Don’t Under-Estimate The Power Of Right-Wing Populism, Ctd

I’m a little chagrined to find myself in agreement with Obama-foe Ron Fournier on the subject of our populist moment, but his report on talking to regular folks in Pennsylvania last Tuesday has some great insights. Money quote:

Americans see a grim future for themselves, their children, and their country. They believe their political leaders are selfish, greedy, and short-sighted—unable and/or unwilling to shield most people from wrenching economic and social change. For many, the Republican Party is becoming too extreme, while the Democratic Party—specifically, President Obama—raised and dashed their hopes for true reform. Worse of all, the typical American doesn’t know how to channel his or her anger. Heaven help Washington if they do.

What are the main themes of this discontent? Anger at Wall Street; anger at a rigged capitalist system; anger at K Street and the permanent Washington class; anger at gridlock and Obama’s inability to break out of it; anger at depressed living standards and soaring inequality. Some choice quotes that cannot be summarized in a poll:

“America is for the greedy, for those who’ve made their buck or grabbed their power. It’s not for us.” … “The rich get richer. The poor get benefits. The middle class pays for it all.” … “Do I think there might be some group or some person who might tap into our frustration and, unlike the president, actually change things? Yes. Yes, I do.”

Fournier comes up with a rough list of core populist demands. The first of which is something the foreign policy mavens in DC should hear and hear well:

A pullback from the rest of the world, with more of an inward focus.

A desire to go after big banks and other large financial institutions.

Elimination of corporate welfare.

Reducing special deals for the rich.

Pushing back on the violation of the public’s privacy by the government and big business.

Reducing the size of government.

Rand Paul fits the mold. Hillary Clinton? In my view, she has a few months to prove she can actually run a populist campaign, which means a stump speech worthy of a rabble-rouser, and not the usual pabulum of a careful and calculated pol. I’ve never heard her give such a speech or exhibit the kind of retail political skills her husband is a master of. But she deserves a chance to prove she is the person for this moment. If she can’t hack this, she should get out of the way for someone who can.

Who Is Dave Brat? Ctd

Molly Redden and David Corn unpack Brat’s ideology:

A quick review of his public statements reveals a fellow who is about as tea party as can be. He appears to endorse slashing Social Security payouts to seniors by two-thirds. He wants to dissolve the IRS. And he has called for drastic cuts to education funding, explaining, “My hero Socrates trained in Plato on a rock. How much did that cost? So the greatest minds in history became the greatest minds in history without spending a lot of money.” An economics professor at Randolph-Macon College in central Virginia, Brat frequently has repeated the conservative canard that Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae brought down the housing market by handling the vast majority of subprime mortgages. That is, he absolves Big Finance and the banks of responsibility for the financial crisis that triggered the recession, which hammered middle-class and low-income families across the country. (In fact, as the housing bubble grew, Freddie and Fannie shed their subprime holdings, while banks grabbed more.)

Chris Mooney discovers that Brat is a climate change skeptic:

In a recent campaign event video (which has since been made private), Brat explains his free-marketeer perspective on environmental and energy problems. Naturally, he believes that American ingenuity will lead the way to a cleaner environment. But he also hints at a disbelief in the science of global warming, and alludes to a well-worn myth that has been widely used on the right to undermine trust in climate scientists – the idea that just a few decades ago, in the 1970s, climate experts all thought we were headed into “another Ice Age.”

John Cassidy deems Brat’s lack of a political record a campaign advantage:

Does he favor increasing the minimum wage, which would offer some direct help to low-paid American workers, or raising the debt ceiling to avoid a market meltdown? Asked about the minimum wage by NBC’s Chuck Todd on Wednesday morning, he waffled and changed the subject.

Republican leaders like Cantor have to give specific answers to these types of questions, and, occasionally, they are obliged to negotiate with the other party. Many Republican voters regard such maneuvers as betrayals: they are in no mood for compromise. To convince these voters that they are genuine conservatives, elected officials have to take extreme positions, such as advocating the repeal of Obamacare, opposing Roe v. Wade, and rejecting any pathway to citizenship for illegal aliens. That’s been the G.O.P.’s dilemma ever since 2008. Brat’s victory shows that it hasn’t gone away.

Wolfers defends Brat’s minimum-wage comments:

When an MSNBC interviewer asked David Brat, the economicsprofessor at Randolph-Macon College who toppled Eric Cantor in a primary challenge Tuesday, whether he opposed the minimum wage, he responded on Wednesday, “Um, I don’t have a well-crafted response on that one.”

