The Austin Chronicle

Page Two: Theatre of Cruelty

The backdrop of reality that belies the McCain-Palin pageant

By Louis Black, September 19, 2008, Columns

The 2008 presidential election campaign is proving to be American political theatre at its most extraordinary. As background to the campaign, on a daily basis there is the continuing terrible news about the economy. The war in Iraq has fallen out of the limelight, with many either convinced or selling the notion that we've just about won it, whatever that may mean. The argument over drilling offshore and in Alaska continues, untethered by any reality. Bush cronyism and Republican litmus tests for government hires have almost gutted the government work force, while the genius of lifelong politicians running as outside, renegade, independent reformers is inspired.

It is hard not to marvel at the McCain-Palin campaign. It has blithely divorced itself from the failed Bush administration while still running on the same promises and fears that ticket ran on in 2000 and 2004.

On top of that, they casually locate the blame for as much that has gone wrong as they can get away with in the past two years, when the Democrats have controlled Congress, ignoring the preceding six.

There are deep and genuine differences between the basic Democratic and Republican platforms. I hate to champion the Democrats over the Republicans, but, at the very least, the Democrats have only been in control of the Congress for less than two years. I contend that all too many of the crises facing this country are direct results of Bush administration policy, but even if they came into existence independent of this government, the Republican Party had six years when it was in complete control in which to deal with them. It didn't.

Currently, we are witnessing the systemic failure of our country's economy as a direct result of the implementation of core Republican principles and policies. The right is big on talking about the sad failure of most people to accept personal responsibility. Evidently, this criticism is limited mostly to people who turn to litigation to address their ills, as during this campaign, McCain and company are taking no responsibility for the consequence of policies they championed and legislated. There is not even a hint of a suggestion that, though they are of course in favor of deregulation, perhaps it was executed badly. Instead we hear Sarah Palin blaming greedy business executives and industry leaders (aren't those key Republican constituencies?); instead, the strategy is to try to shift blame to the Democrats while offering barbed innuendos and meaningless slogans.

The failure of the mortgage market that has triggered the current economic crises is not an accident of history. Nor is it a calamity triggered in the last two years but instead is the direct result of long-stated and still-not-rejected Republican Party policy. Even now, as McCain talks about the financial markets needing more regulation, he continues to talk about the loosening of other regulations that he sees as overburdening businesses.

Those in favor of expanded drilling have managed to remove the discussion from any realistic context, ignoring almost all relevant information. The oil companies already have millions of acres under lease that they haven't explored. For economic reasons, the bulk of the oil that has flowed into the Alaska pipeline has gone to Japan. If they started drilling everywhere tomorrow, with 100% of those wells producing, it would be between five and 12 years before it had an impact on the market. Almost every nonpolitical source predicts that the savings at the pump would be measured in cents, not quarters. At the very best, this drilling will not lead the United States anywhere close to energy self-sufficiency. The only immediate financial impact will be on a relatively small number of companies and investors who will make a lot of money.

A very misleading sleight of hand is being pulled on the public by politicians. They've been distracting the public's attention by loudly bewailing the lack of drilling while also exaggerating the consequences of not drilling. Meanwhile, they're conveniently ignoring the administration's disinterest in alternative energy sources (except for ethanol) and contemptuous dismissal of any attempts to legislate conservation. If this weren't enough, another example of the results of their clearly stated dislike of the government's regulatory role has floated to the muddy surface.

The New York Times noted (reprinted in the Austin-American Statesman), "[O]fficials at the Minerals Management Service – the division responsible for granting offshore leases and collecting royalties – accepted gifts, steered contracts to favored clients and engaged in drugs and sex with oil company employees as part of what [is] described as a broader 'culture of substance abuse and promiscuity.'" It must be noted that the actions reported happened during the administration of the previous secretary of the interior.

While politicians are acting as though additional drilling is manna from heaven, because of their lack of concern the public is getting shortchanged on royalties, as well as stuck with very one-sided leases for the drilling that is happening.

Republican leaders are starting to sound like disingenuous Democrats. Deregulation and less government involvement in the markets have long been key planks of the Republican Party's platform. The unregulated mortgage market and resultant financial crises, as well as the many recent food-related epidemics, are a direct consequence of the Republican philosophy of lax regulation. Underfunding regulatory agencies has led to chronic understaffing, which has led to completely inadequate enforcement and supervision of compliance to federal laws.

Still, though it weakened regulation, the current administration did not concurrently shrink government but actually grew it, inflicting staggering budget shortfalls that dramatically increased the national debt. In addition, this expanded government has proven remarkably incompetent, only rarely functioning on a professional level, mostly because of its hiring policies.

People trip over themselves to deride government bureaucracy, but the truth is the work force is crucial to the government's functioning. In so many unprecedented ways, the Bush administration drove off talented and competent bureaucrats in favor of ideologues. Dismayed at the overt politicization of Washington, government department after department saw old hands and longtime stewards abandoning ship. Bush cronyism, often the deciding factor in the hiring of new department heads, resulted in a legion of executives unqualified for their jobs. On every level of employment, inappropriate ideological vetting resulted in too many employees being hired for the wrong reasons. Anyone serving overseas was asked where he or she stood on abortion. That's relevant?

If McCain is elected, he will assume leadership of this tilted bureaucratic structure. Any way in which he is different from Bush will hardly matter, as so much of the government will be unchanged. Most of the ways in which the McCain ticket positions itself as independent of the Republican Party aren't true to begin with, and even those ways that are will not necessarily prevail. McCain is not really interested in the economy. The administration leadership, departments heads, and consultants in such areas of a McCain administration won't be tremendously different from those in power now. But the bureaucracy will be less able to right itself than at any time in recent history. Even if you love and believe in McCain and Palin, there is virtually no evidence to indicate that their administration will be much different from Bush's, though in his leadership role, McCain will undoubtedly be more educated, compassionate, and informed, as well as less intransigent.

Now, in general, politicians are politicians. Whereas I probably have a higher opinion of them, as a group in general, than many, I also think precious few stand out from the crowd as incredibly good or incredibly bad. In general, I think people condemn politicians as being crooked, unethical, and evil as people rather than appreciating that many of them are committed public servants. I think there is a very warped view of what a great politician should be (invariably, it seems to be one who believes almost exactly the same as the one making that judgment does) and an even more twisted sense of the moral performance of most politicians. They are elected to represent their entire constituencies, not just the citizens who voted for them. Coming to understand that alone complicates their decision-making. Frequently, they are accused of not following the majority's will and whims. But, according to the Constitution, that's exactly what they are not supposed to do; rather, they are meant to follow their own senses of what is best (and not bend to the will of the community), no matter how unpopular those positions are. Rare is the politician who, taking an unpopular stance, is commended rather than condemned.

Who is in power when, and to what extent, is more likely to reflect the failures or accomplishments of either party than the maneuvering of evil politicians corruptly intent on destroying the republic. I am just as nervous about the sense of moral and political manifest destiny on the part of many liberals as I am about conservatives – in some cases, even more so.

Next Column: Part II Ð Shaping the Narrative. Rather than engaging in real debate over substantive issues, the Republicans have become masters at focusing the political narrative on small, meaningless, but often loaded topics. Misquoting Gertrude Stein, the point is no point.

McCain and Palin are agents of change? Come on! Once again, the Republicans are selling the American public empty slogans and meaningless smoke dreams while encouraging irrational fears. They are in this not as much for policy reasons as they are to win and acquire the resultant power. Hell, the same formula has produced for them in the past elections, and they have no reason to believe it won't work just as well again.  

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