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Turn Back The Clock

I'm watching a Hillary Clinton speech she gave yesterday in Minnesota, and at one point she was saying something about how George W. Bush doesn't only want to unmake the gains of the Clinton administration, but wants to go back to the past before Franklin Roosevelt and even before Teddy Roosevelt. This Bush-as-McKinley song is something one hears now and again, and if it's effective political rhetoric I'm willing to listen to more of it, but it's pretty massively inaccurate. What they're trying to do doesn't really resemble that at all. Now, as I say, if it works, then it works, and I'll live with it. Senator Clinton's not a historian. I worry, though, that it doesn't work very well and that reliance on this sort of "turn back the clock" rhetoric prevents the development of a new rhetoric that would critique what's really going on here.

Bush's policies have very little to do with laissez-faire (just ask the Cato guys) or any actual moment in the American past. Instead, it has everything to do with corruption and funneling money to friendly corporations and religious groups. It's a kind of christian democrat vision, but more along the lines of tangentopoli than Germany. I think this is important, because it's become obvious that many Democrats now have high hopes that the investigations into Tom DeLay's dealings will provide a major political payoff. It's my opinion that it only will if Democrats manage to actually tie this stuff in to a broader critique of Republican policies. They're not free marketers who happen to take bribes on occassion. The policymaking is fully continuous with the corruption.

April 10, 2005 | Permalink


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Tracked on Apr 11, 2005 4:52:14 PM


"it has everything to do with corruption and funneling money to friendly corporations and religious groups"

And Matthew Yglesias diddles little boys!

See, it's so easy to just make shit up.

Posted by: am | Apr 10, 2005 7:19:40 PM

What is unique about modern day Republicanism is that it seems to consist of auctioning looting rights to the Federal treasury to the highest bidders. That is something McKinley, Roosevelt, and Wilson could not have comprehended.

Posted by: Bob H | Apr 10, 2005 7:21:55 PM

And it's good to see Matthew admit that he's OK with Clinton saying things which Matthew knows to be false as long as it's politically effective.

What would he say if he caught a Republican doing that?

Posted by: am | Apr 10, 2005 7:24:04 PM

"This Bush-as-McKinley song is something one hears now and again, and if it's effective political rhetoric I'm willing to listen to more of it, but it's pretty massively inaccurate."

It's not inaccurate if you think about the thematics folks are trying to get across with that rhetoric. Namely...

- Bush is pro-big business, not pro-worker.
- Bush is creating a new gilded age.
- Bush is anti-reform.

Hillary's speech was pitch-perfect as written. Now if she just had better gifts for delivery.

And speaking of delivery, Johnny Sunshine is coming up...

Posted by: Petey | Apr 10, 2005 7:26:57 PM

Shorter Petey:

Political rhetoric is not about teaching the details of history. It's about painting a broad brush picture of political direction.

Posted by: Petey | Apr 10, 2005 7:30:00 PM

unless "l'aissez faire" refers to something in American history I don't know about, did you mean to say "laissez-faire" ('let things be' in french)? As far as I know, l'aissez doesn't mean anything in French except for "the aissez"....

Posted by: brian | Apr 10, 2005 7:37:13 PM

right, right, l'aissez faire.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Apr 10, 2005 7:38:19 PM

no -- shit -- I really, really can't spell. It should be laissez-faire. That's what I meant. I'll change it.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Apr 10, 2005 7:38:56 PM

Brian, spelling nitpicks are pretty fucking weak. Everyone knew what the hell Matt meant, so stop being a pedantic dick.

Posted by: Hank Scorpio | Apr 10, 2005 7:42:17 PM

I don't think MY likes the people in power very much. I also suspect he has been around real idealists of good intent tho perhaps wrong beliefs, like Wilkinson & Sanchez. Guys like that, besides being young, may be rare.

Lives in the sausage factory, also. Most politics is interest politics, and corrupt. Most ideologies are rationalizations. Most rhetoric is bullshit. Many commenters are insufferably patronizing and condescending.

"They're not free marketers who happen to take bribes on occassion. The policymaking is fully continuous with the corruption."

Hard to campaign that way. Hilary by connecting the corruption to a mistaken ideology is taking the better path. They are just people, Frist & Bush & DeLay & Cheney. They are not Martians. Most of us would rather believe we can be mistaken than utterly corrupt. Whichever is actually the case.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Apr 10, 2005 7:43:08 PM

What Clinton reforms is Bush trying to undo? What did Clinton even do that could be undone? He increased taxes a bit and Bush lowered them, but that has very little to do with the theme of rolling back the federal government to pre-New Deal levels. Welfare reform? That doesn't make any sense either. What are these "gains of the Clinton administration"?