The political class is billing it as a gaffe. But Mr. Brat’s fellow economists would probably be far more generous. Assessing the evidence on the effects of the minimum wage is a tricky business, and the evidence isn’t strong enough to support the certainties that pundits seem to demand.

Weigel draws a political analogy:

The quick rise of David Brat reminds me quite a lot of the slower rise of Ron Paul. In parts of 2007, I remember being one of two or three reporters in the room for some Ron Paul press conferences where he would bang on about the evils of the Federal Reserve. Who cared about such things?

Well, voters did. Voters, as Kristol understands and the WSJ stubbornly fails to, lurch toward populism in a time of economic want. Cantor couldn’t have been more vulnerable to a challenge. Brat, having beaten him, gets to define what Republican populism looks like in 2014.

The Nader-Chomsky Of The Right?

Eric Cantor Holds Press Conference At Capitol One Day After Primary Defeat

That’s Ryan Lizza’s take on Brat – and he largely shares my view that this new form of Republican populism is a lot more potent than the Romney campaign’s 47 percent message. Why? Because Brat is targeting the 1 percent. Money quote:

Instead of lecturing the most vulnerable about the moral beauty of the marketplace, Brat targets the most well off. “Free markets!” he declared in Hanover, like a teacher about to reveal the essence of the lesson. “In a nutshell, what does it mean? It means no one is shown favoritism. Everyone is treated equally. Every firm, every business, and you compete fairly. And no one, if you’re big or small, is shown special attention. And we’re losing that.”

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the kind of rhetoric that Ralph Nader, and even Noam Chomsky, have used for many years to pillory the government for protecting the rich and the well connected from the vagaries of the free market.

And that’s why, in my view, it is not to be under-estimated. The K Street-Wall Street nexus is a scandal; as is our absurdly complex tax code (largely devised for corporate welfare and for those with expensive tax lawyers). Put that together with a left-sounding defense of the American middle-class against millions of undocumented, low-wage immigrants, and you’re beginning to get somewhere.

Given where the country now is, I expected Obama’s likeliest successor to be to his populist left, someone able to corral anger at the one percent and Washington, someone urging radical change on behalf of the little guy. But the Clinton machine has managed to choke off that possibility – while the GOP is fast rushing into the gap.

(Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty)

Who Is Dave Brat?

Chuck Todd peppered him with policy questions earlier today:

Betsy Woodruff profiled him back in January:

Brat’s background should make him especially appealing to conservative organizations. He chairs the department of economics and business at Randolph-Macon College and heads its BB&T Moral Foundations of Capitalism program. The funding for the program came from John Allison, the former CEO of BB&T (a financial-services company) who now heads the Cato Institute. The two share an affinity for Ayn Rand: Allison is a major supporter of the Ayn Rand Institute, and Brat co-authored a paper titled “An Analysis of the Moral Foundations in Ayn Rand.” Brat says that while he isn’t a Randian, he has been influenced by Atlas Shrugged and appreciates Rand’s case for human freedom and free markets.

His academic background isn’t all economics, though. Brat got a business degree from Hope College in Holland, Mich., then went to Princeton seminary. Before deciding to focus on economics, he wanted to be a professor of systematic theology and cites John Calvin, Karl Barth, and Reinhold Niebuhr as influences. And he says his religious background informs his views on economics. “I’ve always found it amazing how we have the grand swath of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and we lost moral arguments on the major issue of our day,” he says, referring to fiscal-policy issues.

Beauchamp digs into Brat’s unpublished book on economics:

Brat clearly wants to bring to bear is the role of “values” in economics. Brat seems to believe that most economists are motivated by philosophy rather than science: they’re secretly utilitarians who believe that the goal of public policy is to produce the greatest good for the greatest number. He thinks this leads them to wrongly assert that their preferred policies are “scientifically” the best policies, when in reality they’re just the policies that a utilitarian would say are the best. “Economists from the beginning to the end, have engaged in normative, ethical and moral arguments which diverge greatly from the work of the ‘true’ science which they espouse,” Brat writes.

Timothy B. Lee focuses on Brat’s views of the security state:

In a recent interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he argued that “The NSA’s indiscriminate collection of data on all Americans is a disturbing violation of our Fourth Amendment right to privacy.” On his website, Brat says he favors “the end of bulk phone and email data collection by the NSA.” If Brat takes Cantor’s seat, it will shift the Republican Party a bit more toward the Amash position on surveillance issues. That’s significant because Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which the government has cited to justify its phone records program, will come up for renewal next year. With more Republicans like Brat and Amash in Congress, that could be a tough sell.

