by the obvious fault lines on the left, started hiring lobbyists and launching political action committees at a torrid pace. At the same time, corporations began to realize that lobbying individually for their own parochial interests (steel, sugar, finance, etc.) wasn't enough: They needed to band together to push aggressively for a broadly pro-business legislative environment. In 1971, future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell wrote his now-famous memo urging the business community to fight back: "Strength lies in organization," he wrote, and would rise and fall "through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations." Over the next few years, the Chamber of Commerce morphed into an aggressive and highly politicized advocate of business interests, conservative think tanks began to flourish, and more than 100 corporate CEOs banded together to found a pro-market supergroup, the Business Roundtable.
They didn't have to wait long for their first big success. By 1978, a chastened union movement had already given up on big-ticket legislation to make it easier to organize workplaces. But they still had every reason to think they could at least win passage of a modest package to bolster existing labor law and increase penalties for flouting rulings of the National Labor Relations Board. After all, a Democrat was president, and Democrats held 61 seats in the Senate. So they threw their support behind a compromise bill they thought the business community would accept with only a pro forma fight.
Instead, the Business Roundtable, the US Chamber of Commerce, and other business groups declared war. Organized labor fought back with all it had—but that was no longer enough: The bill failed in the Senate by two votes. It was, said right-wing Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), "a starting point for a new era of assertiveness by big business in Washington." Business historian Kim McQuaid put it more bluntly: 1978, he said, was "Waterloo" for unions.
Organized labor, already in trouble thanks to stagflation, globalization, and the decay of manufacturing, now went into a death spiral. That decline led to a decline in the power of the Democratic Party, which in turn led to fewer protections for unions. Rinse and repeat. By the time both sides realized what had happened, it was too late—union density had slumped below the point of no return.
Why does this matter? Big unions have plenty of pathologies of their own, after all, so maybe it's just as well that we're rid of them. Maybe. But in the real world, political parties need an institutional base. Parties need money. And parties need organizational muscle. The Republican Party gets the former from corporate sponsors and the latter from highly organized church-based groups. The Democratic Party, conversely, relied heavily on organized labor for both in the postwar era. So as unions increasingly withered beginning in the '70s, the Democratic Party turned to the only other source of money and influence available in large-enough quantities to replace big labor: the business community. The rise of neoliberalism in the '80s, given concrete form by the Democratic Leadership Council, was fundamentally an effort to make the party more friendly to business. After all, what choice did Democrats have? Without substantial support from labor or business, no modern party can thrive.
IT'S IMPORTANT to understand what happened here. Entire forests have been felled explaining why the working class abandoned the Democratic Party, but that's not the real story. It's true that Southern whites of all classes have increasingly voted Republican over the past 30 years. But working-class African Americans have been (and remain) among the most reliable Democratic voters, and as Larry Bartels has shown convincingly, outside the South the white working class has not dramatically changed its voting behavior over the past half-century. About 50 percent of these moderate-income whites vote for Democratic presidential candidates, and a bit more than half self-identify as Democrats. These numbers bounce up and down a bit (thus the "Reagan Democrat" phenomenon of the early '80s), but the overall trend has been virtually flat since 1948.
WASHINGTON — Among the thousands of demonstrators who jammed the Wisconsin State Capitol grounds this weekend was a well-financed advocate from Washington who was there to voice praise for cutting state spending by slashing union benefits and bargaining rights.
The visitor, Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, told a large group of counterprotesters who had gathered Saturday at one edge of what otherwise was a mostly union crowd that the cuts were not only necessary, but they also represented the start of a much-needed nationwide move to slash public-sector union benefits.
“We are going to bring fiscal sanity back to this great nation,” he said.
What Mr. Phillips did not mention was that his Virginia-based nonprofit group, whose budget surged to $40 million in 2010 from $7 million three years ago, was created and financed in part by the secretive billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch.
State records also show that Koch Industries, their energy and consumer products conglomerate based in Wichita, Kan., was one of the biggest contributors to the election campaign of Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a Republican who has championed the proposed cuts.
Even before the new governor was sworn in last month, executives from the Koch-backed group had worked behind the scenes to try to encourage a union showdown, Mr. Phillips said in an interview on Monday.
State governments have gone into the red, he said, in part because of the excessively generous pay and benefits that unions have been able to negotiate for teachers, police, firefighters and other state and local employees.
“We thought it was important to do,” Mr. Phillips said, adding that his group is already working with activists and state officials in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania to urge them to take similar steps to curtail union benefits or give public employees the power to opt out of unions entirely.
