Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Contenders: Mitt Romney & Michael Dukakis (OZY Media/PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

First of PBS’s two political shows last night was the third episode of The Contenders, “The Technocrats,” which profiled (in that order) Mitt Romney and Michael Dukakis, both candidates who ran for the Presidency after having been relatively successful governors of Massachusetts and who — at least in this program’s analysis — lost largely because they let their opponents’ campaigns define them for the voters without hitting back. Dukakis (to restore the chronology of real life instead of the sequence of this show) comes off even today (they interviewed him extensively and he’s got grey hair but still has that little-boy look that made him seem ludicrous in that infamous image showing him driving a tank — he was actually trying to make a good, and prophetic, point, that the next wars the U.S. was going to fight would be on land in desert environments and therefore a buildup of our tank and helicopter forces would be necessary, but he looked all too much like Alfred E. Neuman to pull it off) as almost terminally naïve, saying that he had wanted to run a campaign on policy and talk about the issues. Well, as soon as a Presidential candidate says that he (or she) wants to “talk about the issues” you might as well start measuring their political grave: Americans really don’t vote for President on the basis of “issues,” though they like to say they do. They vote for President on the basis of how the various candidates make them feel about themselves, their country and their future, and while sometimes a candidate can pick out an issue and use it to define him- or herself the way Donald Trump has done so successfully this year with immigration (his fierce anti-immigrant stance has worked for him by sending white voters the signal, “This country has been taken away from you, and I will bring it back for you”), Presidential campaigns (all American campaigns, actually, but Presidential campaigns essentially) are based on the images the candidates project and the feelings those images evoke in would-be voters. That’s the difference between a political system like ours which is based on the personalities of individual candidates and one like those in most European countries that are based on ideologically coherent political parties (and more than two of them!); most Europeans vote on the basis of parties and their ideologies rather than individual candidates, and most European countries have some sort of proportional representation so that minor parties can achieve real representation and real power and voters aren’t faced over and over and over again with the damnable choice between just two significant parties the way we are. (Great Britain is the great outlier on this one: they have a parliamentary system, in which the majority party in the legislature is automatically the governing executive party and therefore the split governments that bedevil the U.S. are impossible under their system, but they’ve copied us — we copied them, actually — in electing the legislature in single-member winner-take-all districts and therefore they have a system in which only two parties at a time are really significant.)

The 1988 Presidential election was an odd one in that both major-party nominees were really colorless people — I remember a Los Angeles Times cartoon of Dukakis and George H. W. Bush in which the punch line was, “You said you wanted a Presidential election that wasn’t about personalities? You just got one” — and this profile of Dukakis focused on the horrendous negative attack ads run against him by Lee Atwater and the Republican “dark arts” operatives (I remember saying when Karl Rove was running similar black magic for George W. Bush against John Kerry that “Karl Rove isn’t doing anything Lee Atwater didn’t do before him, who didn’t do anything H. R. Haldeman hadn’t done before him, who didn’t do anything Murray Chotiner hadn’t done before him”), including dredging up Willie Horton — though the show didn’t mention that Horton’s case was first discovered by Al Gore’s opposition research team while he was running against Dukakis in the Democratic Presidential primaries. Certainly the Horton ad hurt — one commentator on this show notes that there were white criminals who also took advantage of Dukakis’ work-furlough program and committed additional crimes, but Atwater picked the Black one to touch on voters’ primal fears of Black men raping white women — as did Dukakis’ own missteps (like the tank photo op), but the main thing George H. W. Bush had going for him during that campaign was the incredible popularity of Ronald Reagan and the fact that, barred by the 22nd Amendment (that short-sighted bit of political legerdemain pulled by the Republicans in 1947 to ensure there’d never be another Franklin Roosevelt — the irony being that the two Presidents since then who could have won third terms if they’d been constitutionally eligible to run for them were both Republicans, Eisenhower and Reagan) from running for re-election himself, Reagan was pushing hard for Bush as his successor. Reagan even answered the question about what Bush had done during his administration quite differently from Eisenhower’s infamous quip about Nixon — “Give me a week and I might think of something” — instead he anointed Bush his successor and Reagan, unlike Obama, had enough political coattails to get his voter base (or enough of it) to vote for Bush and elect him. (Four years later, when Bush had to run on his own record — and after he’d pissed off the easily offended Republican Right by breaking his “read my lips” promise not to raise taxes — Bush lost.)

