Last night we had the pleasure of attending a real live Manhattan “liberal elite” salon hosted by Mother Jones  magazine, moderated by MoJo’s publisher, Mr. Steve Katz, and featuring the magazine’s Washington bureau chief David Corn  (also a blogger for PoliticsDaily.com , former Washington editor for The Nation, and author of The Lies of George W. Bush , Hubris  [with Michael Isikoff], and other critically acclaimed books).
Corn spoke about the 2010 midterm election(s), what the Democrats are up against with the Tea Party Republicans, the likely outcomes of the 2010 election, and what impact it will have on the White House’s foreign and domestic policies, whether or not the GOP wins the House . . . and much more!
Readers of this blog will recall that Mother Jones was present at the 5th annual Rising Tide  conference in New Orleans on August 28 in the form of (Ms.) Mac McClelland , a human rights reporter who covered the BP oil spill’s effects on Gulf Coast communities in Louisiana and elsewhere. As smart and attention-worthy as Mac is, we’re here to tell you there’s even more talent on the staff of this 30-year-old magazine of investigative journalism (the current issue’s cover story: “The BP Cover-Up ”). A year’s subscription  for this bimonthly is more than worth the $10.
The following account is based on hurriedly scrawled notes and is not intended to be a verbatim transcript of Mr. Corn’s remarks. To read his exact words, see his blog , his articles at Mother Jones , and read his books (listed below), all of which we highly recommend.
Backlash: The Tea Party Movement as a Political Science Experiment
Corn began by wondering aloud whether there would be a Tea Party as we know it today if John McCain had not chosen as his 2008 running mate an obscure but telegenic governor from the state of Alaska. Can you imagine Dick Armey  as the “poster child” face of the Tea Party? Still, he said, there would in any case have been a backlash against a Democratic president, as there always is from the far right (JFK, Clinton . . .). Some of the recoil from the present administration results from the fact that the Democratic president is African-American, though Corn is not sure that race has as much to do with the backlash as the extremely distressed economic conditions.
The Tea Party movement strikes him as a sort of political science experiment: How far can dumb people go (by which he seemed to mean particularly the anti-science, anti-fact, know-nothing candidates)? Compared to the Tea Party types, George W. Bush was Einstein. “I’m so damn angry I’m gonna vote for Christine McDonnell!” the voters seem to say. We’ll find out in November if the infection of anger has spread to independents, who are typically more impatient for results than registered members of the two major parties; they’re always the first to defect. If independents who voted for Obama aren’t satisfied with what he has been able to deliver so far, they may reverse and try something different. But do they really want in the U.S. Senate Rand Paul (Kentucky), Sharron Angle (Nevada), or Joe Miller (Alaska)?
Vampires and Zombies
Compared to 1994 when no one saw the magnitude of the backlash coming (Gingrich’s Contract with America gang), since the summer of 2009 the Democratic National Committee has seen a big wave of discontentment coming and has been preparing. DNC has $20 million more in the campaign war chest than the RNC, but that is outweighed by the tons of contributions raised by Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie’s 527 group American Crossroads  ($60 million in September alone?). Karl Rove, he said, is like a vampire: you can’t kill him: he keeps coming back.
We’ll see how far this anger takes the nation, what the consequences are. And we’ll get our first view of the influence of the Roberts Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision that now allows unlimited, anonymous individual and corporate infusions of campaign donations.
Americans consistently tell pollsters that they abhor “big government,” yet they love Social Security and Medicare and insist on a strong defense department and love national parks . . . Yet polls find that the public fears “big government” more than “big business,” even after the 2008 financial meltdown and the bailouts.
What has happened with the Obama administration’s successes such as the stimulus bill, health care reform, Wall Street reform, and the national narrative about them? You can win the vote but lose the story, and the public doesn’t give you credit for the good things you’ve done (especially if you don’t explain the benefits). Corn said over and over the White House has won this or that legislative battle but has lost the story, the narrative, and the GOP has won the narrative battle, and then the Democrats hide from their accomplishments and don’t explain to voters why they’re better off because of the passage of the bill. Ronald Reagan understood that a clean loss is better than a muddy victory. The Democrats have scored ugly wins, and then let the Republicans declare the bills are failures that only run up the deficit. From the very beginning, Obama could have used his bully pulpit to exhort the public to keep the pressure on Congress to do more for us, but he did not do this. Obama could not have played it any worse. For all the vaunted genius of David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel and other White House advisers, the administration could not have played the stimulus any worse than they did. By neglect or inactivity they let the GOP delegitimize the stimulus from the very beginning.
