Charlotte—The most overused and least understood word at the Republican National Convention in Tampa was “reform.”
Historically, a reformer was someone who demanded that action be taken to address the inequity, corruption and neglect of the common good that rendered a potentially commendable system dysfunctional.
True reformers—like Republican Teddy Roosevelt and Democrat Franklin Roosevelt—were believers in the American experiment. But they knew that it was an experiment; to function properly it needed to adjust at critical junctures, to improve and to repair so that a broken status quo did not become the norm.
At the Republican convention that nominated two sons of privilege to lead what has become the party of economic royalism, however, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan redefined “reform.” They made it the term not for addressing dysfunction but for extending it.
At a time when the gap between rich and poor has become a chasm, Romney and Ryan propose to create a Bain-capitalist future of leveraged buyouts, shuttered factories and offshored assets. Their “reforms” make a mockery of the Jeffersonian vision of nation of small shopkeepers and small farmers; yes, Americans could still scrape livings out of small shops and small farms, they could “build it,” but they could not shape the government policies that might actually allow them to play a role in discerning the future course of the republic.
The Republican platform, embraced in Tampa not just by wild-eyed social conservative foes of reproductive rights and marriage equality but by Romney and Ryan when they accepted their nominations, outlines a plan for the redistribution of economic power upward—with page after page of proposals for tax and trade policies that benefit the one-tenth of the 1 percent. But it also redistributes political power upward, declaring that the “right” of billionaires to buy election results is every bit as sacrosanct as the right to vote or to speak freely in the public square.
Opposing any limits on the political practices of the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson, the platform pledges to “support repeal of the remaining sections of McCain-Feingold, support either raising or repealing contribution limits, and oppose passage of the Disclose Act or any similar legislation designed to vitiate the Supreme Court’s recent decisions protecting political speech in Wisconsin Right to Life v. Federal Election Commission and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.”
In other words: As far as the GOP is concerned, while there is not enough money in politics there is too much transparency.
This is a far cry from the days when Robert M. La Follette, a Republican governor, senator and reformer of a century ago, declared: “The greatest danger menacing public institutions today is the overbalancing control of city, state, and national legislatures by the wealth and power of corporations.”
La Follette fretted that “the tendency to monopolization of political control by a few men [threatened] to disfranchise the great majority of citizens…”
Now, his party has nominated two of the “few men” for president and vice president.
So is the reform cause dead?
America has a two-party system, with alternative parties shoved to the sidelines by a political and media elites that prefer a managed democracy. This is an insufficient range of political opportunity, but it can at times offer a “last best hope” prospect—if Democrats are willing to seize it.
When it comes to reform, the Democratic Party that will convene in Charlotte this week has historically been at odds with itself. And it is now. The party of labor is convening in a city that has erected barriers to union organizing. The party of FDR—who campaigned against “old enemies” such as “business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism” that “consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs”—will complete its forty-sixth convention at a stadium named for a multinational banking and financial services corporation that is now the second-largest bank holding company in the United States. And the party of campaign finance reform will decry “big money” at a convention funded in large part by “big money.”
It is easy, and often quite appropriate, to be cynical.
But, last week, President Obama took the extraordinary step—in an online interview—of identifying himself with what is arguably the most important reform message of the moment.
Asked about the corruption influence of money in politics, especially since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling struck down limits on corporate spending to buy elections, Obama wrote: “We need to start with passing the Disclose Act that is already written and been sponsored in Congress—to at least force disclosure of who is giving to who. We should also pass legislation prohibiting the bundling of campaign contributions from lobbyists. Over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t revisit it). Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change.”
The president’s association of himself—or, at the very least, his consideration of such as association—with the movement to amend the constitution to overturn Citizens United is a big deal.
Presidents can seek second terms as reformers. FDR did it in 1936, noting that “More than four years ago in accepting the Democratic nomination in Chicago, I said: ‘Give me your help not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people.’ The banners of that crusade still fly in the vanguard of a nation that is on the march.”
What made Roosevelt’s message work as a reform appeal was his specificity with regard to the fights that lay ahead, and the forces that he was confronting. Speaking of the bankers and speculators he was promising to tame, Roosevelt said: “We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”
Obama is unlikely to muster the word “hatred.” But supporting the amendment of the Constitution in order to wrestle control of politics away from organized money has the potential to position him as the real reformer in the 2012 race.
To get there, however, Obama must do more that just tap out a few words online. The president needs to incorporate a message about the urgency of addressing the Citizens United crisis into his acceptance speech in Charlotte, and to take the message on the road this fall.
Obama and the Democrats can do more than just run against Romney. They can, and should, run against a corrupt system, which the vast majority of Americans oppose. They can acknowledge the simplest yet most profound political truth of this time: our system is not perfect. It needs reform. But it needs the right reform—reform that extends the promise of democracy, that recognizes the need not only for legal justice but for economic justice that gives real power to the people.
Mitt Romney and the Republicans cannot deliver that reform; they are not even trying.
It falls to Barack Obama and the Democrats to take up the reform mantle and march it toward November. They should start this week in Charlotte. Indeed, on Thursday night, as he appears before tens of thousands of cheering supporters, the president could be excused for borrowing a phrase from a worthy predecessor to restate a fundamental truth: “We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.”