Conservatives have only themselves to blame

It’s not often I read columns by Ross Douthat. Even his latest column, for which I have praise, illustrates why: He relies on extreme right wing sources, like Real Clear Politics and the Weekly Standard for his information,[1] which frequently being fact-challenged, undermine his arguments. Reading one of those sources, in this case, the Weekly Standard opinion piece, by Irwin Stelzer, however, is a worthwhile reminder that you don’t have to be anti-capitalist like me to be utterly appalled by the moral hazard and the, in Stelzer’s words, “crony capitalism” that are hallmarks of recent policy.[2]

Of course, one need merely return the previous administration and its entirely unhealthy relationships with the likes of Halliburton and Blackwater to see that Republicans are far from saints when it comes to crony capitalism. And the bank bailout originated on that administration’s watch, moral hazard be damned, as well. But Barack Obama’s administration, too, must accept blame, for it has coddled these same banks, refusing to prosecute them for their roles in precipitating the financial crisis[3] and enabling the return of abusive compensation practices.[4] And Stelzer is not wrong to point to the dirty deal made with the pharmaceutical industry to gain its support for healthcare reform.[5] Stelzer’s argument thus depends upon a distinction between Republicans and conservatism that excludes even George W. Bush, even as the Political Compass pins both Obama and Mitt Romney deep in the authoritarian-right quadrant (figure 1; it is worth comparing this to candidates in the 2008 election, figure 2).

The US Presidential Election 2012

Fig. 1: The US Presidential Election 2012

US Presidential Election 2008

Fig. 2: US Presidential Election 2008

And where is Mitt Romney, with a golden opportunity to show that he is outraged at this latest effort of the banking community to appropriate to itself a still larger share of the national income, to show that he believes in a market manipulated neither by government bureaucrats nor by private bankers? It’s not banker-bashing to criticize bankers when they deserve it. And it’s not bad politics when that criticism lets Main Street know that Wall Street does not own this candidate. The Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas said it best: “When a bank egregiously breaks the law, it should run the risk of a criminal conviction.” Why not a simple comment from the candidate that bankers’ “monkeying with the Libor this way for their own financial benefit is outrageous”? Alas, that statement came not from Romney but from Barney Frank, who predictably sees congressional hearings and more regulations as the solution.[6]

As implausible as it may seem, the only hope that real issues can be discussed in this political system is with just this sort of distortion. Obama and Romney both should respond substantively to the accusations laid against them. Instead, Obama’s apologists fear-monger about Romney, accusing him of possibly felonious inconsistencies between his Securities and Exchange Commission filings and his public statements[7] and of exporting jobs while at Bain Capital,[8] even as their man secretly negotiates a “trade agreement” that would reportedly allow corporations to sue governments for unlimited damages with corporate lawyers serving as judges for any restraint of trade—including pesky environmental or labor regulations.[9]

Think of the [Trans-Pacific Partnership] as a stealthy delivery mechanism for policies that could not survive public scrutiny. Indeed, only two of the twenty-six chapters of this corporate Trojan horse cover traditional trade matters. The rest embody the most florid dreams of the 1 percent—grandiose new rights and privileges for corporations and permanent constraints on government regulation. They include new investor safeguards to ease job offshoring and assert control over natural resources, and severely limit the regulation of financial services, land use, food safety, natural resources, energy, tobacco, healthcare and more. . . .

Countries would be obliged to conform all their domestic laws and regulations to the TPP’s rules—in effect, a corporate coup d’état. The proposed pact would limit even how governments can spend their tax dollars. Buy America and other Buy Local procurement preferences that invest in the US economy would be banned, and “sweat-free,” human rights or environmental conditions on government contracts could be challenged. If the TPP comes to fruition, its retrograde rules could be altered only if all countries agreed, regardless of domestic election outcomes or changes in public opinion. And unlike much domestic legislation, the TPP would have no expiration date.[10]

Douthat complains that “Romney has spent the last two weeks looking shifty and hairsplitting when he’s on the defensive, and plaintive and whiny when he’s gone on the attack.”[11] Douthat clearly wants Romney to win—at least in preference to Obama. But he says as well as any progressive could, that,

Cast as an anti-government radical by Democrats, [Ronald] Reagan emerged from the debate with [Jimmy] Carter – thanks to his famous “there you go again” response to the claim that he opposed the existence of Medicare – as a safe, mainstream choice for the presidency.

For Romney to accomplish the same feat, he will need to reassure voters that he represents something more than just a rubber stamp for the interests of the wealthiest Americans. And this is why his ineffective response to the Bain attacks should be troubling to Republicans: Not because he hasn’t hit back hard enough, but because he hasn’t been able to smoothly pivot from the basic conservative message – free enterprise good, big government bad – to the more supple arguments that might complicate the White House’s efforts to caricature him as a Gordon Gekko.[12]

I don’t want either of these guys to win. I am profoundly offended that Obama can be re-elected with the record he has established in his first term. Conservatives, for their part, are largely outraged because Romney is an appallingly weak candidate. Douthat sees an argument that what we’re seeing now won’t matter much among those he thinks won’t make up their minds until much closer to election day.[13] But it also has to be said that the fiasco that passed for a Republican primary race this year failed to produce a strong conservative candidate. And for that, conservatives only have themselves to blame.

Figures:

  1. The Political Compass.[14]
  2. The Political Compass.[15]
  1. [1]Ross Douthat, “Mitt Romney’s Long Hot Summer,” New York Times, July 17, 2012, http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/17/mitt-romneys-long-hot-summer/
  2. [2]Irwin M. Stelzer, “When Bankers Behave Badly,” Weekly Standard, July 23, 2012, http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/when-bankers-behave-badly_648560.html
  3. [3]Gretchen Morgenson and Louise Story, “In Financial Crisis, No Prosecutions of Top Figures,” New York Times, April 14, 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/14/business/14prosecute.html
  4. [4]Louise Story and Eric Dash, “Banks Prepare for Big Bonuses, and Public Wrath,” New York Times, January 9, 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/10/business/10pay.html
  5. [5]Stelzer, “When Bankers Behave Badly.”
  6. [6]Stelzer, “When Bankers Behave Badly.”
  7. [7]David Nakamura, “2012 campaign enters a new phase, as Obama and Romney rachet up their attacks on each other,” Washington Post, July 13, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2012-campaign-enters-a-new-phase-as-obama-and-romney-rachet-up-their-attacks-on-each-other/2012/07/13/gJQAofMqiW_story.html
  8. [8]Philip Elliott, “Obama says no apology to Romney over Bain attacks,” Google, July 15, 2012, http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5iAhwrGH7VZH51G0lrBazXm0_iJPQ?docId=a9ac59e1aaa4438c8eec016865d96f00
  9. [9]Lori Wallach, “NAFTA on Steroids,” Nation, June 27, 2012, http://www.thenation.com/article/168627/nafta-steroids
  10. [10]Wallach, “NAFTA on Steroids.”
  11. [11]Douthat, “Mitt Romney’s Long Hot Summer.”
  12. [12]Douthat, “Mitt Romney’s Long Hot Summer.”
  13. [13]Douthat, “Mitt Romney’s Long Hot Summer.”
  14. [14]Political Compass, “The US Presidential Election 2012,” July 11, 2012, http://www.politicalcompass.org/uselection2012
  15. [15]Political Compass, “US Presidential Election 2008,” July 11, 2012, http://www.politicalcompass.org/uselection2008

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