John Nichols highlights Brat’s populism:

Brat’s anti-corporate rhetoric distinguished him from Cantor, and from most prominent Republicans—whether they identify with the Republican “establishment” or the Tea Party wing of a party that in recent years has been defined by its subservience to corporate interests.

Ana Marie Cox fully expects his star to fade:

Congressional seats are not made of Valyrian steel; they do not remain powerful no matter who holds them. When he leaves the House, Cantor will take much of his influence with him – probably straight to K Street, where he arguably can hold more sway over national policy as a lobbyist than he ever could as a representative from Virginia.

Brat will have to build his political capital from zero: as an economist, he probably has a better understanding than most of us about just how difficult that is. As an economist and paid follower of Ayn Rand, he will face the added difficulty of not being a very good economist.

Noah Millman, on the other hand, gives Brat the benefit of the doubt:

Scott Galupo may be right that Brat is going to be “another useless crank,” but we can always hope that he will be a useful crank, the kind who demands a wildly against-the-consensus look at this or that particular issue, as opposed to someone willing to destroy the institution if he doesn’t get his way. The House of Representatives is pretty big; there’s for those who make the sausage and room for those who want to change the recipe – even radically. We’ve just had enough of folks whose idea of changing the recipe is adding e coli.

If Brat becomes a table-pounder on immigration, or NSA spying, or corporate welfare – he may make a useful contribution to shaping the debate, even if I don’t always agree with the direction. If he refuses to vote for any budget that doesn’t repeal Obamacare – not so much.

Don’t Under-Estimate The Power Of Right-Wing Populism

Leading Conservatives Gather For Republican Leadership Conference In New Orleans

That’s my underlying take on what just happened in American politics. We live in a potentially powerfully populist moment. The economy is failing to help middle- and working-class people make headway, while the wealthiest are living higher on the hog than since the days of robber barons. Wall Street’s masters of the universe nearly wiped out the US and global economy – and there has been scarcely any accountability for their recklessness and greed and hubris. Big business favors mass, cheap immigration – which adds marginally to the woes of the working poor. All of this is grist to someone like Elizabeth Warren, but also to someone like Dave Brat or Ted Cruz.

But the main difference between a Warren and a Brat is that Warren is never going to be able to rally the Southern or Midwestern white working poor to her professorial, Massachusetts profile. A dorky populist like Brat? Much more imaginable. A gifted demagogue like Ted Cruz? I think many liberals would be surprised. And the ace card for the populist right, rather than the populist left, is immigration. If you can weld together a loathing and resentment of elites with a loathing and resentment of foreigners “invading” the country and “taking our jobs,” then you have a potent combination.

Brat also targeted K Street as well as Wall Street. So you have this dynamic, noted by John Judis:

Speaking last month before the Mechanicsville Tea Party, Brat tied Cantor to Wall Street and big business, whom he blamed partly for the financial crisis. “All the investment banks in the New York and D.C.those guys should have gone to jail. Instead of going to jail, they went on Eric’s Rolodex, and they are sending him big checks,” he said. Brat echoed these charges in a radio interview. “The crooks up on Wall Street and some of the big banksI’m pro business, I’m just talking about the crooksthey didn’t go to jail they are on Eric’s Rolodex,” he said.

Brat and local Tea Party leaders also criticized Cantor for attempting to water down the Stock Act, which banned members of Congress from profiting from insider trading. “One congressman changed the act so spouses could benefit from insider trading,” Brat charged, referring to Cantor. (Cantor drew equal fire from Democrats for attempting to undermine the bill.)

This theme also taps into a deep dissatisfaction with a gridlocked government.

The gridlock is, of course, caused by the absolutism of the opposition to anything Obama might want to do – but the GOP radicals can rely on their base and many more to forget that. Besides, it’s a political win-win. You create the gridlock, then present yourselves as the only people able to break it. And that’s the other feature of this potential movement: it’s about upsetting Washington; it’s about change in an economically depressed time. The change may be incoherent; it may be economically disastrous (brutal fiscal austerity would not exactly sustain short-term growth or employment, for example); but it’s politically powerful. If the Democrats put up Hillary Clinton – a symbol of the past, of the DC establishment, of big money and big corporations and big lobbyists – then the opening for a root-and-branch right-wing revolt is absolutely in sight.

Would it stand a chance? I wish I could say it didn’t. Is this a mere protest vote to be buried in a multiracial landslide for Clinton in 2016? Maybe. But maybe not.

(Photo: U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks during the final day of the 2014 Republican Leadership Conference on May 31, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Leaders of the Republican Party spoke at the 2014 Republican Leadership Conference which hosted 1,500 delegates from across the country. By Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.)