FIGHTING WORDS (“PAUL RYAN MOVED MY BROCCOLI” EDITION)

Paul Waldman: “…Politicians are allowed to say pretty much anything they want about their policies, no matter how dishonest, without reporters ever saying, “Hey, this guy’s lying over and over again about his policy proposals. What does that say about him? Is it possible he’s, you know, a liar?” But if that same politician should claim to have been first in his high school class, when he was actually third, the reporters will immediately say it “raises questions” about just what kind of guy he is.”

Tim Fernholz: “What that says to me is that the rich get steak, and the poor probably don’t get to eat at all for a few days. People complain about Bai’s failure to use research in his work, but letting Bush describe the plan that way without, apparently, checking into the numbers at all is a bit of professional malpractice.”

Jonathan Chait: “Getting a free pass time and time again because everybody knows your heart is in the right place is the sign of a man who has been fully embraced by the establishment.”

Matt Yglesias: “It seems to me that the 90 percent of members of congress who don’t claim to have a 70-year budget plan are the honest ones. For one thing, they’re not lying!”

Advertisements

PIN THE TAIL ON THE ELITE

There’s a lot that could be said about Matt Bai’s NYT Mag profile of Mark Warner, which unsurprisingly says as much about Bai as about Warner. Bai’s faith in the conservatism of the average American, and the culpability of the uber-rich liberals in wrecking the Democrats’ appeal, will be familiar to anyone who read his chiding critique of Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s book for considering structural obstacles to Democratic resurgence when the problem was obviously those liberal Hollywood celebrities and crazed bloggers stopping the party from offering Americans what they actually want. What struck me most on reading the article was the way that Bai’s choice of anecdotes reinforces his narrative – which may also be a reflection of Warner sharing anecdotes that reinforce a similar one.

Bai notes Warner’s plans to reform Medicare and his “embrace of free trade,” as things which will antagonize that infernal liberal elite, even though, as his readers may recall from the 2004 election, the party’s coterie of fund-raisers and policy wonks and strategists and spin-meisters are not known for their support for including labor standards in trade agreements. Warner’s belief that eroding entitlements in the solution to global competition seems more likely to put him on a collision course with the low-income voters who depend on our social insurance net and who’ve borne the burden of neoliberal trade policy. But there’s no gesture towards such a confrontation in Bai’s piece; instead we get an anecdote about his being hectored by elitist liberals at a Bay Area dinner party:

Warner thought his liberal guests would be interested in his policies to improve Virginia schools and raise the standard of living in rural areas; instead, it seemed to him, they thought that they understood poverty and race in an intellectual way that he, as a red-state governor, could not…as some of the guests walked Warner to his car, one woman vowed to educate him on abortion rights. That was all he could take. “This is why America hates Democrats,” a frustrated Warner blurted out before driving away. (Still piqued a month later, Warner, speaking to The Los Angeles Times, summarized the attitude of the assembled guests about their plans to save the country: “You little Virginia Democrat, how can you understand the great opportunities we have?”)

To read this story, and Bai’s article, you would think the only people to the left of Mark Warner are Bay Area elitists with cash left over from their brie purchases to distort the primary process. Of course, Matt Bai isn’t the only elite journalist committed to a vision in which his self-styled centrism is the will of the masses and those to his left are an insular elite. Michael Crowley, in a TNR piece on the tensions between Steny Hoyer’s more TNR-friendly war position and Nancy Pelosi’s, chose to describe Pelosi’s inner circle this way:

In addition to her top confidant, the combative Miller, others with Pelosi’s ear include Rosa DeLauro of New Haven; Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto; and Jan Schakowsky, a fiery crusader from Chicago’s upscale Lakefront area. All are critical of the war.

Now I’ve had the pleasure over the past four years of discovering all kinds of things for which New Haven should be nationally known. But it isn’t. Probably, as many TNR readers recognize Lakefront as New Haven. So Crowley could as helpfully written about “Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto, Jan Schakowsky of Lakefront, and Rosa DeLauro, whose New Haven, CT district represents a largely low-income constituency.” I’m curious why he decided instead to specify how “upscale” Lakefront is. But maybe that just makes me part of the reason people hate Democrats.

The New York Times Magazine gives all-too rare front-page coverage to Andy Stern’s push to reform the AFL-CIO:

”Our movement is going out of existence, and yet too many labor leaders go and shake their heads and say they’ll do something, and then they go back and do the same thing the next day,” Stern told me recently. He is a lean, compact man with thinning white hair, and when he reclines in the purple chair in his Washington office and crosses one leg over the other, he could easily pass for a psychiatrist or a math professor. He added, ”I don’t have a lot of time to mince words, because I don’t think workers in our country have a lot of time left if we don’t change.”

A week after the election in November, Stern delivered a proposal to the A.F.L.-C.I.O. that sounded more like an ultimatum. He demanded that the federation, the umbrella organization of the labor movement, embrace a top-to-bottom reform, beginning with a plan to merge its 58 unions into 20, for the purpose of consolidating power. If the other bosses wouldn’t budge, Stern threatened to take his 1.8 million members and bolt the federation — effectively blowing up the A.F.L.-C.I.O. on the eve of its 50th anniversary. Stern’s critics say all of this is simply an excuse to grab power. ”What Andy’s doing now with his compadres is what Vladimir Putin is trying to do to the former Communist bloc countries,” says Tom Buffenbarger, president of the union that represents machinists and aerospace workers. ”He’s trying to implement dictatorial rule.” Stern says he is done caring what the other bosses think. ”If I don’t have the courage to do what my members put me here to do, then how do I ask a janitor or a child-care worker to go in and see a private-sector employer and say, ‘We want to have a union in this place’?” Stern asks. ”What’s my risk? That some people won’t like me? Their risk is that they lose their jobs.”

Good news is, the Times is highlighting something going on in the labor movement, and in a way that may challenge some of its readers’ conceptions of labor as so 19th-century. Bad news, as Nathan ably argues, is that Matt Bai insists on divorcing Stern from the larger movement he’s part of, framing him instead as a lone brave dissenter from a ubiquitous orthodoxy of inertia. As Nathan writes:

The author repeatedly refers to “union bosses”, the old cliche that tries to compare union leaders to corporate executives. Except a top union leader can’t fire members or force them to go on strike or approve a contract. It’s ultimately a phrase that is used to ignore the crucial difference in the role of workers in unions versus corporations: workers get a vote in a union. Yet nowhere in the piece is any internal life of unions acknowledged. In fact, in a massive piece, other unions’ leaders are mentioned but only one other union official in all of SEIU is mentioned, namely Anna Burger, who is described as Andy Stern’s “political aide”, ignoring her position as a separately elected top official of the union with a quite independent biography. Nowhere mentioned are key local SEIU leaders like Dennis Rivera, head of New York’s 200,000-member SEIU 1199, which is notoriously outside of the national office’s control, or Sal Roselli, leader of California’s nursing local…

Navel-gazing and blaming various union leaders for failures of the union movement is a daily parlour game among union activists. John Sweeney won election as AFL-CIO leader in 1995 centered on exactly such criticisms of business-as-usual in the union leadership. And serious changes were made. New resources were devoted to organizing, AFL-CIO foreign relations were completely remade, and a host of other changes were made. All Andy Stern is arguing is that not enough was done. But he’s continuing an argument that’s decades old, which is why other unions could easily contribute alternative proposals for change. Instead of emphasizing the substance of differences over where the labor movement needs to go, the magazine piece lazily sets up Tom Buffenbarger, leader of the Machinists union, as a stereotypical “old union” resister to change.