BTW, I don't mean this as a criticism of Clinton. Or at least not a criticism of Bill Clinton. He didn't really do anything substantial during his administration, but that's exactly why I like him.

Posted by: Xavier | Apr 10, 2005 7:51:25 PM


err, I was just trying to help, and I would assume that Matt appreciates it. just trying to contribute to the old "self-correcting"

blogosphere. i didn't spend 7 years (concluding in 2 weeks) studying French to miss an opportunity to be an asshole (as if studying French didn't make me asshole enough).

Posted by: brian | Apr 10, 2005 7:55:58 PM

It is funny how often radicals say up front exactly what they are going to do, and even while they are doing it no one believes them. Bush is executing Norquist's agenda step by step to a T. The only confusing issue is that Cheney is using the opportunity to grab some oil and line some corporate pockets, but that is peripheral. Dismanteling federal government, either directly or by running up so much debt it is unsustainable, is the order of the day. And they seem to be doing quite nicely.


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Apr 10, 2005 8:07:14 PM

I'm a historian Matt, and I'm afraid you misunderstand the Gilded Age, which was hardly defined by laissez-faire alone.

Distributional politics was the order of the day-- pensions for Civil War veterans, tariffs for workers and manufacturers, the Gold standard for bankers, government jobs for party workers, and 223 million acres of free land for railroad corporations, including one-fifth of the states of MN and WA. The GOP also began advocating an overtly imperial foreign policy, dictated in large part by powerful corporate interests, but carefully justified with idealistic rhetoric. Sound familiar.

It's true that the courts barred most protective and regulatory legislation. But they also happily ratified de jure segregation and disfranchisement, not to mention a wide array of restrictions on personal freedom, including censorship of the mails and restrictions on birth control and abortion. Again, the worst elements of the GOP embrace all these goals (save perhaps legal segregation).

Posted by: AWC | Apr 10, 2005 8:11:15 PM

"What are these "gains of the Clinton administration"?"

I don't know; Maybe he's pissed that Bush isn't as determined to harrass gun owners? I know that bothers some Democrats.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Apr 10, 2005 8:26:16 PM

Sorry Brian, I just grew up on Usenet, where spell-flaming was usually the hallmark of a bully.

Posted by: Hank Scorpio | Apr 10, 2005 8:54:36 PM

Matt, what makes you think that the age of "laissez-faire" was any less corrupt than what we are seeing now? Or any age in which business, exclusively, makes the rules?

I see AWC has said the same thing above, but more professionally.

Posted by: larry birnbaum | Apr 10, 2005 8:54:39 PM

"What are these "gains of the Clinton administration"?"

- Fiscal sanity
- Growth in real incomes at the bottom of the economic ladder for the first time in a generation
- Dramatically lower crime rate
- Improved national economic competitiveness

And did I mention

- Fiscal sanity

Posted by: Petey | Apr 10, 2005 8:54:59 PM

Bush has long been bent on taking a big chunk of social-security revenue and putting it into the stock market. And the big chunk may be only a first step to destroying social security as we know it and supplanting it with a regressive forced-saving scheme that puts lower-income folks at risk and enriches capitalists. The forced-saving aspect may not have been around before 1935, but the little guy in the lurch was.

Posted by: BushBasher | Apr 10, 2005 8:55:45 PM

I'm not a historian, but my impression of the Gilded Age is much like AWC's. Rampant political patronage, huge giveaways of land to railroad interests, the state's power enabling the railroad's extortion of disorganized farmers in the midwest and west, corrupt giveaways of various natural resources (gold, etc) to the powers that wuz (anyone been watching Deadwood lately?)--the state not just tolerating, but actively enabling the massive concentrations of wealth in the hands of a few, etc.

Teddy Roosevelt did two things: first, he stopped the state's direct support to the olgiopoly, and then second, he decided that competition was good for America, and set up the antitrust and pro-competitive laws that constrain the more-or-less natural tendency of unfettered capitalism to concentrate power in the hands of a few.

My point is more limited than AWC's, but it's much the same--the late 1800's/early 1900's were NOT an era of laissez-faire; quite the contrary, they were a study of how a corrupt government's utter lack of objective policymaking led it to simply align itself with various interests and support their short-term political aims.

