Exclusive: The U.S. news media has been quick to cite the lousy May jobs report as proof that President Obama’s economic stimulus has failed and that Mitt Romney’s odds of winning have improved. But the real winner is the Republican strategy to make the U.S. economy “scream,” writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
The dismal May jobs report underscores the success of the Republicans’ strategy of frustrating President Barack Obama’s economic policies from the second he took office and, in effect, holding the struggling U.S. economy hostage to GOP electoral victories.
Already, pundits are declaring that the anemic increase of only 69,000 jobs in May will help put Mitt Romney in the White House and that may well be true because the mainstream U.S. press is playing the disappointing job numbers as proof of Obama’s “failed” economic policies, rather than a result of persistent Republican sabotage.
It doesn’t seem to matter to American journalists that the evidence of this Republican plot to make the U.S. economy “scream” has been out in the open for the past several years, including author Robert Draper’s report of a destroy-Obama strategy session on the night of Obama’s Inauguration and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s famous vow that the top Republican priority must be ensuring Obama’s defeat.
More than two years ago, on March 31, 2010, I wrote that there was “a method to the Republican ‘madness,’” that “the Republicans are following a playbook that has evolved over more than four decades, to regain power by sabotaging Democratic presidents.
“The Republicans believe they can reclaim the lucrative levers of national authority by making the country as ungovernable as possible while a Democrat is in the White House, essentially holding governance hostage until they are restored to power. Then, the Democrats are expected to behave as a docile opposition ‘for the good of the country’ (and usually do).”
The mainstream U.S. press aids and abets this GOP strategy by downplaying or ignoring what the Republicans are up to. So, rather than hold Republicans to account for their sabotage of Obama’s efforts to repair the broken economy left by President George W. Bush, the mainstream U.S. media follows the GOP narrative that Obama is to blame for the sputtering job creation.
Similarly, in 2009, the news media bought into the GOP narrative that Obama was at fault for the “failure” to end partisan bickering in Washington, though it was clearly the Republicans who were escalating those partisan wars with attacks on pretty much whatever Obama did. They even attacked him when he urged American school children to study hard.
The press blamed Obama for the bickering despite the evidence that he sought bipartisanship even to his own detriment, like when he wasted time wooing the health-care vote of Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. But the narrative remains that Obama “failed” at bipartisanship, not that the Republicans prevented it.
As part of this narrative, the mainstream press even began to act as if it were normal for the Senate to require 60 votes to pass nearly all legislation.
This media pattern is not new, of course. For decades now, national journalists have been terrified of being labeled “liberal” and facing right-wing retaliation. It’s much safer to just adopt GOP narratives no matter what the facts are.
So, it’s not surprising that the press is forgetting the history of the past three-plus years, when Republicans first worked to water down Obama’s stimulus package and then did all they could to talk down the already battered economy.
Plus, at key moments when the economic recovery started to rev up, such as in early 2011, the Republican saboteurs promptly threw a debt-default crisis into the gears. Now, right-wing billionaires are spending millions of dollars in attack ads to further undermine American confidence in Obama and the economic recovery.
Meanwhile, the American Left remains extremely weak when it comes to explaining the key role that government must play in a modern economy. In general, progressives lack anything like the media power of the Right to reach out to voters.
History of GOP Sabotage
As we approach the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, it’s worth noting that another part of America’s “lost history” is how these Republican “hostage” strategies can be traced back to the ruthless tactics of Richard Nixon.
After Nixon’s narrow loss to John Kennedy in 1960 and his humiliating defeat for California governor in 1962, Nixon grew determined to do whatever was necessary not to lose again.
Nixon also had a vision of shattering the Democratic Party by exploiting its divisions. For instance, his Southern Strategy punished the Democrats for supporting civil rights for blacks, essentially turning the Democratic Dixie-crats into a pillar of the GOP’s new majority in the Old South.
When he ran for President in 1968, Nixon took advantage of another Democratic split, over the Vietnam War. As President Lyndon Johnson tried to negotiate an end to the war in fall 1968, Nixon’s campaign team learned of the progress and collaborated with South Vietnamese leaders to derail the peace talks.
In effect, Nixon was taking the half million U.S. soldiers in the war zone hostage, and the plan worked. With hopes for a peace deal dashed and many young progressives deeply disaffected Nixon narrowly held on to defeat Democrat Hubert Humphrey.
Nixon then repaid the South Vietnamese regime by extending and expanding the war over the next four years but to no avail. More than 20,000 additional U.S. soldiers died along with countless Indochinese before Nixon finally settled for peace terms in 1972 along the lines of what Johnson was prepared to take four years earlier. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “LBJ’s ‘X’ File on Nixon’s ‘Treason.’”]
