At the “heart of this campaign,” Newt Gingrich told his adoring followers in his South Carolina victory speech on Saturday night, is the fundamental choice between “American exceptionalism” and “the radicalism of Saul Alinsky.” America has a choice, he argued, between the vision of the founders and that of radical organizer Saul Alinsky, between a paycheck president and a food stamp president.
For a man of serial corruptions, it is ironic that character assassination is Gingrich’s true craft. Dog-whistle racism — Obama as the “food stamp president” — provided him his initial lift in South Carolina. Few at Gingrich’s victory speech knew who Alinsky was, but they could tell from the name that he was surely unsavory and probably un-American.
But the Gingrich dichotomy is neither original nor unique. It is simply the gutter version of the standard Republican frame for this election. In the more tempered words of Mitt Romney, Obama is accused of trying to transform America from an “Opportunity Society” to a “European-style Entitlement Society.” No matter who wins the nomination, this will be a theme pounded on over the next months.
What’s odd about this frame is that it makes Republicans the defenders of the past. To keep America the “shining city on the hill,” Romney and Gingrich and Rick Santorum agree, requires reaffirming the policies of . . . well . . . of George W. Bush. They would sustain the Bush tax cuts and add further top-end and corporate tax reductions. They would repeal financial reform and health-care reform, return to “drill, baby, drill” energy policies, sustain the military budget and lay waste to the domestic budget that supports everything from schools to clean air to the FBI. And they are busily inflating Iran as a mythical menace as threatening as Iraq was in the run-up to that misbegotten invasion.
Recycling the policies that blew up the economy is possible only because none of the Republican candidates — other than Ron Paul — bothers to offer a theory of what went wrong. The crash was apparently an immaculate conception. The candidates simply blame Obama for the deficits, unemployment, spreading poverty and, yes, rising reliance on food stamps that followed in its wake.
Tuesday night, in his State of the Union address, President Obama will also define the election as a choice — a choice between those who would go back to the policies that drove us off the cliff and those who would build a new foundation for the economy. The administration has made it clear that it plans to warn against the extreme and unsustainable inequality that is corrupting our democracy and has crippled our economy.
The president does this in tempered language, but the case is inescapable. The wealthiest Americans captured essentially all of the rewards of growth over the decade before the collapse. This wasn’t an act of nature. They used their resources to rig the rules — deregulating finance, demanding lower taxes, defending subsidies and privileges, trampling on worker rights. Middle class families worked longer hours, had more jobs, and took on debt to make up for incomes that weren’t keeping up with costs. Wall Street speculators went on a wilding that eventually blew out the economy. The entitlement of the rich is undermining the opportunity of the many.
Romney and Gingrich, the “vulture capitalist” and the lavishly rewarded Washington insider, personify not success,but the corruptions that brought us to where we are, even as they champion the same policies that took us there.
The president should be pleased that his Republican challengers are making the race into a choice rather than just a referendum on the economy. Most Americans will readily agree that returning to the Bush policies doesn’t offer a way out.
Yet it’s not enough to argue that everyone should play by the same set of rules, that the wealthy should pay their fair share. The president’s task is to show how greater fairness — and government action — is essential to getting the economy going in the short term as well as putting it on sound footing for the long run. He could take forceful steps to require the banks to renegotiate underwater mortgages. (Alternatively, if he pushes the state attorneys general to cut a sweetheart deal bailing the banks out of their mortgage frauds, it will sure undermine his credibility.) He’s begun to make that case for a fair-share economy with his jobs bill that would tax the wealthy to pay for investments in infrastructure and provide help for states to protect teachers and police. The Republicans in Congress have made themselves less popular than communism in fighting against the jobs bill.
The Republican primaries are just a preview of what will be an ugly election. Americans are fearful about their economic future and seeking tangible solutions. Instead, voters are being swamped with negative ads from the two campaigns. Republicans offer only more of what created the mess. The president offers positive initiatives, yet they don’t deal with the scale of the problem. That’s why the movement that began in Wisconsin a year ago, occupied Wall Street and spread across the country will continue to grow.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is the author of the book “The Change I Believe In: Fighting for Progress in the Age of Obama.”