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Walker Wins, Money Shouts | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Walker Wins, Money Shouts

My new Think Again column is called “When Labor Unions Were at the Center of Politics” and it’s here.

My Nation column is called “Show Us the Money” and it’s here.

I did a Daily Beast piece for Tuesday morning called “The Downside of Obama’s Decision to Skip Wisconsin” here.

I just finished listening to Robert Caro’s fourth volume of the Lyndon Johnson biography. Having listened to the entire thing on audio, as well as The Power Broker, I believe I hold what would be the Guiness Book of World Records’ record for most time spent listening to a single author by a single individual if there were such a category. Anyway I would like to second this praise for its reader, Grover Gardner, whom I used to see perform at the Source Theater and elsewhere in Washington back when I was still a young man with hopes and dreams. I also wanted to recommend Jeff Himmelman’s nicely nuanced and balanced book on Ben Bradlee called Yours in Truth since it’s gotten slagged in a bunch of places. Himmelman probably made a mistake in allowing New York magazine to make such a big deal over a non-story regarding Woodward and Bradlee which has confused the reception of the project but authors—particularly first-time authors—are desperate for any attention these days and this kind of thing is hard to turn down. Anyway here are some letters.

I also wanted to say something nice about John Cheever. I went to a lovely evening in honor of his 100th birthday at the 92nd street Y a few weeks ago and there’s this nice blog post in The New Yorker (here) but the Library of America version of the collected stories and novels is truly something anyone who loves literature will love to read for decades to come. I’m amazed that Cheever has fallen out of fashion among English professors, and cannot begin to explain it.

My letter to the Times about my book review about The Cause is below. I feel silly kvetching too much. It was a sympathetic assigment by the editors and the Times does a much better job of covering important books than any other institution. Still, it’s deeply annoying to spend eight years on a book and then have it misinterpreted before far more people than will ever see the book. In addition to my primary complaint, which I describe in the letter, it’s fair to say that Sheshol, a professional political speech writer as well as the author of two well-regarded political histories, does not understand the importance of culture to the history of liberalism. He objects to the amount of space devoted to writers and artists, without noticing that cultural liberalism has proven, in recent decades, to be far more powerful and successful than political (or economic) liberalism. What he terms “randomness” in my choices reflects attempts to represent this power, not to argue that Oliver Stone was more important Walter Reuther. (Book reviews by arithmetic are wrong-headed by definition.) Finally, he intends the word “pontilist” as a criticism. But since this is the only time in my life I expect to be compared to George Seurat, I’m afraid don’t mind at all.

LETTER
‘The Cause’
Published: May 31, 2012
To the Editor:

I found myself nodding in understanding, if not exactly agreement, with many of Jeff Shesol’s criticisms of “The Cause” (May 20), right up until the end, where I actually failed to recognize the argument he attributed to me as my own. Indeed, it is the opposite of what I believe.

Shesol does not take issue with any of the specific points I make about policies and positions adopted by recent Democratic presidential candidates, successful and unsuccessful, but concludes nevertheless that “taken together, they reflect a contempt for compromise.” Yet one paragraph later he correctly notes that Senator Edward Kennedy is “one of the heroes of this book.” As Shesol, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, is surely aware, no liberal in the past half-century was better known for his ability to compromise with the other side — including the most conservative of Republicans — than Ted Kennedy.

As for the candidates (and presidents) to whom Shesol refers, none of them, including especially Clinton, were willing to embrace the liberal label. By equating “Democrat” with “liberal,” Shesol is buying into the belief, pushed by conservatives but too often adopted unthinkingly by members of the media, that anyone who does not define himself as a conservative is by definition a “liberal.” The purpose of this is to marginalize genuine liberals from responsible discourse regardless of the efficacy or popularity of their ideals.

In any case, in my critiques of the actions of Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama, all of whom campaigned as considerably more liberal than they governed, I am not taking issue with the notion of compromise. Rather, I sought to address the relative weakness of liberalism within a political system that has increasingly governed by the power of money, media manipulation and political dysfunction instead of the democratic desires of its citizens.

To be clear, I think compromise and cooperation to be essential aspects of all successful politics. At the same time, I believe it to be wise for political leaders of all stripes to give voice to the values and beliefs that guide their behavior before sitting down at the table to do the deal. In recent times, the careers of Senator Kennedy and of the former New York governor Mario Cuomo — to name just two — offer eloquent testimony to the respect one can garner from voters who may or may not share those values for a statesman willing to speak his or her mind in unambiguous terms on the one hand, and to compromise as necessary when the right moment arrives. Contemporary liberals might learn a great deal from their examples, and I hope others, illustrated in “The Cause.”