To union leaders and liberal activists in Washington, this intervention in Wisconsin is proof of the expanding role played by nonprofit groups with murky ties to wealthy corporate executives as they push a decidedly conservative agenda.
“The Koch brothers are the poster children of the effort by multinational corporate America to try to redefine the rights and values of American citizens,” said Representative Gwen Moore, Democrat of Wisconsin, who joined with others in the union protests.
A spokesman for Koch Industries, as well as Mr. Phillips, scoffed at that accusation. The companies owned by Koch (pronounced Coke) — which include the Georgia-Pacific Corporation and the Koch Pipeline Company — have no direct stake in the union debate, they said. The company has about 3,000 employees in Wisconsin, including workers at a toilet paper factory and gasoline supply terminals. The pending legislation would not directly affect its bottom line.
“A balanced budget will benefit Koch Industries and its thousands of employees in Wisconsin no more and no less than the rest of the state’s private-sector workers and employers,” said Jeff Schoepke, a Koch Industries lobbyist in Wisconsin. “This is a dispute between public-sector unions and democratically elected officials over how best to serve the public interest.”
Certainly, the Koch brothers have long used their wallets to promote fiscal conservatism and combat regulation, another Koch Industries spokesman said Monday.
But the push to curtail union benefits in Wisconsin has been backed by many conservative groups that have no Koch connection, Mr. Phillips noted.
Americans for Prosperity came to Wisconsin more than five years ago and has thousands of members, he said. The state chapter organized buses on Saturday for hundreds of Wisconsin residents to go to the Capitol to support the governor’s proposals.
“This is a Wisconsin movement,” said Fred Luber, chief executive of the Supersteel Products Corporation in Milwaukee, who serves on Americans for Prosperity’s Wisconsin state advisory board. “Obviously, Washington is interested in this. But it is up to us to do.”
Political activism is high on the list of priorities for Charles Koch, who in a letter last September to other business leaders and conservatives explained that he saw no other choice.
“If not us, who? If not now, when?” said the letter, which invited other conservatives to a retreat in January in Rancho Mirage, Calif. “It is up to us to combat what is now the greatest assault on American freedom and prosperity in our lifetimes.”
Campaign finance records in Washington show that donations by Koch Industries and its employees climbed to a total of $2 million in the last election cycle, twice as much as a decade ago, with 92 percent of that money going to Republicans. Donations in state government races — like in Wisconsin — have also surged in recent years, records show.
But the most aggressive expansion of the Koch brothers’ effort to influence public policy has come through the Americans for Prosperity, which runs both a charitable foundation and a grass-roots-activists group. Mr. Phillips serves as president of both branches, and David Koch is chairman of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation.
The grass-roots-activists wing of the organization today has chapters in 32 states, including Wisconsin, and an e-mail list of 1.6 million supporters, said Mary Ellen Burke, a spokeswoman. She would not say how much of last year’s $40 million budget came from the Koch family, but nationwide donations have come in from 70,000 members, she said, offering it as proof that it has wide support.
The organization has taken up a range of topics, including combating the health care law, environmental regulations and spending by state and federal governments. The effort to impose limits on public labor unions has been a particular focus in Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all states with Republican governors, Mr. Phillips said, adding that he expects new proposals to emerge soon in some of those states to limit union power.
To Bob Edgar, a former House Democrat who is now president of Common Cause, a liberal group that has been critical of what it sees as the rising influence of corporate interests in American politics, the Koch brothers are using their money to create a façade of grass-roots support for their favorite causes.
“This is a dangerous moment in America history,” Mr. Edgar said. “It is not that these folks don’t have a right to participate in politics. But they are moving democracy into the control of more wealthy corporate hands.”
During a demonstration outside the Wisconsin Capitol Monday, one protester made a similar point, holding a sign saying: “Gov. Walker: Kick the Koch Habit.”
But Mr. Phillips and members of his group and other conservative activists, not surprisingly, see it very differently.
Just as unions organize to fight for their priorities, conservatives are entitled to a voice of their own.
“This is a watershed moment in Wisconsin,” Mr. Phillips said. “For the last two decades, government unions have used their power to drive pensions and benefits and salaries well beyond anything that can be sustained. We are just trying to change that.”
In the wake of a midterm dominated by conservative independent spending, Democrats and their allies have a new rallying cry: The gloves are off.
