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A Tale of Two Cities

1.

San Diego

Journalists in San Diego for the Republican convention circulated their complaints at how dull everything was. It is true that Newt Gingrich deprived us of expected entertainment. The Speaker of the House normally gavels the action along at a convention. Memories of political conventions begin, for many of us older sorts, with Speaker Joe Martin wielding a gavel that looked as big as he was and shouting, “Clear the aisles.” Gingrich was too unpopular to play so prominent a role in San Diego. Like Pat Buchanan, he exercised his power from the periphery. But while Buchanan prowled the edges of the action resentfully, Gingrich discreetly indulged his naturalist’s hobby at the San Diego zoo, his white hair decorating the night, when—as the zoo puts it, advertising late summer hours—“nocturnal animals come out for a night-time prowl.”

No animals were odder in the night than those filling the convention center. Here were millionaires who flew into town in their private jets to hear how miserable Bill Clinton had made their lives. One in five of those delegates makes over a million dollars a year, and another one in five makes over $200,000. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas told her prime-time convention audience on TV that the country had to be rescued from the “business-busting” and “class-baiting” Democrats. Jack Kemp, in his acceptance speech as the vice-presidential nominee, moaned that Bill Clinton’s is “a government that runs our lives, our businesses, our schools.” Earlier, in an address to small-business advocates attending the convention, Kemp said that it takes great courage for a businessman to face up to a government that can “regulate, litigate, and tax away your profits.” Representative John Kasich of Ohio told the convention that “government programs disconnect our souls from one another.” Corporate CEOs nodded in agreement while they worked, at their yacht parties, to knit expensive soul to soul.

Republicans were cowering in fear before a left that does not exist. If there were any kind of left in this country, we would not put up with a situation in which CEOs make 225 times the compensation given to average employees under them, or in which the top 1 percent of the population owns 48 percent of the nation’s financial wealth, while the bottom 80 percent owns only 6 percent.1

Other countries in the industrialized West are more heavily taxed than we are, and the taxes fall more heavily on the rich, since they have a wealth tax as well as an income tax.2 But our pampered class feels that it is taxed to death. No charge was more frequently launched at President Clinton, during the San Diego convention, than that he imposed “the biggest tax increase in American history”—$241 billion over five years. Actually, the greatest increase in history was sponsored by Senator Dole and signed by President Reagan in 1982—$286 billion (allowing for inflation). What’s more, this huge tax increase was followed by five more tax increases in the Reagan administration. San Diego ideologues remember only Reagan’s disastrous first tax cut, and attribute magical results to it; but the deep 1981-1982 recession it brought on had to be fought with a whole series of tax increases, large and small, disguised as “reform” and “equity” and “enhancement” adjustments.3

Republicans acquiesced in Reagan’s tax raises because he cut the percentage paid by the top bracket from 70 percent to 28, shifting the burden to the middle class, in whose name the Republicans now deplore the taxes they imposed. Though Clinton did not produce the middle-class tax cut he promised, he did shift the tax weight back toward the rich. Eighty percent of his supposed “biggest tax raise in history” was taken from those earning over $200,000 a year—which was the real cause of complaint in San Diego. That is why Jack Kemp originally favored a repeal of Clinton’s tax cut rather than the 15 percent across-the-board cut finally adopted by Dole. The flat-tax element in that 15 percent cut works to redistribute the burden from the rich toward the middle class—it gives Steve Forbes only the percentage of loss that his lowliest employee gets. But the effect is indirect, not direct, as it would be in a repeal of Clinton’s higher rates for the rich.

The suffering millionaires of San Diego want even greater exemptions from their trivial outlays for a society that has cosseted them. Capital gains taxes should be cut in half, according to the Republicans’ 1996 platform. This is one part of the platform Dole read and agrees with. Kemp goes along, but reluctantly. He told the small business group in San Diego that he thinks the entire tax on capital gains is unjustifiable and should be repealed tout court.

By the standards of any other society, or of reason itself, the great and growing disparity of wealth in America is a form of successful class warfare waged against the poor and the moderately well-off. But so devoid of a left is this country that even to mention such inequities is branded as “class baiting,” and therefore un-American. We have not had an acceptable rhetoric for expressing social discontent against the rich since President Roosevelt’s mild, meliorist language about “economic royalists” in the depths of the Depression.

America, unlike other industrial countries, has had no real party of the left—not even a labor party (which is at the center of the European political spectrum), much less a serious socialist party. Marxist parties were crippled by the Smith Act prosecutions and other postwar purges (as well as by Khrushchev’s revelations in his 1956 speech), and they are anyway inconceivable in this conservative country. The result is a shadow war in which the “left” is represented on a show like Ted Koppel’s or Jim Lehrer’s by pragmatic post-liberals. Political scientist Theodore Lowi described the absurd situation as it existed earlier in the 1990s:

[Michael] Kinsley refers to himself on his highly rated CNN “Crossfire” as “on the Left” and to his friend Pat Buchanan as “on the Right.” If Kinsley is on the Left, Karl Marx is a monkey’s uncle. Kinsley has been a longtime editor and senior editor of the New Republic, a neoconservative magazine with a good record on civil liberties and a memory trace of support for New Deal domestic policies. He has also been an American editor of the Economist, a brilliant English journal with a distinctive libertarian or free market slant, and a factor at the Washington Monthly, a self-styled “neoliberal” journal whose founders were pushing toward a “New Democratic” party of privatization and deficit reduction even before Bill Clinton joined that position. What Kinsley has done is to contribute to the stigmatization of liberalism by cooperating good-naturedly in the spirit of healthy debate with people who understand exactly what they are doing and are cynically exploiting Kinsley’s naïveté. People like Buchanan, genuinely “on the Right,” operate in an entirely different dimension, not merely a few steps to the Right of Mr. Kinsley’s Left. And they know it. They are through the looking glass, where people like Kinsley appear either as comic figures or just plain fools.4