ERIC ALTERMAN
New York

Now here’s Reed, who is particularly good this week, as Chuck Lane’s anti-liberal screeds in the Post have provided regular annoyance of late to those who are forced to pay attention to such things. And let us say a small word of thanks that liberal-hating will no longer be a qualification for the job of editor of The New Republic.

Charles Lane: Pundit with a Capital "D"
by Reed Richardson

As befits a high profile, highly charged political campaign culminating in early June—normally the wasteland of the electoral calendar—the days following the Wisconsin recall have occasioned a torrent of post-election spin. But amongst all the conservatives spiking the football and liberals searching for a silver lining, only the Washington Post’s Charles Lane unleashed a ridiculous scolding about how we “frenz[ied]” members of the left should nonetheless be pleased, not in spite of, but precisely because of Tuesday’s outcome. To wit: “The progressives who are mourning Walker’s win should be celebrating instead.”

This notion is patently ridiculous and whom, exactly, Lane thinks will buy this precious conclusion, I honestly can’t say. Nor can he, I’d wager. But then again, I believe that Lane wasn’t really trying to convince progressives they should reexamine their views of Walker, who has demonstrated nothing but contempt for them and every principle they hold dear since his coming into office. So, let’s call his column’s ginned-up outrage, sneering tone, transparent concern trolling, and careful eliding of salient facts what it really is—douchebag punditry.

Now, I realize this term doesn’t exactly elevate our discourse. But damned if it’s more common cultural definition doesn’t fit Lane’s shtick pretty comfortably. Let me be clear. I’m never met Lane and maybe, in person, he’s a pleasant, reasonable guy. Certainly, he has some sense of moral compass since his most famous moment in journalism was, while editor of the New Republic, to fully expose Stephen Glass as a world-class liar and fabulist. (Another notable, less auspicious claim to fame during his tenure, however, was when he openly gushed: “I know it shouldn't be happening, but it is. I'm falling for John McCain.”) But all this doesn’t change the fact that since moving to the Post’s editorial page three years ago, he’s become a regular dispenser of pugnacious, patronizing editorial smackdowns.

To be sure, Lane takes great pains in trying to be an equal opportunity offender, training his fire across the ideological spectrum. But that these commentaries are unmoored from any fixed partisan point doesn’t make them any less obnoxious or misleading. Indeed, at least other Post op-ed writers, who work from an unambiguous political agenda (like, say, electing Mitt Romney president), offer readers a sense of what they’re all about. But to be a regular purveyor of Lane’s opinion pieces is to encounter an unmistakably arch sense of both-sides-do-it righteousness, of cynicism for cynicism’s sake, and of a context-be-damned mindset. He may not be a douchebag, in other words, but he sure writes like one.

For example, Lane has inexplicably joined with many from the right in developing a longstanding personal vendetta against the Chevy Volt. Evidently, he sees the car as some kind of insidious elitist gimmick, worthy of multiple rhetorical kicks in the fender. Back in March, he went so far as to assail liberals for ignoring the “scientific facts” about alternative energy in their support of the Volt, but then, in almost the same snide breath, he spit out this wholly unsubstantiated claim: “Oh, and how are you supposed to resell your electric vehicle once you’ve driven it five years and the battery is depleted?” It presumably fell to his editor to cut the word “sucker!” from end of this sentence.

Still, Lane’s smugness would be justified if these batteries were nothing more than giant bricks after five years, but they’re not. Why else would GM,Toyota, Nissan, and almost every other major manufacturer of electric and hybrid vehicles—who presumably aren’t in the business of giving away expensive replacement parts for free—offer battery warranties of eight years? And there’s more where this came from, as the malleable logic he employs elsewhere in his preening arguments against alternative energy melts pretty quickly under the hot lights of this throrough rebuttal in Slate.

But latching onto an issue and doggedly not letting go, no matter how untenable the underlying reasoning is a common Lane tactic. Coincidentally, something about Wisconsin’s people-powered uprising has stuck in Lane’s craw and stayed there as well.

For instance, just a few weeks into Walker’s term in 2011, Lane began cranking out blog posts decrying the “tyranny” of public union members protesting the potential loss of their collective bargaining rights and of Democratic legislators walking out of the state Capitol when the Republicans railroaded bills through using legislative gamesmanship. The capper, though, was when Lane tastelessly tried to shoehorn Rep. Gabrielle Giffords—still in a coma just a few weeks after being shot in the head—into the debate as a hypothetical mouthpiece for his anti-liberal screed:

If the brave Gabrielle Giffords could speak normally, what would she say about these events? I hope she would agree with me: This is a sad moment for liberalism, for the Democratic Party, and, really, for the whole country.