Democrats are organizing new independent, non-party campaign committees to pour big money into the White House and Senate contests, and a House-focused outside group might be next. At least one of the new groups will run a nonprofit that operates outside the disclosure rules--despite attacks by President Obama and congressional Democrats on such "shadowy," little-regulated campaign organizations last year.
The White House independent expenditure committee will roll out in the near future, sources say. There's talk that it will be headed by former White House aides Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney. When he left as deputy White House press secretary earlier this month, Burton fueled speculation when he announced that he would be setting up a firm with Sweeney "focused on political and strategic consulting."
Senate Democrats fighting hard to retain their majority in 2012 will get outside help from a new political action committee, dubbed Majority PAC, run by a star-studded cast of veteran Democratic operatives.
That group will function as a so-called Super PAC, a new breed of campaign committee that may collect unlimited direct corporate and union contributions, but must fully disclose to the Federal Election Commission.
The Supreme Court's Citizens United v. FEC
ruling helped clear the way for such super-PACs last year. Importantly, Majority PAC will operate in tandem with a non-profit, 501(c)4 issue group, enabling big donors to make contributions in secret--another strategy facilitated by Citizens United.
"We need to have every tool available to us this cycle, given the backdrop that we're facing," said lead Majority PAC organizer Susan McCue, former chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Other organizers include former Reid advisers Rebecca Lambe and Craig Varoga, whose Patriot Majority PAC helped Reid beat back a tough Senate challenge last year. Also on board are J.B. Poersch and Jim Jordan, both former executive directors of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and Monica Dixon, an erstwhile aide to former Vice President Al Gore.
McCue is not the only Democratic organizer who argues that it's time to fight fire with fire. Another new progressive Super PAC, set up by Media Matters founder David Brock and by former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, is also mulling an affiliated nonprofit.
Known as American Bridge, the group will be "a counterweight" to big corporate spenders such as the billionaire Koch brothers, and to the American Crossroads operation masterminded by GOP operatives Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, said spokesman Chris Harris.
"Quite frankly, we were outmanned in the 2010 midterm, and we can't allow that to happen again," said Harris. "It's time for folks on our side to get off the mat and really take Karl Rove and American Crossroads head on."
Not all Democrats agree. Former Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., has just set up a new PAC dubbed Progressives United that will pointedly take only contributions that are subject to both disclosure rules and contribution limits. Feingold's group will fight to overturn Citizens United, weigh in on legislative fights, and support pro-reform candidates at the federal and state level.
"I want our organization to signify that you can still be effective by limiting contributions," said Feingold. But while he deplores undisclosed spending, Feingold added that he's "certainly not going to condemn it as immoral, given that the other side is fully exploiting this Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court."
One of the left's most successful activist groups, MoveOn.org
, announced long ago that it would operate as a fully regulated PAC, and run virtually all its operations out in the open. MoveOn.org is one of dozens of progressive groups that has cashed in on the recent uproar over labor union collective bargaining rights that's disrupted statehouses in Wisconsin and elsewhere. When MoveOn.org set out to organize rallies in all 50 states this past weekend, the group asked its 5 million members to help underwrite the effort--and raised $500,000 in 18 hours.
"Is there a role for progressive people who want to get involved and spend a lot of money? Absolutely," said MoveOn.org Executive Director Justin Ruben. "Do I think they should spend it in a way that's transparent? Yes. Because they have nothing to hide."
Democrats pushing the campaign finance envelope may well argue that attacks on big money haven't earned them many points with voters. During his White House bid, President Obama rejected donations from PACs and lobbyists, and instructed the Democratic National Committee to do the same. DNC officials recently announced they would extend that ban to the party's 2012 national convention in Charlotte, N.C., which will also take no corporate donations. That announcement earned applause from watchdog groups such as Democracy 21, but otherwise fell flat.
"The Democrats are not going to give the Republicans another free ride in spending outside money," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. "The barn door has been opened. And as long as the current rules prevail, we can expect substantial Democratic-favored outside spending in the 2012 presidential and congressional races."This article appeared in the Monday, February 28, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily.
By Rick Peristein
Ronald Reagan scored a comfortable victory in 1980, promising a new day in Washington and the nation. Then Reaganomics ran into brick wall. Unemployment—7.4 percent at the beginning of his term—was heading toward 10 percent by the summer of 1982. The gross domestic product declined 1.8 percent. On Election Day, voters punished him by taking 27 House seats from his Republican Party, including most of the ones gained in 1980. That gave the Democrats a 269–166 seat advantage—far greater than the 51-seat advantage Republicans enjoy today.