The segment on Mitt Romney featured interviews with him and with people who knew him who said he was one of the most charitable people they’d ever known, and resented the way he was caricatured by the Obama campaign as an insensitive rich guy who gloried in putting people out of work to boost his own bottom line. That was somewhat unfair to Romney — whose record as a hedge-fund entrepreneur revealed not so much a glory in putting people out of work (it’s hard to imagine Romney hosting The Apprentice and getting such sick joy out of telling someone every week, “You’re … FIRED!”) as a total indifference to it. The mission of Romney as head of Bain Capital was to maximize shareholder value in the enterprises he took over, and if that meant boosting them with new capital and hiring more people, he would do that. If it meant drastically cutting them back and firing people, he would do that. If it meant dismantling the company completely and selling off its assets, thereby leaving everyone who’d worked for it out of a job, he would do that. As Matt Taibbi wrote in Rolling Stone during the 2012 campaign, “Mitt Romney, it turns out, is the perfect frontman for Wall Street’s greed revolution. He’s not a two-bit, shifty-eyed huckster like Lloyd Blankfein. He’s not a sighing, eye-rolling, arrogant jerkwad like Jamie Dimon. But Mitt believes the same things those guys believe: He’s been right with them on the front lines of the financialization revolution, a decades-long campaign in which the old, simple, let’s-make-stuff-and-sell-it manufacturing economy was replaced with a new, highly complex, let’s-take-stuff-and-trash-it financial economy. Instead of cars and airplanes, we built swaps, CDO’s and other toxic financial products. Instead of building new companies from the ground up, we took out massive bank loans and used them to acquire existing firms, liquidating every asset in sight and leaving the target companies holding the note. The new borrow-and-conquer economy was morally sanctified by an almost religious faith in the grossly euphemistic concept of ‘creative destruction,’ and amounted to a total abdication of collective responsibility by America’s rich, whose new thing was making assloads of money in ever-shorter campaigns of economic conquest, sending the proceeds offshore, and shrugging as the great towns and factories their parents and grandparents built were shuttered and boarded up, crushed by a true prairie fire of debt.”

And, like Donald Trump, Romney was a true practitioner of Orwellian doublethink, being able to square his take-no-prisoners tactics in the business world with his faith, and in particular his sense of obligation under his Mormon religion to reach out to individual poor people and volunteer for charities to help people in need. In fact, a lot of people who called Romney a hypocrite for practicing individual charities while proposing to decimate the social safety net and lambasting the “47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it,” missed the point. The Libertarian ethos to which both Romney and his 2012 running mate, now-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, subscribe holds that it is morally wrong to tax successful people in order to fund government programs aimed at helping not-so-successful people, and instead the not-so-successful people should be helped by churches and other organizations funded by voluntary contributions. So Romney saw no contradiction between helping people through his church and calling for radical cutbacks in government social programs because, as a good Libertarian and a good Mormon, he believes the job of helping the less fortunate should be entirely private. One other fascinating thing about Mitt Romney in this program was the comment of one of the talking heads that he was a rich person who looked like the public image of a rich person, and that turned a lot of non-rich people off of voting for him. It’s an interesting comment precisely because it shows why Donald Trump has been able to run a far more competitive race that Mitt Romney and has a real shot at winning: Trump is a rich person who doesn’t look like a rich person and certainly doesn’t talk like one. Romney’s public persona was a gentleman; Trump’s is a thug, and to his core supporters — all those white working-class men who, ironically, have been undone economically by the kinds of business tactics Romney and his generation of rich people have been pulling and who see Trump not as another rich person who’s screwing them over, but as one of them, with his truculent manner, his unashamed racism and sexism, and his bravado and braggadocio. Indeed, as I’ve written in these pages before, the appalling glitzy tastelessness of Trump’s buildings is itself a key source of his appeal; people — the kinds of people who would vote for him, anyway — look at them and say, “That’s what I would do if I had his kind of money.”