To complete this farce, Republicans at San Diego presented themselves as carrying on a debate between “the left” and “the right” in their own party. James Pinkerton—the famous aide to Lee Atwater who brought Willie Horton to Atwater’s attention—wrote a newspaper account of the way he presided over a debate in San Diego, he in the center, an anti-abortionist on the right, and a Log Cabin Republican on the left. The left here is defined as any openly gay person masochistic enough to belong to a party whose platform vilifies him or her. The right is the doomsday religious contingent that would placate God by a war against killing babies, loving within one’s own gender, or clasting icons (burning flags). Call them the millennialists. That leaves the millionaires as the “center”—a center dragged far to the right by these same religious activists.

The mutual need of the money people and the morality people can be seen in the dance they did around two documents. The Contract with America was a text which made no mention of abortion, homosexuality, flag incineration, or prayer in school—yet Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition supported it as if its ten items had been traced on stone by God’s finger instead of Newt Gingrich’s. The millionaires and their adherents repaid the favor in San Diego by letting the theologians construct their party’s platform, which was an executioner’s platform for gays, abortionists, and flag burners.

No wonder James Pinkerton rejoiced at the party’s success in keeping these dynamics off the televised convention proceedings, keeping (as he put it) “the sharp ideological points of view muscled off the screen.”5 The result was a parade of “moderates” produced for public consumption, while the religious right, which wrote the party’s platform, was urged not to boo such figures as Governor Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, a woman so clearly of the hunt country social set that she practically neighs, or Representative Susan Molinari, an exuberant ethnic whose principal credentials were her kittenish moue and a baby swiveled continually toward the nearest camera lens. These were the “leftist” forces the party felt nervous about exposing to its own loyalists’ contempt. The fears were well grounded. Conservative writer Laura Ingraham, a former law clerk to Clarence Thomas, mocked the lineup of Whitman and Molinari and Hutchison as a “ladies night” capitulation to feminists.6

Women were certainly more prominent on the podium of the San Diego convention than on the floor. Half of the country’s population, women, made up only a third of the Republican delegates. Blacks, who make up 12 percent of the population, were only 2.6 percent of the Republican delegates at this convention—though they had twice that number at the supposedly less representative Houston convention of 1992.7 Black faces—often of cute kids—came and went on the podium, supplemented by Hispanic and Native American bit players, or people gamely recovering from rape or welfare or illness. To prove they are a caring party, the Republicans created a Lourdes scene, filled with ex votos offered to the miraculous curing powers of the marketplace.

Meanwhile, Pat Buchanan, the candidate who received the most votes after Bob Dole, was denied access to the podium. The Republicans have spent four years claiming they are a more open party than the Democrats because the latter did not let former Governor Bob Casey of Pennsylvania speak out against abortion at their 1992 convention. But Casey a) was not a candidate who had won a significant bloc of votes, b) had not mustered support for his position at the platform hearings, and c) had not endorsed the party’s candidate. Buchanan did all those things and still was excluded. He had to be, since the wild outburst for him would have revealed where the real sentiment in the gathering lay.

  1. 1

    Edward N. Wolff, Top Heavy: The Increasing Inequality of Wealth in America and What Can Be Done About It, an expanded edition of a Twentieth Century Fund report (New Press, 1996), p. 11. Ranked by another category (household wealth), the top 1 percent of the population owned 39 percent of the country’s wealth in 1989, as opposed to 26 percent for the top 1 percent of people in France (1986), 25 percent in Canada (1984), 18 percent in Great Britain (1986), 16 percent in Sweden (1986). See Edward N. Wolff, “How the Pie is Sliced: America’s Growing Concentration of Wealth,” in Ticking Time Bombs: The New Conservative Assaults on Democracy, edited by Robert L. Kuttner (New Press, 1996), p. 76.

  2. 2

    America has the lowest tax rate of any government in the G-7 group, roughly 15 percent below the median government (Germany). See Michael Moynihan, The Coming American Renaissance: How to Benefit from America’s Economic Resurgence (Simon and Schuster, 1996), pp. 60-61.

  3. 3

    Richard Darman recounts the Reagan administration’s long effort to raise taxes in stealthy ways in order to repair the damage done by the “supply side” tax cut of Reagan’s first term. Darman, Who’s in Control? Polar Politics and the Sensible Center (Simon and Schuster, 1996), pp. 72-119.

  4. 4

    Theodore J. Lowi, The End of the Republican Era (University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), p. 225.

  5. 5

    James Pinkerton, “Dole to Win on Common Ground,” Los Angeles Times, August 16, 1996, p. B9.

  6. 6

    Laura Ingraham, “How the ‘Gender Gap’ Is Driving Dole Girl Crazy,” The Washington Post, August 4, 1996, pp. C1, C3. Ingraham attacks Dole for addressing “issues that most women outside elite universities do not care about.” She neglects the fact that Dole is forced to compensate for a stand on abortion, foisted on him by the likes of Laura Ingraham, that women outside universities clearly do care about.

  7. 7

    Figures for women from a New York Times/CBS poll of delegates, for blacks from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, reported in Kevin Merida, “Image of Inclusion Doesn’t Tell Party’s Whole Story on Race,” The Washington Post, August 15, 1996, pp. A21, A26.

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