The day after that woeful election, Reagan’s aides sent him into a press conference with defensive talking points. He tore them up. “We’re very pleased with the results,” he said, claiming that the GOP had “beat the odds” for off-year elections (he went back to 1928 to make the claim). “Wasn’t he in worse shape for 1984?” he was asked. “I don’t think so at all,” he replied. Hadn’t it been a historically uncivil campaign? He agreed—because of all the opposition did to “frighten voters.”
Barack Obama gave a press conference the day after his “shellacking” too. The contrast to Reagan couldn’t have been more stark. Ignoring the fact that the electorate had pretty much been switching their party preference every two years since 1992, he conceded the loss as an epochal sea change. “I did some talking,” he said of his meeting with Republican leaders the night before, “but mostly I did a lot of listening.” When asked about jobs, he talked about the deficit. He then boasted that when it came to what was essential to recovery, he really didn’t have essential principles at all: the answers were not to be “found in any one particular philosophy or ideology.”
With his State of the Union address this week, Obama kicks off the second half of his presidency with his fortunes on the rise; his approval ratings just crested 50 percent. Still, there is a lot he could learn from the way Reagan handled the midpoint in his first White House term. And the president seems to know it; on vacation in December, he said he’d been boning up on Lou Cannon’s authoritative chronicle President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. On this, the 100th anniversary of Reagan’s birth, here are some of the lessons Obama should be absorbing—that is, if he wants to rebound as resoundingly as Reagan did, and go on to a landslide reelection and canonization as an American political icon.
Talk Tough, but Sell Out Quickly
Ronald Reagan compromised constantly. He did it in an entirely different way from Barack Obama. The compromises were tactical, technical—and always, according to Reagan, the fault of someone else. That was how he explained why he had fallen short of his goals: the danged Democrats wouldn’t even give his program a decent try. But he would keep pushing nonetheless. “We won’t compromise on principle,” he said at that Nov. 3, 1982, press conference, “on what we absolutely believe is essential to the recovery … We’re going to stay the course.” Ronald Reagan never took the podium to “learn.” He was there to teach—that is to say, to lead. Every compromise was an opportunity to educate the American people about what he really wanted—and what they should really want. It worked. He changed the world. More proximately, he won an overwhelming reelection.
At his Nov. 3, 2010, press conference, Obama took “direct responsibility” for the slow pace of recovery. He also placed responsibility with the citizenry: we were falling behind in global economic competition, and to “win that competition, we’re going to need to be strong and we’re going to need to be united.” Both utterances would have been foreign to Ronald Reagan’s tongue. For him, the American people were always strong and united, and ahead in the race—that is, unless their strength, unity, and drive were sullied by his foolish and recalcitrant liberal opposition.
Obama said, “I won’t pretend that we will be able to bridge every difference or solve every disagreement”—to which the ghost of Ronald Reagan would reply, “Why would you want to bridge differences with people who are wrong?”
Take Credit for Economic Recovery
Reagan in 1983 was in much worse shape politically than Obama is in 2011. His approval rating at the height of the recession was 35 percent. Political cartoons portrayed Captain Reagan bellowing “Stay the course!” as the ship of state plunged over a cliff. David Broder proclaimed, “What we are witnessing this January is not the midpoint in the Reagan presidency, but its phaseout.”
But then came the remarkable economic recovery. Inflation, which had been 11 percent upon his inauguration, fell to 2 percent. Unemployment fell from a very familiar 9.6 percent to 7.5 percent. Economic growth began charting a remarkable 7.2 percent rate of annual growth.
That’s just the sort of thing that Obama is praying for; the state of the economy, experts agree, is the most reliable indicator of whether a president gets reelected. But it wasn’t the mere fact of recovery that let Reagan take 49 states and cement the sense, as historian Sean Wilentz put it, that we are living in the Age of Reagan. It was that Reagan had been laying the groundwork to take the credit for the recovery since before he was inaugurated. He did it by laying all blame on his political adversaries.
In recent years conservatives have been excoriating Obama for “blaming” his predecessor whenever he made the mild observations that he inherited a bad economy. Reagan had no such compunction, blaming his predecessor in often cruel and mocking ways. The Carter budget he inherited, he said, was full of outright distortions. The “midnight regulations” the lame-duck Congress was said to have imposed didn’t help; nor did the “poor management” of the Carter Treasury Department.
