Back to the Past, or Deconstructing Arnold.

November 26, 2006

Back to the Past, or Deconstructing Arnold.

November 26, 2006

Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, November 26, 2006 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”

Salit: Arnold Schwarzenegger was on “Meet the Press.” Here’s some of his political approach: It doesn’t matter what party you’re from, it’s all about the people. I’m a public servant, my job is to serve the people. The reason we’ve been successful is that we don’t look at issues as “Democrat” or “Republican” issues, we’re doing the work of the people. I’m a fiscal conservative, a social moderate, and an environmental progressive. Schwarzenegger just won re-election, staging one of the so-called “biggest political comebacks in contemporary political history,” coming from a 32% popularity rating a year ago to a 56-39 win over his Democratic opponent. This is Schwarzenegger’s accounting for why he’s been successful. Schwarzenegger is, arguably, a new kind of politician.

Newman: I don’t think he’s a new kind of politician at all.

Salit: Okay. Let’s start there.

Newman: If you look at his positions a little more carefully, they are very traditional conservative positions. In movie titles, you would say that he goes from “Back to the Future” to “Back to the Past.” His basic message is that we can fix everything up without changing anything, as long as these politicians will work together. But, what made the difference between his low point of 32% and winning is that he’s a great campaigner, even if he’s a less than effective governor. And he’s not alone in that. But I think he was smart enough to realize that he could pull off that campaign.

Salit: Don’t you think that part of his appeal is that he’s talking about getting elected officials to function in what is supposed to be their traditional role, which is, to use his words, to do the work of the people.

Newman: But who hasn’t said that in 250 years? And who is the opposition? That’s what I don’t understand about your formulation. Who says “to hell with the people?” The clever part of his spin is putting both the Democrats and the Republicans up against the wall by saying You have to work together for the people.

Salit: Okay.

Newman: But that’s a conservative position, fundamentally. Is it saying we need new approaches, different ways of governing the state? No. And that’s why it’s clever. We just need to work together and then we can get all these things resolved. Is that true? I don’t know. We’ll find out.

Salit: His argument is that in the year leading up to the election, he succeeded in doing that.

Newman: The year leading up to the election was the campaign season. And he’s the best politician in the state and he was betting that he could do that. And he was right. It was a good campaign strategy. But, then again, they had the best campaigner to do it.

Salit: Isn’t part of what he’s selling to the voters that he’s not a traditional Republican or a Democrat?

Newman: You could spin it that way. But, I think the more precise point is that he is a conservative. He’s saying: let’s buy in on the system and just make it work better. He didn’t particularly work together with the Democrats when he got there for his first term in office.

Salit: Arguably, that’s one of the things that led to his low popularity ratings, because he was seen as a partisan. The general perception is that he got elected as an independent, in a nonpartisan race, and then he essentially started acting like a traditional Republican, and a conservative Republican, to boot. So his popularity ratings drop. He’s down to 32% and then he makes his political shift and “starts campaigning.”

Newman: But, the campaign message had a subtle but important difference. In his campaign he’s not saying We all have to work together. He’s saying You Democrats and Republicans in the legislature, you have to work together.

Salit: Exactly.

Newman: He takes on everybody. He’s establishing himself not as an independent in any ideological sense, but as the “head of state.”

Salit: Russert says to him, ‘All the initiatives that you supported lost.’ A number of these were political and structural reform issues strongly supported by independents. But they didn’t pass because the general perception was that they were being pushed for partisan reasons.

Newman: And they were.

Salit: And they were. So Schwarzenegger’s spin is: why did the people reject the reforms? Not because the substantive issues were unpopular or going in the wrong direction but because the people want the elected officials to do their job. They don’t want us to come running to them with an initiative every time there’s some issue. They want the Democrats and Republicans to basically get themselves together and do the job we elected them to do, which is to work together, to legislate “on behalf of the people.”

Newman: You’re correct to say that that’s the spin that he was giving. I don’t think that’s an honest spin.

Salit: I don’t either.

Newman: He’s spinning that he’s above it all. And the legislators are not. That’s a very clever position to put out there because it’s hard for the legislators to respond to that. What are they going to say? Oh, no, we don’t want to be cooperative.

Salit: “Above it all” is not equivalent to being independent.

Newman: No. It’s equivalent to being conservative, in the traditional 19th century sense of the word.

Salit: The “Chris Matthews Show” is doing an eight-part series keying on different presidential candidates. They focused on John Edwards today. The issue that Edwards is identified with is economic populism.

Newman: Whatever that means. What he and his campaign staff mean by it is an economic plan which is popular enough to get him elected. That’s what he means by economic populism.

Salit: It’s true. There are a million different definitions of what it is to be an economic populist just like there are a million different definitions of what it is to be independent. Here’s one forecast on Edwards. Edwards is the stealth candidate. He doesn’t have the firepower that Hillary has. She’s the frontrunner. She’s got the money. She’s got the big organization. She’s got the caché.

Newman: The name.

Salit: And she’s got the name.

Newman: Both of them.

Salit: So, can Edwards take Hillary? The argument is: he can, on the following scenario. He runs what is essentially a stealth operation in Iowa, where he’s enormously popular. We’re a year out from Iowa. And a year is a long time. But he’s already in Iowa, building a ground operation. The polls show him competitive with Hillary there. Basically, the Edwards strategy is to build under the radar screen, work the networks, and use his economic populism theme. Hillary can’t take that issue. That’s not her thing. She’s not a reformer and she’s not an economic populist. She’s an issues person, a traditional Democratic Party issues person. And she’s also tied to the wing of the Democratic Party, namely her husband, that was on the opposite side of where the so-called economic populists were.