Despite the extra bloodshed, the extended war served the Republican Party well politically. The prolonged Vietnam War deepened the chasm in the Democratic Party, creating irreconcilable differences between the party’s anti-war activists and its union stalwarts, pitting the young against the old, college students against hard-hats.
One can view Nixon’s Watergate-related schemes as an extension of this determination to divide and conquer the Democrats. In its earliest form, the plan was to gain control of the Democratic nomination process by undermining candidates who were seen as formidable challengers, like Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie, and funneling the nomination to Nixon’s opponent of choice, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern.
As standard bearer for the anti-war wing, McGovern was sure to alienate the party’s more traditional elements, enabling Nixon to pry loose more dissident Democrats and add them to what he called his “New Majority” or his “Silent Majority.”
The Watergate break-ins themselves advanced this strategy. The initial break-in in late May planted only one operational bug, but that phone was being used by the national Democrats for their delegate count and for discussions on how to stop McGovern’s march to the presidential nomination.
Though details of that wiretap remain secret under privacy laws, Spencer Oliver, the Democratic official whose phone was bugged, believes the delegate count may have enabled Nixon’s operatives to exploit their relationship with conservative Democrats in Texas to ensure that McGovern got the delegates he needed at the Texas convention. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Enduring Secrets of Watergate.”]
To glean more intelligence, the Watergate burglars broke in a second time, on June 17, 1972, but were caught. Nixon frantically tamped down the scandal for the short term, enabling him to crush McGovern in a landslide in November, a debacle that further divided the Democratic Party.
In the months that followed, however, the Watergate burglary grew into the most notorious political scandal in U.S. history, engulfing Nixon’s presidency and forcing his resignation on Aug. 9, 1974.
In doing new research on the Watergate case, I was surprised to learn how strategically Nixon had viewed the splintering of the Democratic Party. He hoped to advance that goal through his relationship with conservative Democrat, John Connally, the former governor of Texas who became Nixon’s Treasury Secretary.
According to The Haldeman Diaries, written by Nixon’s chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, Nixon even considered dumping Spiro Agnew and making Connally his vice presidential running mate in 1972, but Connally declined the offer.
A diary entry after the election, on Dec. 1, 1972, said Nixon was so eager to have Connally be his successor that Nixon discussed the idea of “forming a new party” that would “use the Republican Party as a base, but add to it the New Majority,” i.e. the GOP plus disaffected Democrats. In this effort, Haldeman wrote, Connolly would be “the focal point candidate.”
“The P [Nixon] was intrigued with this as a possibility, recognizing that you can never really go with the P’s party into a majority and that the only hope probably is to do a new party,” Haldeman wrote. In other words, Nixon more than Karl Rove, who worked on Nixon’s campaign in 1972 could be viewed as the father of the “permanent Republican majority” idea. Certainly Nixon’s tactics have stuck.
Though the Watergate scandal led to Nixon’s downfall, Nixon’s aggressive style of politics survived and, indeed, flourished inside the Republican Party. After Watergate, Republicans and the Right redoubled their efforts to build a political/media infrastructure that would protect any future GOP president from “another Watergate.”
Republican operatives also learned from the Nixon campaign’s successful 1968 stratagem of holding the Vietnam War hostage to assure an electoral victory. The available evidence now indicates that Ronald Reagan’s campaign followed a similar approach in 1980 by going behind President Jimmy Carter’s back to subvert his efforts to negotiate freedom for 52 Americans then held in Iran.
In essence, it appears that the Republicans determined to reclaim the presidency that they felt was stolen from Nixon chose to hold the 52 hostages hostage to assure a key GOP victory. Reagan’s landslide then cleared the way for the start of a serious conservative drive to dismantle the New Deal/Great Society structure that Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson had built. [See Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege or Consortiumnews.com’s “The New October Surprise Series.”]
Since then, whenever the power of the presidency has been at stake, the Republicans have pursued a scorched-earth approach to winning. Even George H.W. Bush, who is viewed as a mild-mannered patrician, got into the gutter of what he called “campaign mode” when running against Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Bill Clinton in 1992.
After Clinton defeated Bush in a three-way race including Ross Perot, the Republicans resented losing their 12-year grip on the White House and ramped up their destructive tactics against Clinton. However, they didn’t wait to sabotage him right before an election (like LBJ on Vietnam peace and Carter on the Iran-hostage crisis), the Republicans began their get-Clinton project immediately.
During the first years of Clinton’s presidency, leading Republicans, including Sen. Bob Dole (who frequently consulted with Richard Nixon), dismissed President Clinton as a “pretender.” They noted that Clinton had gained the White House with less than a majority of the popular vote (because of Perot’s third-party run).
