During the first presidential debate, we witnessed the many faces of Mitt, and it reminds us of the 1957 movie, The Three Faces of Eve, about an actual individual suffering multiple personality disorder. Whereas his celebrated volte-faces on healthcare, abortion, and immigration had already become legend, on Wednesday night Mitt flip-flopped again on taxing the rich, government regulations, and Medicare.
Romney will apparently reinvent himself again and again in order to achieve his goal. But make no mistake: His focus as president would be to protect his core constituency, the one percent and its many hangers-on and sycophants.
In this sense, the 2012 presidential election takes on an epic quality. We can compare it to the 1964 Johnson/Goldwater and 1980 Reagan/Carter elections that also featured big government/little government arguments. This time, it’s about more than the specific candidate or specific political party, and this explains some of the vicious Obama-hate we’ve seen. The chorus of Romney critics currently assailing his candidacy misses the fact that Romney has firmly placed the GOP’s stamp on most of our national debates (with help from Paul Ryan and Ron Paul). The wealthiest among us want to destroy “big government” and roll-back government regulations with Mitt’s help.
When Romney frames the national dialogue as one between big government vs. limited government, many Americans agree, and thus follow his framework. But another way to characterize this battle is social democracy vs. the old titans-of-finance approach. Romney promises an astounding “12 million new jobs” in his putative presidency, a much-mocked number he repeated Wednesday, but it still achieves resonance when he adds that it will be through small business growth, private industry, and American entrepreneurship. He would somehow simultaneously pay down the national debt, cut taxes, heavily increase the military budget – huge new Pentagon outlays that the Joint Chiefs have not requested – and, oh yes, balance the federal budget.
After the debate, celebrated pundit David Brooks hailed the return of “moderate Mitt,” and recognized him as a “former Mr. Right Winger.” Indeed, one has to ask if those who loved robber-baron Mitt at Tampa can trust his Tea Party principles when he throws them off five weeks later. Where Brooks calls Mitt’s metamorphosis “progress,” many see hypocrisy and demagoguery.
Mitt’s shining new “face” and sudden flips helped him dominate the first debate, with Obama’s lame responses – understated and in some cases nonexistent – and professorial wonkiness, helping the former governor look pretty sharp. Romney twice insisted, “I’m not cutting taxes on the rich,” told us government regulation is essential, and promised, “I’m not going to cut education funding.” If you believe these startling transformations, then I’d like to talk to you about converting to Scientology. Mitt also cleverly seized the “trickle down” line from Bill Clinton’s speech before Obama could deploy it, mocking the idea of government trickle down (despite the fact that the huge stimulus bill did work, did flood money down to the workers, and was effectively redistributive).
In his recent book, The Price of Inequality, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz asserts that the dichotomy of the one 1% vs. the 99% is the defining characteristic of a structurally ill economy. While we proudly state (I can hear this from Hope Ranch to Bel Air) that we’re the richest nation in the world, 20% of the kids in California live below the poverty line. Like Bill Clinton said, do the arithmetic. A British economist states that, “since the late 1970s, the income of the richest fifth has increased nine times as fast as the poorest fifth in the USA.” The rich got a lot richer, the middle class did a tiny bit better, and the poor fell through the floor.
The American market is a broken system, contends Stiglitz, though of course it hurts when my free-market fundamentalist friends in Montecito hear this. Republican and Democratic administrations alike have participated in enormous federal giveaways to the energy industry, big pharma, the defense industries, big agriculture … It’s quite a list and horrendously expensive – budget-busting and debt-bomb enhancing, in fact. No one – certainly not Romney – seems to have what it takes to take on these big boys, especially not after the Citizens United Supreme Court decision made us an official plutocracy.
Since the economic elite control the political elite, we can see why that other Nobel Prize-winning American economist, Paul Krugman, insists on greater intellectual clarity and honesty in national economics dialogues. And during the debate, Obama twice made the crucial point that “budgets reflect choices.” These economic debates really are about a huge concept — have a bigger “socially democratic” government that redistributes more wealth down? Or have a brutally lean libertarian state which funds roads, armies, minimal public health, and a legal system, and nothing more?
When Mitt mocks “redistribution” he targets public education as well as Medicare and Social Security. I’ve written recently about Romney’s education plans, which would starve public education and introduce a voucher-style plan, although he’s careful never to use that discredited term.
And as with public education, so also with Medicare, which will be phased out over time under Mitt’s plan, just as Social Security will eventually be transformed into a universal 401 (k) type of social insecurity. His Medicare plan might as well be termed “voucher-care,” and you can be sure that even a $7000 medical voucher per year will not cover rocketing health care costs, especially for older Americans.
Romney hails “tax-cuts” as a way to stimulate the economy, but he’s really back to voodoo economics. As Bill Clinton cleverly stated, they’re ‘doubling down on trickle down.’ But when he promised “I’m not cutting taxes for the rich,” his sly demagogic technique should have been fairly obvious: Tricky Mitt is about allowing the 2002 tax cut to continue he will not be “cutting their taxes.” What classic demagoguery; Cleon of Athens couldn’t have bettered him. But the ill-gotten gains of the 1% do not trickle down into the full market economy (Stiglitz), and we still have a liquidity crisis (Krugman), although the hyper-wealthy do employ plenty of gardeners, valets, private chefs, nannies, private school teachers, masseuses, tutors, doormen, and yes-men.
Will the middle-class be tricked by Mitt’s many outrageous flip-flops? Will the impudent arrogance of “the nowhere man,” as the British press mockingly called him in London, convince enough unaware Americans to vote for Mitt to win in November? Will Mitt, like Prime Minister David Cameron did in the UK, keep saying pious things about protecting Medicare (or, the National Health Service in England) prior to the election, then embrace Paul Ryan’s hard-hearted Ayn Randian creed after he wins and slowly destroy Medicare? (Cameron is dismantling the NHS after promising not to do so.)
Promises made in presidential debates obviously are not binding on the candidate, and mendacious Mitt has no shame. He is now squirming as only Mitt can when faced with the inconvenient new fact that the unemployment rate has dropped to 7.8%, the lowest in 44 months, a significant proof that the president’s economic plan is working.
As Obama asked again and again, but in awkward language: How can Mitt’s continued huge tax cuts and social service cuts help create jobs? What are the details of his strategies for reducing the debt? Neither candidate on Wednesday night ever mentioned “sacrifice” or belt-tightening to the American people.