Newman: And she’s a woman.

Salit: Meaning?

Newman: Edwards’ supporters, appropriate supporters, are going to work to turn the campaign issue into “electability.” The subtle, or not so subtle, articulation will be that she’s not electable because…

Salit: …she’s a woman.

Newman: Because people are not ready to elect a woman. And that changes who Edwards is.

Salit: “Electability” still means, presumably, white man.

Newman: The empirics seem to support it.

Salit: Hillary’s a woman. And the other person running strongly in the Iowa polls right now is Barack Obama, even though he doesn’t have any kind of ground organization there. But he’s a “fresh face,” an “independent,” broadly defined (back to one of the million definitions of independent). In any event, Edwards makes the positive argument about economic populism and then the negative argument is about electability.

Newman: He doesn’t make that explicit, ever. But the subtle thing they’re trying to convey, about both Obama and about Hillary, is that they might be popular in the Iowa caucuses. But, in the general election, who’s going to be voting, who’s going to be determining the election, are white men.

Salit: That’s the unspoken Edwards message.

Newman: Actually, it’s the friends of Edwards’ message.

Salit: “Meet the Press” had a panel on the current situation in Iraq. What is there to say about this discussion? This is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” quagmire for America.

Newman: The question put before the panel was What should the U.S. do? The only question that they were willing to discuss was What should the Iraqis do? But the question is What should the U.S. do which supports the Iraqis but is in the best interest of the United States? The panel avoided that question like the plague. I would argue that what’s in the best interest of the United States is getting out as quickly as possible. But they don’t discuss that, for a variety of reasons, like the president told them not to. Bush has taken the position that what’s best for the United States is to stay the course. I don’t think that’s rationally supportable.

Salit: In terms of American interests.

Newman: Yes. Forget about left wing internationalist analysis. I don’t think it’s supportable on the basis of what’s good economically and in all kinds of other ways, for the people of this country. That’s what the people of this country just voted for. The whole country didn’t go left wing in the last election. That’s not what happened. It went pro-American. The American people said we don’t think staying in Iraq is the pro-American position.

Salit: I guess the best argument, which nobody made on that show, though it was discussed later on the “The McLaughlin Group,” is that it is pro-American to stay because any further political instability in the region can impact negatively on our access to oil. And that’s a major bottom line for U.S. interests.

Newman: They’ll cut deals for oil. Our troops leaving Iraq doesn’t mean our leaving Iraq. After all, there is something of a free market out there. We consume enormous amounts of oil and they produce enormous amounts of oil. That doesn’t go away if we pull out of Iraq.

Salit: I guess the issue is that the terms of those deals will have to be re-cut.

Newman: They’ve been cutting and re-cutting deals for a long time without endangering the lives of hundreds of Americans each week. They can cut deals without a war.

Salit: “The McLaughlin Group” discussed global warming. Or climate change, as the Republicans like to call it. Pat Buchanan was pretty worked up in the discussion.

Newman: If you know Pat as we do, because we were relatively close to him when he ran as an independent for president, you know Pat’s insistence on holding on to the most pro-corporate denial of the problems is exactly why he couldn’t make a go of that campaign. Let’s talk politics for a moment. There’s no issue where it should be easier to combine the interests of the Republican global capitalists with the pro-labor Democrats than global warming. How much money is there in saving the world from global warming? Hundreds of billions of dollars? Properly brought together and synthesized, you could have a position which brings Left and Right together. But Pat has no capacity for bringing Left and Right together. Pat is a hard core ideologue.

Salit: Let me just ask you one more question. At the start, we discussed whether Schwarzenegger is a new kind of politician. Your argument, and you make a good case for it, is that he isn’t. You point to all the reasons why he’s a traditional conservative.

Newman: Well, I would agree that he’s a new kind of politician in the sense that he went into politics after appearing in “Conan the Barbarian.” That’s somewhat new. But he’s fundamentally conservative.

Salit: Okay. But, here’s my question. If you take a Schwarzenegger or you take a Bloomberg, as two examples, and – I’ll be generous here – maybe even John Edwards, the current political environment makes room for new kinds of political voices, language, framings – however you want to put it – on domestic issues. But you don’t have any of those kinds of voices on international issues.

Newman: I think it’s exactly the other way around. There is a new voice on foreign issues – the American people. The whole country just voted on Iraq and the country, led by independents, voted on a new approach, new language. In those other areas, I think it’s pure spin.

Salit: Okay.

Newman: Let me give you another argument for pure spin. How do you account for the fact that Bloomberg went strongly for our kind of “change” language – structural political reform – while Schwarzenegger didn’t give it the time of day?

Salit: How do I account for that? I think that for Schwarzenegger to have fully undertaken a radical structural political reform program of the kind that we put before Bloomberg in New York, which Bloomberg embraced and ran with, would mean that Schwarzenegger would have to be willing to go up against the orthodoxy in both the Republican and Democratic parties. And I think that Schwarzenegger decided that it was not in his interest to do that. And, in some sense, to go to your point, he had to go in the exact opposite direction.

Newman: He’s not saying Throw the bums out. He’s saying Put the bums up against the wall, in a bipartisan way, so I can be…

Salit: …above it all.

Newman: …above it all. I don’t think it was the most progressive way of formulating a ‘get me re-elected’ campaign. Although it worked and that’s impressive.

Salit: Yes. Thanks.