The Republicans also unleashed their newly minted right-wing media machine (much of it having been assembled during the Reagan-Bush-41 years with the help of conservative foundations and right-wing media moguls).
Magazines, such as The American Spectator, and newspapers, like the Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal, spread ugly rumors about the Clintons, while radio talk show hosts, such as Rush Limbaugh and former Watergate operative G. Gordon Liddy, filled the airwaves with hours and hours of Clinton-bashing.
In Congress, House Republican firebrand Newt Gingrich whipped his party into line against Clinton’s top legislative goals. For the first time, every Republican voted against the federal budget, which included tax increases to rein in the deficit that had surged to unprecedented levels under Reagan and George H.W. Bush (41).
Meanwhile, the escalating anti-Clinton assault drew in the Washington Post and the New York Times, which were determined to prove they could be tougher on a Democrat than any Republican and thus to shed the “liberal media” label.
By 1994, the Whitewater “scandal” about an obscure Clinton real-estate investment had become front-page news and a Republican-controlled judicial panel had picked former Reagan-Bush-41 appointee Kenneth Starr to head up an aggressive investigation into the Clintons’ personal finances and later into their private life.
Back on Capitol Hill, Gingrich’s “revolutionaries” rallied and railed against Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated health-reform bill. In February 1994, I attended the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington and was stunned to see the array of Clinton-hating paraphernalia, including slick videos suggesting that Bill Clinton was a murderer and semi-nude photo-shopped images of Hillary Clinton. (Some of the anti-Clinton propaganda was being financed by the same right-wing foundations.)
Across the countryside, the harsh language from Republicans in Congress and the ugly accusations from talk radio fed into a right-wing paranoia. Armed militia groups began forming to resist the threat of “one-world government” and its “black helicopters” arriving from the United Nations to strip away American liberties.
Every day, Americans were confronted with a level of disorder in their political system that they had not seen in decades and President Clinton took most of the blame for the government disarray.
Making the System ‘Scream’
Having covered CIA destabilization campaigns in Third World countries, particularly Nicaragua, I was struck by the similarities. In the 1980s, the Reagan-Bush-41 administrations destroyed Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista revolution by systematically making the country ungovernable via a combination of economic dislocations, political/media propaganda, and paramilitary activities.
Finally, in 1990, Nicaraguan voters faced with a choice of electing the U.S.-financed candidate Violeta Chamorro or suffering a continued U.S. economic embargo and a resumption of attacks by U.S.-supported Contra rebels opted to accede to Washington’s desires and voted for Chamorro.
By the second year of the Clinton administration, it seemed something similar was occurring in the United States. While the Democrats were slow to “get” what was happening, the Republicans understood what they were doing and why; they and their allies were making the political system “scream.”
In November 1994, American voters recoiled at the chaos, blamed Clinton for the health-care debacle and tax increases, and elected Republican majorities in the House and Senate. In celebration, the Gingrich “revolutionaries” made Rush Limbaugh an honorary member of the new Republican congressional majority, hailing him as their “national precinct captain.”
In the following years, the anti-Clinton hysteria had other consequences. On April 19, 1995, right-wing militia fanatic Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb at the Oklahoma City federal building killing 168 people. Limbaugh and others who had stoked the fires of paranoia angrily denied any suggestion that they had contributed to the catastrophe.
Despite Clinton’s reelection in 1996 against Bob Dole the Republicans did not relent on trying to destroy the sitting president. In 1998-99, they instituted impeachment proceedings that sought to oust him from office for lying about his extramarital sex life.
Though Clinton survived a Senate trial, he and his family were humiliated and Republicans were energized to restore the Reagan-Bush dynasty by putting George W. Bush into the White House, even if he did lose the popular vote to Al Gore.
Bush-43 restored many of the Reagan-Bush-41 tax cuts and went further with deep reductions in capital gains taxes. He also launched two open-ended wars and advocated “self-regulation” of industry. As Bush left the presidency after eight years, the country found itself stuck with inconclusive conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, massive deficits and a collapsing economy.
But this disastrous result and the subsequent election of Barack Obama didn’t stop the Republicans from dusting off their old playbook for destroying a Democratic president, though in 2009 it may have been even easier.
The biggest difference between the attacks on Clinton and the war on Obama was that the Republicans were much better armed with media in 2009-10 than in 1993-94. Back then, there was no Fox News dominating the cable TV ratings and the right-wing media was far less developed than it is now.