He carried the theme into the fall campaign by charging “that the sour economy is the fault of former president Jimmy Carter.” “Some diehards are now declaring the present recession was caused by our program,” he said. “May I just point out, we had the recession before we got the program. But the voices keep right on carping.” Obviously, that didn’t work well that November. But by sticking to his guns, he’d etched blame for the bad times in the public mind—setting himself up for credit when things turned around.
Reagan had an easily communicable story about how economies recover. Obama doesn’t have one—in fact, he abhors easily communicable stories, reviling them as “bumper-sticker slogans.” This disadvantages him in the long game politically. Let’s say the economy turns around. Will he be prepared to do what Reagan did—explain why the credit belongs to him? Already, Republicans are claiming credit for modest gains since the election; they attribute it to the very act of impaneling a Republican Congress. It increased “business confidence”—one of their bumper-sticker slogans.
There’s nothing intrinsically right wing about explaining complex economic processes in easily digestible ways; FDR—Reagan’s rhetorical role model—did it all the time. Reagan’s story was very simple: “Our government is too big, and it spends too much.” So he would reverse everything Carter had done (except when Congress wouldn’t let him—and then the problems were Congress’s fault, weren’t they?). Then, lo and behold, the economy recovered. As the historian Wilentz put it: “The slogan ‘stay the course,’ which had once sounded like whistling in the dark, now reverberated like an irresistible battle cry.”
Reagan was good at framing his opponents as villains, even if he smiled while he said it. His opponent Walter Mondale, for example, was “Vice President Malaise.” Reagan said: “We were being led by a team with good intentions and bad ideas—people with all the common sense of Huey, Dewey, and Louie.” Democrats accused him of lacking compassion. He replied, “There’s no compassion in snake-oil cures.”
Here and now, to the public, Republican House Speaker John Boehner is still a cipher. If Reagan was in Obama’s shoes, he’d already have painted him as the out-of-touch guy making time for the tanning bed during a recession, skipping state dinners in a time of war. But the president hasn’t laid a finger on him. He’s allergic to calling Republicans anything worse than “bad driver.” To do any worse, he thinks, it to break faith with an electorate that reasonably craves national unity.
Despite his skill at vividly conjuring his enemies, Reagan somehow managed to be seen by a large majority of the public as a unifying figure—then and now. “This belief that Reagan had ‘brought the country’ back together was a recurrent refrain in voter interviews during the campaign … and in election-day exit polls,” Lou Cannon writes—even among voters who said they didn’t like his policies.
Staking out firm ideological ground, and being perceived as a uniter, not a divider, are not incommensurate tasks. Ronald Reagan proved they can be strongly reinforcing. It is an alchemical task—one of consummate leadership. How did he do it? By projecting strength—a strength that blinded the public to the contradictions at hand. Can Obama find a way to pull that off? If so, the most popular politician in the country may well win a safe reelection. But an Age of Obama? It may be too late for that.
Perlstein is the author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.
Last Updated (Monday, 24 January 2011 22:15)
Citizens United, the conservative group known for its landmark Supreme Court victory, plans to play heavily in Virginia's 2011 legislative elections as a primer for 2012.
Through its 527-affiliate, The Presidential Coalition, the organization is pledging to be a "major supporter of conservative candidates in the Commonwealth of Virginia for the 2011 elections."
On Wednesday, to kick off the push, Citizens United president David Bossie contributed $5,000 to Delegate Barbara Comstock's reelection campaign.
Comstock, a former opposition researcher for the Republican National Committee, is considered a rising star in conservative circles for her 2009 victory over incumbent Democrat Margaret Vanderhye in northern Virginia.
"Our goals are to increase the Republican majority in the House of Delegates and capture the majority in the state Senate,” said Bossie in a statement. “I am happy to start the cycle by contributing to Delegate Comstock’s campaign."
The Presidential Coalition donated about $80,000 to candidates in Virginia during 2009-2010 and expects to be "significantly increasing" its investment next year.
It also supported a slate of 2010 gubernatorial candidates, including Rick Lazio in New York, Bill Brady in Illinois, Bob Ehrlich in Maryland and Gov.-elect Sam Brownback in Kansas.
Bossie makes clear that diving into the 2011 cycle will help lay the groundwork for 2012.
"The outcome of the elections in Virginia during the 2011 cycle will be a prime indicator as to whether or not President Obama will have the support necessary to once again secure Virginia’s crucial 13 electoral votes in the 2012 presidential election. The Presidential Coalition is making Virginia a priority in 2011 because it will be the first step in ensuring that Barack Obama is a one-term president," he said.