The callous self-regard on display here—to presume to speak for someone who literally cannot because they’re fighting for their life—is staggering and surely places itself firmly in the pantheon of high douchebaggery.

A year later, Lane was chewing on Wisconsin Democrats again, proclaiming how Walker was “fighting a good fight” against the “threat” of public union collective bargaining, which “is inherently contrary to majority rule.” He even trotted out the old “both sides of the table” canard about the supposed unchecked power public unions have in negotiating their salary and benefits, a favorite talking point of conservatives (and some of the usual suspects on the left). Lane then tries to land a 180-degree twist of logic by positing that public-sector collective bargaining essentially steals money from other progressive priorities, like education, parks, and aid for the poor. Yet he completely ignores the real policy effects of Walker’s agenda, which would gut these very same programs in service of shoveling more money at the rich.

This week, Lane reprised many of these same flawed points and, once again, omitted those inconvenient facts that didn’t conform to his viewpoint. In the lead-up to his aforementioned fictional finale, he follows a time-tested dodge of implicitly linking public-sector unions to the state’s financial budget problems.

Walker’s reforms ended that. Now, elected officials across the state can actually set work rules and pay rates with their constituents’ interests as the clear top priority.

In short, government in Wisconsin is now not only sounder fiscally than it was pre-Walker, but also more accountable and transparent. Politicians can use resources for parks, libraries, schools and roads instead of perks for politically connected unions.

Frankly, there’s a lot here that’s d-bag worthy. First off, Lane is incredibly deceptive to imply that Walker’s reforms “ended” all public union collective bargaining in the state. More like “selected punished” because, as anyone from Wisconsin could tell you, Walker serendipitously exempted from his principled “reforms” those public-sector unions—like law enforcement and firefigthers—who supported his initial bid for election. As fellow Postcolleague Ezra Klein observes, “Funny, that.” In fact, this shameless political cronyism on the part of Walker gives the lie to the biggest falsehood behind his anti-union push, which Lane seamlessly pivots to next: that rolling back union negotiation power was necessary to repair the state’s red-ink budget.

But don’t just take my word that it’s not true, listen to Gov. Walker himself, who acknowledged as much in a 2011 exchange before a Congressional panel.

“How much money does it save Gov. Walker?” [Rep. Dennis] Kucinich demanded. “Just answer the question.”

“It doesn't save any,” Walker said.

“That's right. It obviously had no effect on the state budget,” Kucinich replied.

Kucinich said it was clear the attack on collective bargaining rights was a choice and not a fiscal issue. “It's a political issue,” he said.

What’s more, the presence of a healthy public-sector union doesn’t have any correlation with a state’s recent budget problems either. But this reality makes it much harder for Walker (and Lane) to scapegoat public workers as selfish and greedy. And as for all those “resources” that Lane cheers as being freed from grubby union hands? Well, the state’s heralded public university system and state Medicaid program certainly won’t be seeing any of them anytime soon.

Still, all of these intellectual transgressions are but venal sins when compared to Lane’s cardinal sin of enthusiastically embracing the increasingly pay-to-play climate of a post-­Citizens United democracy. Dripping with sarcasm, Lane can’t help but snicker at Democratic complaints of being overwhelmed by outside corporate money in the recall election to a tune of ten to one.

But Walker bought the election with corporate money from out of state! Of all the excuses being offered today, this is the most pathetic. Of course Walker exploited existing state campaign-finance law to raise as much money as possible wherever he could. What the heck did his opponents expect him to do? Unilaterally disarm?

The unions and Wisconsin Democrats knew the rules. If they didn’t want Walker to bring a financial gun to their knife fight, they shouldn’t have started it in the first place.

Heck, what I find truly pathetic is any columnist at a national newspaper being so willing to accept that our country’s franchise might soon be at the mercy of the highest bidder. Don’t have the luxury of a few mega-wealthy benefactors backing your campaign? Well, hard cheese, as they say in Wisconsin. Maybe we could save taxpayers the cost of having regularly scheduled elections in the first place, that is, if more than one candidate can’t demonstrate having access to big enough “financial guns?” At this rate, how long will it be before our small “d” democracy turns into a branded, capital “D” Democracy™?

So, the fact that Lane would look back at the recall and conclude Walker’s oligarchic-fueled victory was the side “upholding democratic values,” while middle-class teachers and government employees represented an unholy alliance of “special interests” worthy of defeat is downright frightening. Come to think of it, I think it merits upgrading my earlier assessment of his punditry—to capital “D” status.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

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