It's hard sometimes to see the difference, because laissez faire is such a poorly defined theory (and deliberately so), but in laissez faire, the government is still on the side of the common good; they've just decided to remove themselves from the action because, as a policy matter, they think it will lead to the best outcome. Wrong, but at least it's a theory. But in a corrupt system, which most "no, no, it's just laissez faire in action" arguments are usually defending, the state is on the side of the most powerful interest and setting policy according to how it helps that interest. Such was the Gilded Age, and such is today. I just hope we can pull ourselves out of it again.

Posted by: theorajones | Apr 10, 2005 9:06:27 PM

I was going to give a sidebar on US history and the Gilded Age when the trusts bought and sold legislators like so much cattle, but AWC covered this ground well. Good job.

And don't overlook the shennanigans under U.S. Grant. After all, there's nothing quite so fun as trying to corner the gold market, or hire a gang of thugs and steal and entire railroad.

Ah. Those were the days! When watering stock had nothing to do with the cattle industry.

Posted by: bobbyp | Apr 10, 2005 9:13:07 PM

Well, Brett and Xavier, the very real gains that we had under Clinton and lost under Bush are (1) a surplus which has now once again been replaced by a Crab Nebula-sized deficit; and (2) a simultaneous significant tax hike on the wealthy, which (contrary to the apocalyptic thunderings of the GOP Right at the time) did nothing to harm the growth of the economy.

As for AM's complaint that Yglesias is "OK with Mrs. Clinton saying things which Matthew knows to be false as long as it's politically effective": lest we forget, what Yglesias actually said is that Bush is MORE dishonest than McKinley & Co., who did at least oppose running up a huge debt and leaving their successors to clean up the mess (although in every other respect the Gilded Age politicoes were as crooked as Bush, as a brief glance at the Grant Administration will make clear). The rightists on this thread might therefore be advised to quit while they're behind in attacking Matt.

And as for Bellmore's wailings about "harassing gun owners": I presume this includes asking for background checks during sales at gun shows, even if one of al-Qaida's briefing papers for its American agents did strongly urge them to take advantage of America's failure to do that.

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw | Apr 10, 2005 9:15:12 PM

I think there are two themes that can be worked here, one of which has more popular sizzle.

One is "crony capitalism," which was blamed (in large part correctly, IMHO) for the Asian fin de siecle financial/economic crises. (Please, no flaming about accents; it's not the French, it's the HTML.) The Bushniks are indistinguishable from the crooked Asian oligarchs who systematically crippled their economies in order to provde short-term economic windfalls to their buddies. Think "Halliburton" and "ANWR."

The other -- which gets at AWC's comment -- is that the Bush people really have given up all pretense of "good government," which is a recent, but (IMHO again) salutary phenomenon. Instead, they are practicing "spoils system" government, which is age-old, and in our country produced such fantastic flamouts of corruption as the Grant administration and the Teapot Dome scandal. ("Why, my goodness, those were both Republican administrations...!")

You can't trust Republicans with money.

Posted by: bleh | Apr 10, 2005 9:17:20 PM

Oh, boy, not the imaginary "gun show loophole." I know it's not the point of this thread, but I must correct Mr. Moomaw. There is no such thing as a "gun show loophole." If you buy a gun at a gun show, the regulations are exactly the same as if you buy it anywhere else. You have to undergo a background check, if you're buying from a licensed gun dealer. If you're buying from a person who is not a licensed gun dealer, whether it's your neighbor or a guy you just met at a gun show, then there's no background check.

I suppose you could try to "close" this "loophole" by requiring background checks on all sales at gun shows, but then you have to define what a "gun show" is. Presumably, the firearms enthusiasts -- excuse me, gun nuts -- would start calling their gatherings "comic book conventions," or, better yet, "2nd Amendment Conferences." Good luck justifying a different set of rules because of the political views of the people holding the event.

The other thing you could do is require a background check for every gun sale. The problem with that it is, it's fucking stupid. If I have a couple of guns and my neighbor wants to buy one, why should I have to run a background check? How the hell would I even do it, unless everyone in the country has access to the database? And, last but not least, how would you ever get this through, politically?

Posted by: Steve | Apr 10, 2005 9:45:46 PM

Isn't the last point actually the least? Given this isn't a high-level policy setting conference, but instead a bunch of people talking on the interwebs, it seems to me that the objection of it being politically unpalatable is far and way the least.

Posted by: washerdreyer | Apr 10, 2005 10:07:59 PM

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