Bush, Kerry and Empire

As one who regards Gerry Ford as our greatest president (least time served, least damage done, husband of Betty, plus Stevens as his contribution to the Supreme Court) I’d always imagined the man from Grand Rapids would never be surpassed in sheer slowness of thought. When a reporter asked Ford a question it was like watching that great sequence in Rossellini’s film about Louis XIV, when a shouted command is relayed at a stately pace through a dozen intermediaries from the kitchen to the royal ear. In Ford’s case, to watch a message negotiate the neural path from ear to cortex was to see a hippo wade through glue.

But I think Bush has Ford beat. Had he ever made a mistake, the reporter asked at that White House press conference last Tuesday. The president’s face remained composed, masking the turmoil and terror raging within, as his cerebellum went into gridlock. It should have been easy for him. Broad avenues of homely humility beckoned him on. “John, no man can stand before his Creator as I do each day and say he is without error…” Reagan would have hit the ball out of the park. But the President froze. He said he’d have to think it over.

Indeed, accounts of Bush’s comportment by former associates such as Paul O’Neill suggest a Ford-like core to the man, of tranquil inertness, penetrated in Ford’s case by the evil counsels of Kissinger, and in Bush’s by the advisories of all his malign viziers. Why bother impeaching Bush, as Nader is now wasting our time urging? Leave Bush alone. Impeach Scalia and indict Cheney, two realistic and useful political objectives.

Behind the liberal hysteria over Bush, as a demon of monstrous, Hitlerian proportions, I get the sense of a certain embarrassment, that the man is bringing the imperial office into embarrassment and disrepute. Hence all the plaintive invocations of the distress of “America’s allies”, hopefully to be cured by a competent rationalizer of the empire’s affairs, like John Kerry. But should not all opponents of the American Empire’s global reach rejoice that but would not the world be a safer and conceivably a better place if the allies saw separate paths as the sounder option? Gabriel Kolko, that great historian of American empire, has been arguing powerfully (most recently in our CounterPunch newsletter) to this effect and I agree with him.

With leadership of barely conceivable arrogance and incompetence (Bremer alone is a case study in the decline in quality of such American leaders in the past 50 years) the US has managed the amazing feat of uniting Iraqis in detestation of their presence, and of leaving itself with zero palatable options. Amid this bloody disaster, with popular distaste for the occupation of Iraq swelling up in the polls Kerry, with McCain at his elbow, has been goading Bush into sending more troops. As a prospective supervisor of empire, Kerry sends forth the word that the Democrats are the Second Party of War.

Given Nader’s aversion to a strident stance on a straight anti-war platform, it looks as though the only decent option is Harry Browne of the Libertarians. Kucinich? As he himself recently put it, he’s a “tugboat” hauling castaways back into Democratic port in time for the fall regatta. I heard him on NPR the other day, first saying that he was staying in the race to show There Is Another Democratic Path, then refusing the interviewer’s invitation to criticize Kerry.

With hardly a backward glance –or forward look –the bulk of the surviving American left has blithely joined the Democratic Party center, without the will to inflict debate, the influence to inform policy or the leverage to share power. The capitulation of the left –a necessarily catch-all word –is almost without precedent. By accepting the premises and practices of party unity the left has negated the reasons for its own existence.

Let me produce a rabbit from its hat. I wrote that preceding paragraph, the one beginning “with barely a backward glance”, 20 years ago with Andrew Kopkind in a piece we did for The Nation in the summer 1984 about Mondale’s candicacy, where we noted the Democratic Party’s commitment to “the essential elements of Reaganism: continued military expansion… further degradation of the welfare system, denials of black demands for equity; and unqualified submission to the imperatives of the corporate system.”

Any words you think should be changed?

And talking of the imperatives of the corporate system, Kerry announced on April 7 that his primary economic policy initiative would be deficit reduction. Welcome back, Robert Rubin, the man who ran Clinton’s economic policy on behalf of Wall Street. Kerry’s economic advisers, Altman and Sperling, acknowledge they consult with Rubin all the time. If you still foolishly believe that the economy in Clinton-time was properly guided for the long-term benefit of the many, as opposed to short-term bonanzas for the wealthy few, I strongly urge you to read Robert Pollin’s Contours of Descent, which I hailed here last November. In line with that analysis, and after some useful exchanges with Pollin, let me note major problems with the Kerry program.

Deficit reduction will do nothing to directly promote the growth of jobs, the lack of which is now the fundamental problem in the economy. As Pollin remarks, “It is also a political disaster for the Democrats to again latch onto deficit reduction rather than jobs as their major economic theme. The false premise of Rubinomics is that deficit reduction itself promotes economic growth, and thereby jobs, by lowering long-term interest rates. This is what Rubin and company think happened in the 1990s. But they are wrong. What actually happened in the 1990s is that we had an unprecedented stock market bubble. Because of the bubble, rich people and corporations engaged in a huge wave of borrowing and spending that drove the economy upward, only to crash back down when the bubble collapsed.”

Even if Rubin were right about deficit reduction stimulating growth of GDP, what is clear in the current “recovery” is that GDP growth alone does not promote job growth. That is exactly what we mean by the “jobless recovery”. The Democrats should instead be talking about a major jobs program, through refinancing state and local government spending in education, health, and social welfare. Aside from the social benefits from these programs, they also provide the biggest expansion of jobs for a given dollar amount of spending. A million dollars spent on education, Pollin calculates, would produce roughly twice the number of jobs as the same amount spent on the military.

But Kerry’s other shoe, war on the deficit as well as war in Iraq, has a more sinister import. Deficits aren’t intrinsically bad, and the current one is scarcely unparalleled in recent US economic history. But Bush’s deficits, amassed in the cause of tax breaks for the very rich and war abroad, provide the premise of a fiscal crisis to starve social spending. It’s the Greenspan Two Step: endorse the tax cuts, then say, as the Fed chairman did in February, that the consequent deficits require an onslaught on social security. Remember, Bill Clinton was all set to start privatizing social security, until the allurements of the diviner Monica postponed the onslaught.

There are progressive ways to close the deficit. For example, Pollin reckons that if we imposed a very small tax on all financial transactions-i.e. all stock, bond, and derivative trades, starting with a 0.5 percent tax on stocks and scaling the other appropriately – we could raise roughly $100 billion right there, or roughly 20 percent of next year’s projected deficit, even if we also assume financial market trading fell by an implausibly large 50 percent as a result of the tax.

A tax on financial transactions? Now you’re talking, but not about anything you might expect from the Democratic Party or John Kerry.

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Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.