Though the Republicans couldn’t say that Obama wasn’t legitimately elected (he won with 53 percent of the vote and a record 66.8 million ballots), the Right questioned his legitimacy in other ways, such as the spurious claims that he was born in Kenya despite his Hawaii birth certificate.
The Tea Party crowd decried him as an Islamic-terrorist-loving, America-hating communist, socialist or Nazi if not the anti-Christ. A popular Tea Party poster shows Obama as a white-faced Joker, the sociopathic killer in a Batman movie.
With funding from corporate and other right-wing interests, the Tea Partiers also did their best to create political chaos. In summer 2009, Tea Party activists disrupted “town hall” meetings on health care, and in spring 2010, they forced Democratic members of Congress to run a gauntlet of insults and other abuse as they walked to the Capitol to vote on health-care reform.
The organized chaos even entered Congress as Republican lawmakers cheered protesters on and at times acted like them. In 2009, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-South Carolina, shouted “you lie” at Obama during a presidential address. During the health-care vote, Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, yelled “baby killer” while Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Michigan, was speaking against a Republican motion to stop the bill by requiring revised anti-abortion language.
In the days after the health-care vote, the disruptions spilled into violence, with bricks thrown through the windows of Democratic offices and death threats made against members of Congress. Militant Tea Partiers staged an armed rally near Washington.
Like 1994, the escalating disorder in 2010 fed a Republican narrative about Obama’s “failures” to govern. Meanwhile the continuing pain from Bush’s economic collapse bled into the nasty political tone directed at Obama. The GOP’s not-so-subliminal message was that the alien black man was at fault for the troubles, that everything would be all right if he weren’t there.
The argument made no factual sense. Obama’s economic stimulus and the auto rescue alone had saved millions of jobs and enabled the staggered U.S. economy to regain some footing.
But Republican demagoguery, backed by a huge right-wing media and billionaires buying attack ads, succeeded at the polls. The Republicans reprised their victory in 1994 with another smashing success in 2010.
A Simple Game
From then on, it’s been a simple game of blocking whatever jobs plan Obama puts forward. And, whenever some “green shoots” of economic progress break the surface, the Republicans and Tea Partiers are quick to stomp on them, most notably when GOP-controlled House forced a political crisis over the debt ceiling in 2011, causing the first-ever downgrade of U.S. credit worthiness.
The war on Obama has now merged with the 2012 presidential campaign of Republican Mitt Romney, who is reaping the benefits from the three-plus-years of GOP obstruction. Romney can point to the poor jobs numbers and say he can do better.
Remarkably, however, Romney wants to go back to and expand upon Bush’s destructive economic and global policies, with more tax cuts weighted toward the wealthy, removal of Wall Street regulations, and more neocon “regime change” in the Middle East.
The American Left also appears to be reprising some of its least effective tactics since the Vietnam War days. Some leftists are vowing to sit out Election 2012 or vote for third parties out of anger with Obama for not accomplishing more.
Wealthy progressives continue to short-change media outreach even as rich right-wingers inundate the public with attack ads and the anti-Obama message floods radio, TV, print and the Internet.
But the Republicans’ greatest advantage may be their audacious strategy of having taken the U.S. economy hostage. That bold plan is now paying off, as Americans frustrated with slow job growth appear increasingly ready to give in to their Republican tormentors and surrender the government back to them.
Maybe then, the political process at least will stop “screaming,” since the Republicans will be back in charge and the Democrats will try to be accommodating.
However, a hard truth: As long as this strategy works, it is unrealistic to expect the Republicans to disavow it. Washington power and the money that comes with it are so intoxicating that the political risks are well worth it, especially if Democrats and the Left don’t have the means or the courage to fight back.
If Romney wins the White House and the Republicans take the Congress, the path will be open for completing the Nixon-Rove dream of a potential one-party state.
The Republicans also will be free to unleash the magic of the “free market” while praising Ayn Rand’s vision of “unchained” supermen; they will slash taxes for the rich even more; they will get rid of Obama’s new regulations on Wall Street and the health insurance industry; they will impose fierce government austerity, firing thousands of more public-sector workers; they will let the nation’s infrastructure rot and mock scientific warnings about global warming while adding more to the military budget.
If they’re fully successful, they will dismantle much of what’s left of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society.
That outcome is not likely to be very good for the country, at least not for most Americans. But the Republicans and their right-wing allies assisted by the complicit mainstream press and enabled by the incompetent Democrats and the ineffective Left will have shown that even a catastrophe like the Wall Street crash can be turned to the GOP’s advantage.
It appears that hostage-taking does work.
[To read more of Robert Parry’s writings, you can now order his last two books, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, at the discount price of only $16 for both. For details on the special offer, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.