Friday Talking Points [63] -- Populist Rage?

[ Posted Friday, January 30th, 2009 – 18:12 UTC ]

What is it with shoes this week?

First we had the sale of Sarah Palin's "Double Dare" Naughty Monkey shoes on eBay. And now someone has erected a statue of a shoe, according to the BBC. A very specific shoe. Muntadar al-Zaidi's shoe. You remember him -- he's the Iraqi journalist who hucked both his shoes at President Bush's head a while back. Well, an Iraqi artist has honored him with a huge statue of his shoe. The funniest quote from the article? After describing the statue's dimensions and appearance, the Beeb adds: "There is also a bush sticking out of the shoe."


But enough frivolity. Because, according to Paul Krugman (who just won the Nobel Prize for Economics): "There's a populist rage building in this country, as Americans see bankers getting huge bailouts while ordinary citizens suffer."

A populist rage? Really?

If I seem skeptical, let me assure you that I would like nothing better than to see a populist rage rise in this country. I think it's just about the only way politicians are ever going to restore some fairness to the way we tax our citizens. I wrote a book two years ago urging Democrats in Congress to adopt what I called a "Neo-Populist" stance. So while I ask you to forgive my skepticism, at least let me reassure you my heart's in the right place.

While I think a growing populist rage is indeed possible in this country at this point, I don't quite think we're there yet -- and I really don't think most Washington politicians would know how to ride that wave even if it did appear. Because, from Obama on down, Democrats know how to stoke the fires of populist rage, but what they propose doing about it usually falls far, far short of what I would call "populism."

Consider, if you will, President Obama's remarks on the fact that the Wall Street fatcats took billions of tax dollars last year, and then turned around and gave themselves all bonuses, to the tune of just under $20 billion. Here is Obama expressing his "anger" at the situation:

Part of what we're going to need is for the folks on Wall Street who are asking for help to show some restraint. There will be time for them to make profits, and there will be time for them to get bonuses. Now is not that time.

Got that? Greed, huge bonuses, and lavish CEO lifestyles are OK, as long as the economy is doing well and nobody notices. But "now's not the time" for that sort of thing. Not exactly fire-breathing populism. Not exactly Teddy Roosevelt versus the trusts.

All this high dudgeon over executive pay is amusing to me. Because when the Democratic Congress passed the TARP legislation (the $700 billion Wall Street bailout) last year they could easily have avoided this problem. All they had to do was write it into the law. But they didn't. Now they want to pry those bonus billions out of the hands of financial executives, even though they got the money fully legally. Here's Obama again:

And, you know, Secretary Geithner already had to pull back one institution that had gone forward with a multimillion-dollar jet plane purchase at the same time as they're receiving TARP money. We shouldn't have to do that, because they should know better. And we will continue to send that message loud and clear.

The time to send that message is when you write the legislation, not after the fact. Because otherwise, you're asking for "restraint... discipline... and responsibility" from the very same people who just drove this bus off a cliff. The very same people you trusted to "regulate themselves" for the past twenty or thirty years. Vice President Biden put it even stronger by saying he'd like to "throw these guys in the brig," but you can't do that unless they've done something illegal. And the way to make it illegal is to write it into the law in the first place.

I hate to say it, but Barack Obama has never been much of a populist. He's always seemed to me a reluctant populist, at best. Perhaps he can improve, though. And when he uses populist anger to his benefit, he may wind up with a more populist stand than he started with. But before we get to real populist rage, we've got the weekly awards to hand out first.


Most Impressive Democrat of the Week

Update: McCaskill and Whitehouse (see Talking Points, below) will be eligible next week, their news broke after I had already written this.

While John Conyers had a strong showing this week, he narrowly misses getting the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award this week. Conyers made a strong showing at the beginning of the week, introducing a single-payer health care bill (H.R.676), proposing extending by 10 years the statute of limitations on torture, and then subpoenaing Karl Rove again just for good measure. But the news later in the week topped even this valiant effort by Conyers (especially after it was announced the Rove appearance would be postponed).

I don't even know if she's a Democrat, but I would guess that she is one now if she wasn't before. The winner of the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week is Lilly Ledbetter. Her court case went to the Supreme Court, got decided the wrong way, and (for once!) Congress immediately stepped up to rectify the situation. They passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and sent it to President Obama as the first piece of legislation to his desk. That's pretty impressive -- first you fight for your rights all the way to the Supreme Court, and then when they snub you, you have legislation to change the law named after you.

Which means that Lilly Ledbetter gets this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award. Well done, Lilly! All American women thank you for your tireless effort.


Most Disappointing Democrat of the Week

Every once in a while, there's a clear winner of one of these awards, where no further discussion or explanation is necessary. This is one of those weeks.

Ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois is the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week. What more can I say that he hasn't already said? Here's wishing Blago from Chicago (or, as I like to call him, "Blaggy") sinks quickly into obscurity. Oh, wait, he's still got an upcoming federal court case, doesn't he? Sigh. I guess we'll have to hear about him again, then.

[I don't have any contact information for the ex-gov, sorry. Illinois wasted no time stripping his face and name off everything they could, so I have no idea how to get in touch with him. Probably just as well.]


Friday Talking Points

Volume 63 (1/30/09)

There is some good populist news this week. First, President Obama overturned some anti-union rules from the Bush era. Then, news broke that union membership actually slightly increased last year, reversing a long trend downwards.

And today, the Obama administration announced that Vice President Biden will head up a task force on the middle class. As usual, they're asking for ideas from everyone on how to help the middle class, so feel free to send this column along to them at

Because the more populist rage the better, as far as I'm concerned.


   Maximum wage

As I was writing this article, news broke from Senators Claire McCaskill and Sheldon Whitehouse on the executive pay issue. They have written a bill which would limit any company taking bailout money to a salary cap for all employees (including executives) of $400,000 -- what President Obama makes. Bravo, Senators! Previously, Democrats (including Obama) have shied away from a hard definition of what exactly "excessive" compensation would legally be. McCaskill and Whitehouse have shown the rest of the Democratic Party that it is time to take a stand.

I have two suggestions, though. First, start talking about this pay cap as a "maximum wage" to tap into all that populist rage out there. Everyone understands the "minimum wage" so this is a good way to frame the issue.

Secondly, I would say (possibly as a followup to this bill) to expand your horizons. Introduce a bill which states that any compensation of any type for any employee be "capped" at $400,000 a year. Allow companies to pay their executives whatever they want, but limit the tax deductibility of such pay to the first $400,000 per year. In other words, anything above that comes directly out of the shareholders' profits. How many shareholders' meetings do you think it would take to rein in executive pay if they were paying for it out of their own profit, instead of tax deductible operating expenses?

But for now, it's a good start. Here is Senator McCaskill, on the Senate floor, showing Democrats how to properly express populist rage (video available from McCaskill's website):

Going forward if you want taxpayers to help you survive, if you want the people at your financial institution to have a job tomorrow, then you're going to have to limit everyone's pay at your company to the same salary that the President of the United States makes. Now once they're off the public dole, once the taxpayers aren't footing the bill, then it's not as much our business what they get paid. But right now they're on the hook to us. And they owe us something other than a fancy waste basket and $50 million jet. We have a bunch of idiots on Wall Street that are kicking sand in the face of the American taxpayer. They don't get it. These people are idiots. You can't use taxpayer money to pay out $18 billion in bonuses. What planet are these people on?


   20 cents out of $825? Really?

During the entire stimulus package debate, Republicans have once again proved masterful at picking nits in such a way that the American public is bamboozled into thinking they have a point. This, in my opinion, is largely due to Americans' general ignorance of simple mathematics (see: Joe The Plumber). Believe it or not, for most folks "millions" and "billions" and even "trillions" all tend to run together a bit. They're all a whopping amount of money, and they all sound pretty much alike (unlike, for instance "thousands" and "millions").

Democrats need to fight this by stripping off all the zeros. Here is the counter-argument to the "wasteful spending on grass for the National Mall" Republican bugaboo of the previous week. Picture a Democrat on a news show being interviewed in tandem with a Republican who just brought the subject up of "$200 million wasted on the National Mall" responding thusly:

"Hold on a minute -- that's the best you can come up with? Let's put this in perspective. If we strip the zeros off to show what you're talking about, call our entire package $825 that we're spending, OK? Of the $825, the money for the National Mall equates to 20 cents. So you are complaining about twenty cents out of $825?!? And how, exactly, do you think that sod is going to get onto the Mall? You think it's going to lay itself? Or you think that some jobs might be created or preserved in the short-term for the people who would actually do the work?"


   GOP betting its fortunes on failure

This used to be a common complaint from Republicans about Democrats and President Bush (mostly on Iraq, but on other diverse issues as well): "Democrats are trying to politically succeed by betting on failure." In other words, Democrats took a political stance that would wind up being more popular if things got worse.

So it's time for Democrats to throw this right back in Republicans' faces. Because, led by a certain right-wing talk radio windbag, the House Republicans have now seemingly "doubled down" on the failure of the American economy, President Obama's stimulus plan, and indeed, the Obama presidency itself. This needs pointing out in no uncertain terms, to counter the headwind of hot air already blowing in the other direction.

"Republicans seem absolutely bent on staking their party's fortunes on the failure of both the stimulus package and the American economy. They are content to sit on the sidelines instead of productively joining in the debate. President Obama has bent over backward reaching out to them, but the only thing they have to offer is the same stale, old idea that got us into this mess: more tax cuts for the richest among us. It doesn't work. We've seen that. We're trying something new now, and we encourage Republicans to join in the process instead of cheering for the American economy to fail from the sidelines. Whatever happened to 'country first' after all?"


