Tuesday, April 15, 2014

October 3, 2013

Collins Versus His District

(photo by Scott Kirkwood/NPCA)

Using rage at Obama to choke the middle class and enrich the one percent

The Small Business Administration, which helps local enterprises in Batavia, Hamburg, Clarence, Mount Morris, and other towns in the largely rural district represented by Christopher Collins, ended its operations this week when Collins and his Republican comrades in Congress voted to shut down the federal government.
Farmers, especially dairy farmers, won’t be able to get federal Department of Agriculture price supports until Congress votes at least for a Continuing Resolution to keep this year’s budget funded. The Environmental Protection Agency, which works with the State of New York State’s personnel on fixing some of the manure-management issues that always pop up next to dairy farms, and actually helps resolve these issues so that local water supplies are protected, was shut down this week, leaving the work either undone or wholly to state workers. The Workforce Investment Board here, and other federally funded operations—including Head Start, the Women, Infant, and Children nutrition program, and the Home Energy Assistance Program, which help the poorest of the poor wherever they happen to live—were also shut down.
Collins, during whose term Erie County lost more than 19,000 jobs, stuck with the Tea Party caucus in the US House of Representatives in voting for a Continuing Resolution that would strip funding to implement what many progressives have criticized as a tepid, incremental healthcare reform act.
Notwithstanding its detractors on the Left, the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), has become an object of vilification and fright-mongering for Tea Party Republicans. Obamacare is nothing more or less than a national version of the health-insurance market technique enacted under then-Governor Mitt Romney in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Obamacare is a moderate Republican version of healthcare reform. It is not a Canadian-style system in which the federal government becomes the single, solo payer of bills submitted by service-providers, hospitals, drug companies, equipment manufacturers, and the rest. Obamacare, like Romneycare (which is what they still call it in Massachusetts) is an effort to make the pool of the insured bigger, so that the riskiest, most expensive patients get treated, so that the costs of expensive care are spread around a bigger pool, and so that some small degree of cost-control might eventuate. No “death panels,” no rationing, no micro-management of who gets to say what to which physician—but the Tea Party Republicans say the opposite, and campaign like it’s Stalinism, or, worse, the nefarious plan of Terwilliker in Dr. Seuss’s film The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.
According to Bloomberg News, polling on the first day of the shutdown showed that 75 percent of Americans did not want a shutdown because of opposition to Obamacare. A political civil war between moderate and Tea Party Republicans is brewing: Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire told the media earlier this week that the members of the House who voted for the continuing resolution, the one that demanded the de-funding of Obamacare, weren’t “interested in governing.”
That’s well put. The political consequences of anything that 75 percent of the public likes or doesn’t like should be obvious even to Buffalo-area Democrats; there ought to be something like a groundswell of support for Obamacare here any everywhere else that Democrats aren’t too distracted by local politics. Until Chris Collins defeated her in the election Barack Obama overwhelmingly won, Obamacare defender Kathy Hochul held the seat. Hochul, who now works for a bank, is a logical choice to run again in a place where she’s well-known. Taking back that seat would hasten what some regard as the inevitable collapse of the Republicans as a national party. But taking back that seat will require Democrats to once again mount a determined campaign. That would require engaging labor, environmental, health-worker, and education advocates to reprise Hochul’s first campaign, which succeeded with a plurality of voters at a historic moment when the economic self-interest of suburban, exurban, and rural white folks was very easy to articulate.
Unfortunately, now that the acute phase of the national financial crisis has abated, it will be harder for any Democrat to campaign with the other key interest in that district and in districts like it — interests like small-business owners, farmers, hunting and fishing fans, and other groups that logically should, on the basis of self-interest, depart from the increasingly paranoid, strident, and unapologetically racialist Tea Party strain of the Republican pack.
If the government shutdown of 2013 is as disruptive as was the Newt Gingrich “contract with America” 28-day government shutdown of 2005 and 2006, maybe self-awareness can dawn again.

Racialized politics

But this time, there’s a black guy to blame.
Federal grants of every variety, including the just-announced $5 million research grants headed for the Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus, are now in limbo because of the Tea Party campaign against the signal domestic policy achievement not of a Democrat but of a visible minority. Hating Obama, and Obamacare, polls well with Republican primary voters—and any Republican who bucks that position is dead meat.
Today’s political positioning by the Tea Party Republicans is about the fears of what used to be a slim sliver of the electorate, but what Nixonland author Rick Perlstein estimates now to be about 30 percent of general-election voters. The most sober political scientists observe that the radical fringe of the Republican Party has itself made a sober calculation: that its members from the Red States can hold onto their seats in Congress because there is no longer a broad-based Republican Party that can win the White House, but rather, only a reliable core that can elect a reliable core of House members. That core consists principally of resentful, economically stressed, lower-middle-class, poorly educated, suburban and rural voters whose shared characteristics include involvement with some form of evangelical Christianity, firearm ownership, and membership in the audiences of talk radio stars like Rush Limbaugh and TV performers like Glenn Beck. This group has become the dominant force in Republican Party primaries.
That leaves Democrats to be the party of government—and, increasingly, the party of Wall Street, too. Wall Street is far away and incomprehensible and intimidating, but government is here every day, in every community that has a newspaper, radio, and TV stations.
So here’s how it works out in the Western New York media market, where the major government news here has been about a Democratic candidate for county-wide office having had trouble paying his taxes, about a Canadian company getting a $2 million tax break and 50 acres of waterfront land, and, day after day, about Carl Paladino’s critique of the African-American leadership of the Buffalo Board of Education. The Paladino critique is the most consistently covered news item about government in this region’s media—and now, Paladino’s anti-government campaign has been bolstered by an independent, critical analysis of the Buffalo Schools superintendent’s evidently inaccurate claim to have reduced spending on administrators in a school district where over 80 percent of the children are poor and where test scores and graduation rates are the lowest of any district in the adjacent 2,000 square miles.
Thus is the core Tea Party message driven home more effectively in every news cycle. The sum of that message is this: that taxes are paid by hard-working, law-abiding Caucasians, but that tax money is squandered by a protected elite of self-dealing visible minorities. When Chris Collins criticizes the president of the United States, and votes against funding for implementing Obamacare/Romneycare, Collins is acting as any rational, self-maximizing political animal can be expected to act, channeling rather than trying to change the regional zeitgeist in Paladino Country.
Thus does the notion of governing remain under daily local assault. And so far, the only visible Democratic response? Mainly, there isn’t one. The only Democratic critic of the most-visible target of Tea Party ire in this media market is not an elected official, but rather Governor Andrew Cuomo’s appointed commissioner of education. Rational, self-maximizing political operatives should answer this question: Do they understand that giving Carl Paladino’s daily critique another opportunity for airtime prevents President Obama from governing?
As they say in Chicago, politics ain’t beanbag. The American economy will suffer from this shutdown. The American economy will suffer again, next month, from another crisis, this one over extending the debt ceiling. Economist Nouriel Roubini, who warned about the 2008 crisis, is warning about this sequence of Tea Party-created Congressional impasses wrecking the recovery, slow as it already is, from the last crisis. The only thing that can change the politics of impasse is if the marginal House seats are retaken, as they were in 2006, by moderate Democrats who defeat Tea Party Republicans. If the reputation of all governing in this media market relies on the reputation of a school superintendent who claims to reduce administrative spending by $1 million and instead increases it by $2 million, then the anti-governing message wins.
Bruce Fisher is a former deputy executive for Erie County and director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or at www.sunypress.edu.

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