Bill Moyers Journal: Thomas Frank On Obama's Inheritance

Bill Moyers talks to Thomas Frank about whether the Republicans are headed for some victories this coming election due to our collective memory loss a
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Bill Moyers talks to Thomas Frank about whether the Republicans are headed for some victories this coming election due to our collective memory loss about how horrid the Republicans are at governing, sadly enabled by the Democratic leadership which looks clueless as how to counter it all too often. From Moyers' report:

Will Rogers once said, "The short memories of American voters is what keeps our politicians in office." But as Democrats face what many believe will be a tough mid-term election, historian Thomas Frank argues that it might just be the other way around for incumbent Democrats. The Republican Party, which lost Congress and the White House in the last four years, may be poised for a comeback. A comeback Frank believes is only possible because Americans have forgotten what their country looked like under conservative rule, "That's the disease of our time...that sort of instant forgetting."

On BILL MOYERS JOURNAL, Frank looks into the not-so-distant past to describe what America looked like before the time of President Obama, focusing on the last ten years, which he's called "A Low, Dishonest Decade" in a recent column for the WALL STREET JOURNAL. Frank believes that many of the crises that afflicted America during the oughts should be laid at the feet of the conservative movement. Frank's list is long: the inadequate response to Katrina; the Enron, Abramoff and Madoff scandals; the mismanaged Iraqi reconstruction; two mismanaged and unpopular wars; and the 2008 financial disaster. Frank argues that it can all be traced back to an intentional dismantling of the government's oversight infrastructure, driven by a belief that government is always bad: "This is why the wreckage that I've described can't be separated from the conservative ideology and the conservative movement, generally: Because of their hatred of big government and their disdain and contempt for the federal workforce." But according to Frank, the financial disaster has wiped clean Americans' memories. They are mad at the bankers and mad about the economy, and conservatives may ride a wave of populist outrage back into power.

Full transcript below the fold.

BILL MOYERS: How is it that the people who are responsible for the mess that Obama inherited are getting away with demonizing him when he's only had less than a year to clean it up. Let me show you just a sample of commentators railing against the President.

RUSH LIMBAUGH: President Obama and the Democrats are destroying the US economy. They are purposefully doing it, I believe.

GLENN BECK: This is a well-thought out plan to collapse the economy as we know it.

JONATHAN HOENIG: The president has, I think if you listen to what he says, a hatred for capitalism. Where do jobs come from? They don't come from the government, they come from the profit seeking self-interest, from what I hear and see, the President never misses an opportunity to smear and [no audio] slap!

RUSH LIMBAUGH: This guy is a coward. He does not have the gonads or the spine to even stand up and accept what he's doing! All of this is his doing. He cannot even probably say, you should like this -- you may not like this, but I'm telling you it's the best thing for you, it's the best thing for me. No! He knows it's a disaster, he has to slough this off, on his previous-- or his predecessor, the previous administration.

SEAN HANNITY: It's his stimulus. It's his record deficit spending. He quadrupled the debt in a year. You know, how many more are the Democrats going to say, "Well, it's George Bush's fault"? This is Obama's economy now.

BILL MOYERS: What goes through your mind as a historian when you watch that?

THOMAS FRANK: Well, that is America for you. I mean, that is the, sort of the demented logic of our politics. Is that now-- Obama's been President for a year. And he will come before the public in the fall, you know, having to defend all of these terrible things. That's how our politics works in this country.

BILL MOYERS: But you called it demented. I mean, you know, demented means crazy, mad. Mad and crazy enough to cause us to forget the world before Obama?

THOMAS FRANK: I'll give you an example what I mean. So, I was on a radio show the other day with a tea party leader, you know, one of these protest leaders. And he seemed like a good guy. But what he did say that struck me was he said he was really against monopoly, you know? And we're laboring under all these monopolies, all these concentrated powers here in America. And what we need to do is get back to free markets. And then we can do away with that. And it was mind-blowing.

Because if you look back any further than the Obama Administration, since, I mean, 1980 in this country, we have been in the grip of, you know, of this pursuit of ever-purer free markets. That's what American politics has been about. That's what has delivered this, you know, the awful circumstances that we find ourselves in today. And to think that that's what's missing, that's what we need to get back to, is--

BILL MOYERS: That's more than nostalgia. What is that?