How can Obama keep trying to work with the Republicans who obviously want him to fail? Because he hasn’t seen enough zombie movies.
Obama’s Good Works and Missed Opportunities
President Obama recollects  in the Oct. 15 issue of Rolling Stone that about a week after the inauguration he was en route to a meeting with GOP leadership to discuss the forthcoming stimulus bill when he learned that Republicans had announced that, whatever the legislation might be, they would vote no. Corn said that when Obama realized that GOP would try to block the stimulus and that the bill would have to be scaled down just in order to pass, one thing the president might have (should have) done would be to tell the nation (repeatedly) something like, This bill is smaller than some economists are recommending, but it’s the best thing we can get in these circumstances. We have a solution that’s not perfect but it will limit the damage. Even with this, Republicans are all voting no. Got that, America? It’s the Republicans blocking recovery. A year from now everyone’s going to be saying we didn’t do enough and the stimulus failed. Don’t say I didn’t warn you: this is the size it is because of Republican opposition.
During the campaign, Corn said, Obama pollsters and focus group leaders found that conservative white guys would say what they liked about Obama was that he looked like he could try to end the partisan bickering and maybe bring both parties together to move the country forward. Obama and his advisers may have taken that finding too much to heart, may have stuck with it too long, however understandable the political reasons.
And the Democratic leadership! They passed the legislation, but they won’t talk about it, won’t campaign on it. This GOP leadership is not the brightest bunch, they’re not the A-list or even B-list, but yet the Democrats let themselves be outmaneuvered by “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.”
How to Be Populist Without Sounding Liberal
Advice to Democrats: There’s a way to be populist without sounding liberal. In August 2009 the Dems allowed a long congressional vacation that was filled with red-hot town hall shoutings that the news media covered obsessively (conflict sells). They should not have allowed that vacuum in 2009 or in 2010. Democrats should have kept Congress in session and held votes every single week on jobs bills and let the Republicans be seen voting against them, but they didn’t. [Corn reports in “Unpopular Majority” in the Sept./Oct. issue of Mother Jones that congressman Tom Perriello  (D-VA) told party leaders back in January 2010, after Republican Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s old senate seat in Massachusetts, “the Democrats ought to introduce a different jobs bill every week to force Republicans to take a stand. ‘They said it was a great idea, but then it didn’t happen.’ . . . [Perriello] said it was ‘embarrassing’ that the Democrats decided to take a six-week recess to campaign as the economy teeters. ‘I can’t tell you how many times people in the White House say to me, ‘We want to help you; what an we do?’ I say, ‘Put out a real jobs bill.’”]
It’s self-defeating for the White House to snipe at their progressive supporters (à la Rahm Emanuel ) and wrong for press secretary Robert Gibbs to lash out at “the professional left ” and useless to worry about what Glenn Greenwald  writes (on Salon.com). Greenwald is fine, doing his job, but the White House is wasting time and political capital getting upset about criticisms from the left (most voters don’t know or care who these lefties are anyway). Corn gives his “theory of human society,” which is that even as adults we don’t evolve much beyond the petty concerns of high school personality politics.
The Republican party is like a helicopter, which is designed with two separate rotors pulling in separate directions which, technically speaking, seem to be designed to pull the helicopter apart, and yet it manages to fly. (A reference to GOP’s combination of serving high corporate interests + religious right voters and “family values” of “real America”?) We’ll see how long this helicopter manages to fly, and where it’s going.
And what, we wonder, is the Democratic party like unto? A sheep in a donkey suit? Fortunately, there are exceptions, true profiles in courage, and we salute them. For example, in addition to the forementioned Tom Perriello: Alan Grayson , Pete DeFazio , Jan Schakowsky , Debbie Halvorson .
Even though President Obama has not urged us to keep the pressure on Congress to do more (as Corn said he might have done), we can do it anyway, and ask our friends to do the same. Bang ’em over the head with shovels and frying pans till they get the point: America needs jobs, Social Security and Medicare must be protected, and the rich need to pay their fair share in taxes. These and other messages. You know what you want to say. Let ’em hear it , loud and clear.
The original “Mother Jones” was the labor and community organizer Mary Harris Jones  (1837–1930), born in the beautiful city of Cork, Ireland. She used to advise, “Sit down and read. Educate yourself for the coming conflicts,” and exhorted organizers, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell  for the living.”
Books by David Corn
Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War  (with Michael Isikoff; 2006)
Deep Background  (a novel; 2001)
Blond Ghost: Ted Shackley and the CIA’s Crusades  (1994)