Welcome to the Power Grab: Politics in the Age of the Bailout Queen

Like so many things in this world, it started with Frank Luntz. The canny Republican strategist warned his conservative allies in the Spring of 2009 that, contrary to the conventional wisdom among many in the Beltway, the idea of reforming healthcare was actually popular with the public. Anyone who has wrestled with an insurance company over their coverage knows that the system could be better than it is. The trick for the GOP, Luntz said, would be to acknowledge that there is a problem, but cast the Democrats’ reform effort as a “government takeover.”

Everything from the “missile gap” to “flip flops” has taught us that a phrase will stick if you repeat it often enough. And the language of “takeover” has literally taken over the debate, such that many Americans adamantly believe that the recent healthcare reform law was an aggressive takeover of the healthcare industry, despite the fact that it leaves the private insurance system completely intact and offers no new government insurance (or “public option”) . The Democratic Congress is tossing the working poor some subsidies to buy insurance from CIGNA, but you would think Castro had just nationalized the Mayo Clinic the way some people talk.

Suddenly, every other liberal policy is a “takeover” or “power grab.” Writing for the hard-right New American, Charles Scaliger condemned Democratic efforts to regulate Wall Street as the “latest Washington power grab.” Glenn Beck says that Obama’s climate change bill is a “global power grab.” Even net neutrality has been characterized as a “government takeover of the Internet” by Rep. John Boehner.

Why has the rhetoric of “takeover” stuck so well? Republican chicanery is not a force with its own magic power, although it feels that way sometimes. There must be something that makes this phrase make sense.

As Luntz himself would tell you – and I think liberal linguist George Lakoff might agree – it’s not what you say, but what people hear. “Takeover” resonates with some Americans, first and foremost, because of a long and hallowed tradition of suspicion toward state power (which gave us things like the free press and separation of church and state once upon a time) and Pavlovian hatred of anything dubbed socialism. These are baseline assumptions that have hobbled nearly every liberal effort to implement government programs to help the public, including the now-sacred cows of Social Security and Medicare.

But kneejerk resistance to government programs itself cannot explain why a rather moderate healthcare reform package, many parts of which had once been supported by Republicans, was so easily labeled a “government takeover.”

The answer lies both in the political and financial fiascos of 2008 and in the deeper wells of conservative thought. First, consider the bailouts. I recall thinking that the $800 billion rescue of the banks was George Bush’s final masterstroke of willful misrule, ensuring that the incoming Democratic administration would have its fiscal hands tied and the room to maneuver on healthcare would be decisively closed.

The actual impact has been more ideological and thematic than economic, in fact. The bailouts of Wall Street and Detroit set the template for mass resentment of both the government and those who benefited. We have already seen the shocking degree to which blue-collar auto workers have been villainized by the media, which portrayed them as pigs at the trough for having the decent wages and benefits that allowed so many Americans to attain a middle class life – a standard of living that was won through hard work, negotiation and struggle.

The problem is not that most Americans hate autoworkers, though some in the Establishment undoubtedly do. The problem is that so many people in this country have been fighting to survive in the last few years, but only certain groups seemed to be getting help from the government. Like the welfare mothers of yore, whose benefits really made up a small percentage of the federal budget, autoworkers make nice targets for demagogues seeking to focus the attention of a fed up public that was looking for someone to blame.

For conservatives, the more important factor here is government intervention in the economy – a real issue, though one that has been mischaracterized by many pundits and politicians. The antistatist bent of American politics has often forced policymakers to accomplish their goals, like subsidizing middle class homeownership or providing access to student loans, through indirect means. Money is still flowing and the government is still very active in our lives, but we don’t notice because the policy works through tax breaks, subsidies, and other gimmicks.

For this reason, a tax break for Goldman Sachs would not amount to a government takeover, but a direct transfer of funds is – especially when the federal government ends up saddled with stock in banks and car companies of severely diminished value. Liberals have been quick to point out that the government is actually making much of this money back – that the deal is not so raw in the long run – but these details fail to counteract the much more powerful image of sneaky politicians shoving bags of money at the rich and well-connected friends.

Thanks to the 2008 crash, the idea of government “taking over” the banks, and then the car companies, was quite plausible for many people. As a result, Republicans had little difficulty describing any effort to regulate healthcare as the “next takeover.”

This brings us to the second, and ultimately far more important, dimension of the problem. It has to do with a difference in the way liberals and conservatives think about politics. In his 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank argued that “family values” conservatives had managed to channel the anger of voters over an unfair economy into crusades for various moral causes, ranging from abortion to Terri Schiavo. The strategy worked out well for Republicans, since the battle against evolution kept voters coming to the polls and enabled the GOP to pass its true agenda of tax cuts and deregulation. Just as Osama Bin Laden might make a better campaign prop uncaught than caught, the problem of abortion might be, for Republicans, more useful unsolved than “solved.”

This bait-and-switch theory is shrewd, but it misses some of the picture. Fox News plays on a pervasive paranoia and distrust of big institutions – at first government, and later the liberal media – to say, “You can’t trust anyone, but you can trust us.” And, in a sense, they play on the same impulses as left-wing critics who say that the media and the political system are rigged, corrupt, and propagandistic. The left, however, sees a self-serving corporate slant, while people on the right tend to identify the enemy as power-hungry elites in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington.

Progressives are often inclined to view social issues through an economic lens, while conservatives seem to have a different sense of what constitutes the “political.” Much of the Limbaugh/Fox critique of liberalism is that snooty professors, government bureaucrats, and preachy Hollywood stars crave power — they want to tell us what to do and how to run our lives. Fur is murder, turn down your thermostat, inflate your tires, guns are bad, and so on and so forth. Why else would Obama and Pelosi would be so determined to “take over” healthcare, the auto industry, and the financial sector? They seek power for its own sake – the liberal as know-it-all control freak.

In contrast, I think liberals tend to view power as being a means to an end – the end usually being money. Rupert Murdoch wants taxes and deregulation, so he uses his newspapers and networks to support the Thatchers and Bushes of the world. It does bear noting that conservatives also see economic motives – for example, in the interest of unions and minorities who seek handouts from the government by voting blue, as well as the perception that Democrats are bailing out their venal friends on Wall Street. Obama got more contributions from members of the financial industry in 2008 than McCain, after all.

As always, liberals have their work cut out for them if they want to sell a skeptical public on the idea that government can do any good at all. Its good works, like Medicare, have often been obscured or misunderstood, while its awesome failures are too numerous to ignore – the misguided crusade in Iraq, the Katrina fiasco, the nation’s collapsing infrastructure, and so on and on.

Now, thanks to the misdeeds of the bankers and their shills on Capitol Hill, we have a whole new problem to confront – that bailouts have poisoned the well of public opinion toward government, and Americans fear more bailout-style socialism is on the way.

This fear may be not be very well founded, but it does little good to laugh off the concerns and anxieties of our fellow citizens. When Obama tells the Tea Partiers that they should be thanking him for lowering taxes, it comes off as smug. More importantly, it seems counterintuitive to people who have seen their property taxes and sales taxes go through the roof as desperate state governments attempt to stave off financial collapse. Democrats have to find a way to counteract the Republican tactic of pitching every policy as a “takeover,” or the next government takeover will be Sarah Palin’s.

Alex Sayf Cummings