THOMAS FRANK: Well, that's the disease of our time. You know, that sort of instant forgetting.

BILL MOYERS: But what does it do to our politics when the very spokesmen for what some people have called a decade of conservative failure. I mean, remember before Obama, they turned a budget surplus into a deficit. They took us to war on fraudulent pretenses. They borrowed money to fight it. They presided over a stalemate in Afghanistan. They trashed the Constitution. They presided over the weakest economy in decades--

THOMAS FRANK: Not weak for everybody.

BILL MOYERS: No, no.

THOMAS FRANK: Some people did really well.

BILL MOYERS: Okay, they compiled the worst track record on jobs in decades. And they ended up with the worst stock market in decades. I mean, it was a decade of conservative failure. And yet, Obama's their villain?

THOMAS FRANK: Think of all the crises and the disasters that you've described. And I would add to them things like the, what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. And the Madoff scandal on Wall Street. And, you know, on and on and on. The Jack Abramoff scandal. The whole sordid career of Tom DeLay.

All of these things that we remember from the last decade. I mean, some of them that we're forgetting. Like who remembers all the scandals over earmarking, anymore? And who remembers all the scandals over Iraq reconstruction? All that, you know, disastrous, when we would hand it off to a private contractor to rebuild Iraq. And it would, you know, of course, it would fail.

Those things have all sort of been dwarfed by the economic disaster and the wreckage on Wall Street. But I would say to you that all of these things that we're describing here are of a piece. And that they all flow from the same ideas. And those ideas are the sort of conservative attitude towards government. And conservative attitudes towards governance. Okay?

BILL MOYERS: That government is a perversion.

THOMAS FRANK: Government is-- yeah, government is a perversion. And to believe that the federal government can be operated, you know, with all of its programs, can be operated well and do things that are good for the people, is, as you say, is a perversion.

And they look at someone like Barack Obama and it makes them seethe. Because that's, you know, that's what he's trying to do. What conservatism in this country is about is government failure. Conservatives talk about government failure all the time, constantly. And conservatives, when they're in power deliver government failure.

BILL MOYERS: Not merely from incompetence, you say, but from ideology, from philosophy, from a view of the world.

THOMAS FRANK: And sometimes from design.

BILL MOYERS: From design? What do you mean?

THOMAS FRANK: Not always from design, but often. The Department of Labor, for example, the conservatives when they in office, routinely stuff the Department of Labor full of ideological cranks. And people that don't believe in the mission.

And the result is that it doesn't-- they don't enforce anything. Towards the very end of the Bush-era, the Department of Labor had been whittled down. It was a shell of its former self. And at the very end of the Bush Administration, one of the government accountability programs did a study of the Department of Labor. And, I'm smiling, because it's kind of amusing. It was like an old spy magazine prank.

They made up these horrendous labor violations around the country and phoned them in as complaints to the Department of Labor to see what they would do, okay? They responded to one out of ten of these, you know, where they called in as like, "Well, we got, you know, kids working in a meat packing plant during school hours. You know, can you, you going to do anything about that?" "No." Or you look at something like the Securities and Exchange Commission. These guys are supposed to be regulating, you know, the investment banks, okay? Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, that sort of thing. These guys were so under-funded, and not just under-funded, but you had people in charge of it who didn't believe in regulating Wall Street.

BILL MOYERS: So, they made the Securities and Exchange Commission a laughing stock, if you will. They really did.

THOMAS FRANK: Right. Well, there's these horrible stories that came out. Once Bush was out, there was a study done of the SEC, as well. These people didn't even have like their own functioning photocopiers, okay? So, we're talking about the lawyers that are supposed to be protecting us from Wall Street. And they have to go stand in line at Kinko's to do their own photocopying. And they're going up against the best paid, you know, best educated lawyers on planet Earth, who represent the investment banks. And they're supposed to be defending us.

BILL MOYERS: The curious thing about this is that you and I and my audience knows that our ancestors believed that capitalism needed to be supervised. But when the conservatives came to power, they begin to muzzle the watchdog.

