Opinion

The Great Debate

Searching for a real populist

In the American political lexicon, few words are as prevalent — or as confusing — as “populism.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) gets described as a populist because she wants to curb the power of corporations and increase Social Security benefits. So does Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who thinks small businesses are crippled by “an explosion of regulation” and has called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” that should be replaced by individual savings accounts.

Journalists, meanwhile, routinely affix the P word to liberals who want to raise taxes on the rich and to conservatives who claim higher taxes just benefit liberal special interests.

The same word is applied to office-holders whose ideologies are poles apart because populism in the United States is not a philosophical creed, like liberalism or conservatism. It is a mode of persuasion — by which left and right compete in the never-ending battle to define the virtuous many and the immoral few.

Populists on both sides view ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class or occupation; see their elite opponents — “the establishment” — as self-serving and undemocratic, and seek to mobilize the former against the latter. In a nation where the people are supposed to rule, the evolving contest to fill those vague yet emotionally powerful terms with meaning helps explain who gets to govern the nation and for what ends.

Not ‘court-packing,’ GOP’s aim is ‘court-shrinking’

The party that brought you “death panels” and “socialized medicine” has rolled out another term — carefully selected, like the others, for its power to freak people out. “Court-packing” now joins a Republican rogue’s gallery of poll-tested epithets.

Of course, “court-packing” is not a new term, and its menacing overtone is not a recent discovery. “There is a good deal of prejudice against ‘packing the court,’” observed Homer Cummings, the U.S. attorney general, in 1936, on the eve of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s failed attempt to do just that — to tip the Supreme Court’s balance by increasing the number of seats and filling them with New Dealers. Cummings, who sold the idea to FDR, hoped Americans would not be “frightened by a phrase.”

But they were. And today’s GOP is betting they still are. Hence the resort to a term that has no valid application to the matter at hand: President Barack Obama’s determination to fill the three vacant seats on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

What about Social Security’s rollout?

After the nation’s major social program finally became law, critics regularly blamed it for a slowing economy and a swelling federal bureaucracy. Fierce congressional opposition led to the formation of a blue-ribbon panel to overhaul the measure. Obamacare in 2013? Not quite. It was Social Security in 1937.

Meanwhile, after enrollment began for the far-reaching health insurance initiative, administrators wrestled with myriad, unexpected problems. Implementation, according to the man who oversaw the introduction of Medicare in 1965, “took the form of a whole year of consultation with literally hundreds of people in identified areas of concern.”

The tortuous, often controversial implementation of both Medicare and Social Security serves as an early template for the current controversies over the Obamacare rollout. The ultimate success of those social programs ought to calm the overheated atmosphere surrounding the first days of enrollment for the Affordable Care Act.

Vote is referendum on the New Deal

 

We have been told throughout this presidential campaign that the contest is a referendum about two visions of government, one activist, the other passive ‑ like every presidential election since 1980. But that may actually understate the stakes. In a larger context, it is a choice between maintaining the last 80 years of American governance or abruptly ending it.

In fact, this election is really about whether the New Deal and its descendant, the Great Society, will survive or whether they will be dismantled. And that is historic.

What does dismantling the New Deal and Great Society mean? It means converting Medicare from guaranteed medical insurance to a possible privately run system of health procurement. It means Medicaid could be capped, which could strip millions of children of their healthcare. It means scaling back financial regulation. It means poverty programs, like food stamps, may be cut dramatically. It means the Davis-Bacon Act, insuring that workers on government projects receive the prevailing wage, could be revoked. It means the end of subsidies for public transportation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and, of course, the Public Broadcasting System. It even means slashing disaster relief.

A revenue and legalization lesson from FDR

James Saft Great Debate – James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. –

(Correcting name of academic to Peter Reuter on Feb 27)

Want to help fund the bank bailout, ease California’s budget crisis and shore up strained U.S. finances? Legalize drugs, tax the trade and save on interdiction, domestic enforcement and the prison and court system.

I’m only partly joking.

It won’t solve all of the U.S.’s problems and lord knows will cause some new ones, but the money is undeniably big enough to make a dent.

from For the Record:

After the warm glow, telling the cold, hard truths

dean-150Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.

The president was inaugurated in front of adoring crowds and positive reviews in the media. As the unpopular incumbent sat on the platform with him, the new Democratic chief executive took office as the nation faced a crippling economic crisis. The incoming president was a charismatic figure who had run a brilliant campaign and had handled the press with aplomb. The media were ready to give him a break.

That was 1933, and in Franklin Roosevelt’s case, the media gave him a break.

For Barack Obama, the honeymoon was shorter.

Less than 36 hours after Obama took the oath of office, the White House denied news photographers access to the new president’s do-over swearing in, instead releasing official White House photos of the event. Reuters, The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse protested and refused to distribute the official photos (which nevertheless showed up on the websites of a number of large U.S. newspapers).

Transition lessons from FDR

liaquatahamedLiaquat Ahamed is the author of “Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World”, a book about the causes of the Great Depression to be published by Penguin Press in January 2009. After working as an economist at the World Bank, he spent twenty-five years as a professional investment manager in London and New York. The opinions expressed are his own.

The papers have been full of comparisons between the elections of Barack Obama and Franklin Roosevelt. Like FDR, Obama is assuming the presidency in the middle of a financial crisis. Also like FDR, he has been carried to the White House on the back of the public’s repudiation of the policies of the previous administration and a wave of enthusiasm for his promise of change. There is even talk of a new New Deal.

With all these references to Roosevelt in the air and so much speculation about the transition, it seems natural to ask if there are any lessons to be drawn from how FDR handled his transition into office.

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