WASHINGTON — Politics this past week was like a corny flashback replay of rapper knuckleheads boasting on about “East Coast vs. West Coast.” This week, however, was less about a Biggie/Tupac face-off than it was about competing visions on the roles of government.
Within the span of one week before the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, leaders on both sides of the partisan aisle were staking out their positions on exactly how much or how little government should interact with its citizens — from spending to the provision of services that have become as ubiquitous and all-American as the crack in the Liberty Bell.
On one side was the president, offering up a highly anticipated jobs speech that ended up being the political version of a Braveheart battle scene — Obama playing William Wallace, face plastered with the trademark blue paint of Scottish rebels on the ridge yelling charge. The result was, instead, an uncharacteristically animated moment for the typically professorial commander-in-chief. It became less about the American Jobs Act being introduced and more a philosophical rant on the significance of the government’s role in national progress.
“The question is whether, in the face of an ongoing national crisis, we can stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy,” was a seemingly revived president in jab mode that evening, showing an unusual eagerness to pick a fight with plucky Republicans who had been dismissing the speech before it was even delivered. It was sharp and punchy, starkly different from the subdued mood and head hanging that defined the White House through a heated debt-ceiling summer.
“In fact, this larger notion that the only thing we can do to restore prosperity is just dismantle government, refund everybody’s money, and let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they’re on their own — that’s not who we are. That’s not the story of America.”
In contrast, the Republican debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., may not have disappointed the political junkies itching for a food fight on stage, but it certainly reconfirmed anxiety on the left over a crowded field of presidential aspirants bound by a common theme of diminished government. It was unnervingly surreal and contradictory: watching a crowded, almost rabid field of primary candidates slam government as if it was a disease, yet in a perpetual wrestling match for the biggest government gig of them all.
“It’s an interesting dynamic that you have, watching all these Republican candidates who are anti-government, yet running for the highest office in the land,” observes Jason Johnson, a political science professor at Hiram College and author of the recent “Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell.” “It fascinates me that these guys say government doesn’t create jobs, private sector creates jobs. Yet, they keep bragging about the number of jobs they created when they were governors. That makes no sense.”
The strongest in the anti-government pack is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, outfitted with cheese grin cowboy swagger and boots. Perry has experienced a healthy surge ahead of Romney, suddenly capturing the crown of polling king only a few weeks since he announced his candidacy. For certain, it means that Perry is the primary flavor of the month — barring any unforeseen gaffe, scandal or hand caught in a money or sexual cookie jar. Still, Republicans have been here before — perpetually picking “rock stars” and party quarterbacks, all hyped as the “Next-Biggest-Thing” or the next reincarnation of Ronald Reagan. Sen. Fred Thompson and Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 2008 became celebrity crash-and-burns; so did Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour earlier this year, pulling the plug on a candidacy that had little chance of getting jump-started.
But, Johnson takes exception to that when discussing Perry, calling him “somewhat of a phenomenon” as he personally watched the audience wooing for the longtime Texas politician.
“Perry is, by far, capturing the most passion of all GOP candidates, number one to only Ron Paul,” says Johnson, describing the scene at the Reagan Library.
Nor did Perry disappoint red meat conservative rank and file as he unleashed a furious string of volatile sound bites and catch phrases. At one point, he drew loud, mob-style applause from the audience during a particular high moment as he delivered a near perfect emotional performance on his views about the death penalty.
Media heads were hoping for the drama last night, particularly from Perry, whose own on-the-campaign-trail remarks have provided much ammunition for opposition hacks in the primary and the general looking for the perfect political ad. And he delivered. “Maybe it’s time to have some provocative language in this country,” was Perry at one point, as if there hadn’t been enough provocative language in the past few years of tea party revolutions, ugly midterms and unprecedented political snubbing.
But, questions mounted over Perry’s angle in calling Social Security “a ponzi scheme” and a “monstrous lie” without offering any attempt to suggest fixing it. What was the wisdom in calling climate change science “nonsense” and claiming astronomer “Galileo got outvoted for a spell?”
Going unapologetically scorched earth on topics such as Social Security is a curious move on the part of the Perry camp as it carries risk. Obviously, the GOP’s very reliable and very vote-happy base of senior voters won’t respond kindly to the prospect of a President Perry nixing their Social Security.
Still, one source close to the Perry camp says there is definitely an opening, pointing to polls that show “… nervous seniors even more nervous about their Social Security, but downright angry enough about it to demand that it be fixed.”
“There are old people in the tea party, too.”
Still, the White House moved forward the very next day with a combined $447 billion package much more broad-based than the $300 billion that was leaked in media reports. And despite the home run quality of the Thursday night speech, was it enough to push what amounts to another “stimulus” through a Congress still stuck on deficit reduction?
The true test of the message, of course, will be real world delivery. The White House may be able to push through the $240 billion proposed in payroll tax cuts — but, it’s the remaining amounts in spending that could stump the president’s agenda, including $62 billion in jobs programs and unemployment benefits extension; $35 billion keeping weary teachers, police personnel and firefighters on their jobs; $30 billion in school modernization; $15 billion for home and business rehabilitation; and $62 billion in infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges and other public works. These were the parts of the speech not garnering much applause from Republicans that night.
“It’s a little discouraging that he’s going to at some point give us additional responsibilities when we’re struggling to meet the ones we already have,” said Budget Super Committee member Sen. Robert Portman (R-OH), in a post-mortem ulcer after learning that the president wanted the new deficit reduction panel to find a way to pay for his plan – in addition to finding $1.5 trillion in cuts.
Committee co-member Rep. Xavier Becerra, (D-CA), seemed up to the task despite the heartburn in Congress. “[He] is right to focus the nation’s attention on the biggest deficit we face – the jobs deficit,” Becerra said in a statement. “How can we expect to balance the nation’s checkbook when 14 million Americans are out of work and having a hard time balancing theirs?”