THOMAS FRANK: Yeah. Well, or you know, do away with it altogether, de-fund it. Look, the beginning in the 1980s, President Reagan came to office and came to power, and you remember the kind of rhetoric that he used to use in denouncing the Federal workforce. He hated the Federal workforce. And this is an article of faith among conservatives.

There's something called the pay gap that they used to talk about a lot in Washington, D.C. Which is, back in the '50s, '60s, and up into the 1970s, Federal workers were paid a comparable amount to what people in the private sector earned. Okay? So, if you're a lawyer working for the government, you got about as much as a lawyer working in the private sector.

Not as much, because government benefits are considered to be much better. Okay. Under Reagan, you had this huge gap open up between Federal workers and the private sector. I asked around. And I found out a government attorney makes $140,000 a year on retirement. After he's been there all his life. In the private sector law firm in Washington, you'd be making $160,000 starting salary. That's first year. Right out of law school.

BILL MOYERS: So what's the consequence of this pay gap you described? Or, do we get inferior government because of it?

THOMAS FRANK: Absolutely. It keeps the best and the brightest out of government service, unless you're really dedicated to a cause.

But let me go one step further with this, Bill. When I say this is done by design, I'm not exaggerating. And this is one of the more surprising things that I found when I was doing the research for "The Wrecking Crew," is that there's a whole conservative literature on why you want second-rate people in government, or third-rate.

I found an interview with the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce from 1928, where he said-- this quote, it's mind-boggling to me. But he really said this. "The best public servant is the worst one." Okay? You want bad people in government. You want to deliberately staff government with second-rate people. Because if you have good people in government, government will work. And then the public will learn to trust government. And then they'll hand over more power to it.

And you don't want that, of course. Your Chamber of Commerce. And I thought, when I first read this, "That's a crazy idea. I can't believe that sentiment." And then I found it repeated again and again and again. Throughout the long history of the conservative movement. This is something they believe very deeply.

BILL MOYERS: It comes out of a definitive way of seeing things, right?

THOMAS FRANK: Yes. And we can summarize that very briefly. That the market is the, you know, is the universal principle of human civilization. And that government is a kind of interloper, if not a, you know, criminal gang. And getting in the way.

BILL MOYERS: But we saw with this collapse and this bailout, we saw the failure of that.

THOMAS FRANK: Of course.

BILL MOYERS: And yet there's no sense of contrition. What's amazing to me, and you wrote this, that the very people who brought us this decade of conservative failures, the party of Palin, Beck, Hannity, Abramoff, Rove, DeLay, Kristol, O'Reilly, just might stage a comeback.

THOMAS FRANK: I think they might. I think there's a very strong chance of that.

BILL MOYERS: After only 11 months out of power, because of the record. I mean--

THOMAS FRANK: Look, well, the stuff--

BILL MOYERS: --it's crazy.

THOMAS FRANK: --the stuff we've been talking about here today. The stuff in "The Wrecking Crew," that's all forgotten. The financial crisis had that effect of-- that stuff is now off the-- down the memory hole

BILL MOYERS: Do you really think they believe that unfettered capitalism, unregulated markets, will deliver an ideal democracy and prosperity for everybody?

THOMAS FRANK: No, I don't. I think that they believe that, and to some degree, they're sincere in that belief. But the conservative movement in Washington, I'm not talking about grassroots voters in Kansas here. I'm talking about the conservative movement in Washington. And the whole constellation of think tanks and lobby shops and not-for-profits. And, you know, newspapers and fundraisers and all of this stuff.

They believe this is an industry, okay? This is an industry that churns out this product. And one of the things that, I mean, it's one of the things that they're doing now is they excommunicate George W. Bush, deeply unpopular, so therefore, not a true conservative, right? So, that way they get to start over fresh. The problem with George W. Bush, the reason we're in such a deep hole is that we never went far enough.

As Tom DeLay has said, in his newspaper column, and I'm paraphrasing here. The problem with conservatism isn't that it was tried and failed. It's that it never really got-- we never really tried it in the first place. So, what we have to do -- and I've heard, conservatives have said this. "What we have to do is go back and deregulate all the way. We have to, you know, slash government. We have to tear that thing down. That's what it's all about."

And the amazing thing about this. This allows them to represent themselves as dissidents against the sort of established order in Washington. Even though they ran the established order for years and years and years and years.

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