   What part of "you lost" don't you get?

This one should be held back until it is needed. And it's more for the media than for the Republicans. Because the media needs a little remedial training in the definition of "bipartisanship." For over a decade, the definition of this term in Washington was warped to mean: "Democrats slinking across the aisle to vote for Republican proposals without any input." Or, more viscerally, "Democrats knuckling under to Republicans, once again."

This definition is no longer operative, as the politicians say. The new definition should read: "Republicans joining in the process of legislation to have input to the process," and not (as the media seems to have been bamboozled into): "Republicans having absolute veto power over everything Democrats try to do."

It needs to be said over and over, to counteract this trend:

"President Obama got the largest mandate from the voters in decades. Democrats have made sweeping gains in both houses of Congress in the past two election cycles. Americans want Democrats to get some things done in Washington precisely because they are tired of these political games. The tide is flowing in our direction, and the only ones who haven't realized it are the ones in the GOP acting like King Canute. I've got news for them. We are now the majority in Washington. We will set the agenda now. You can join us if you have some new ideas and we will consider them, but we are in charge now, and you should realize that fact. What part of 'You lost' don't you understand?"


   First thing we do, let's tax poor people

OK, I'm swimming against the tide myself on this one. Nobody will probably notice anyway, because the overall bill is for such a good cause. But doesn't it concern any real progressives that the first spending legislation we're going to pass (and Obama is going to sign) is, in essence, a tax on poor people?

"Passing children's' health care in the SCHIP bill was the right thing to do, but I feel that we should consider other tax revenue in the future to fund such good legislation. By slapping a tax on cigarettes, we have put the burden of paying for children's' health on smokers. And people who smoke are disproportionately the poorer of our citizens. I would have funded this through a millionaires' tax instead, because I believe in progressive taxation instead of regressive taxation."


   Turn Social Security upside-down

In fact, I'm feeling swept up in populist rage myself. You want to hear an idea that makes such enormous amounts of sense that it'll never become law? How about taking a shot of straight-up, no-chaser hair-on-your-chest populism?

"Republicans are complaining because President Obama's stimulus package contains payroll tax relief for millions of hard-working Americans who make so little in wages that they do not pay federal income tax. Republicans are calling this 'welfare' for some unfathomable reason -- I thought the GOP was in favor of tax cuts of all kinds, but I guess they are showing their true colors when it comes to tax cuts for the hardest-working Americans of all. I propose a one-year experiment that would take this concept even further: for one year, instead of figuring Social Security from the bottom up, let's figure it from the top down. Instead of every worker paying 6.2 percent up to around $100,000 and then absolutely nothing on any pay above that amount, let's instead make it so that every worker making over $100,000 pays 6.2 percent on everything above that amount, and everyone who makes less than $100,000 will pay nothing at all. The Treasury would take in about the same amount of money, and it would be an enormous stimulus package for 95% of the workforce, which they would get immediately in the form of a 6.2 percent break on the taxes taken out of their paycheck. How's that for a tax break, America?"


   "What's fair" not "class warfare"

Finally, we have to counter the biggest weapon that has (for some strange reason) been most effective against populism in the past thirty years or so -- the term "class warfare." Fortunately, this is fairly easy to do. Here's what Democrats should say when the term comes up in debate with a Republican (as it always does):

"Excuse me, did you just say 'class warfare'? Did I really hear you use that term? This term is highly offensive to me for two reasons. First, there are no crowds of peasants storming Wall Street with pitchforks and torches that I am aware of. There are no armed rebellions going on against the wealthy. When America is in the midst of two foreign wars, I find it highly offensive to suggest that discussing tax policy is akin to 'warfare,' and on behalf of the soldiers from my district I would like an apology from you.

"Secondly, the Republican Party has shown for decades now that the only thing it really cares about is tax cuts for the wealthiest of the wealthy. Well, you know what? The rest of America is sick of getting 'trickled down' upon. The middle class in this country has seen all of the benefits of Republican rule going to the top one percent of Americans for too long, and they are fed up with it. It's been more like highway robbery committed against them, and the robbers are finally getting their comeuppance. Americans have never begrudged others from making money, but the days of tax cuts for the rich while regular Americans suffer are over. We are indeed going to fight back for the interests of the middle class against the Wall Street fatcats and the Republicans who protect them. We call it 'what's fair' not 'class warfare,' but if you'd like to continue using that term to make your wealthy donors feel better, then be my guest."


Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground

Cross-posted at: The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


4 Comments on “Friday Talking Points [63] -- Populist Rage?”

  1. [1] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    To all -

    No comments? Everyone busy with the Super Bowl?

    I have been re-reading some old columns for research, and have discovered that I have, once again, helped coin a word. I actually love making compound words out of words that used to be separate but now aren't (such as "nevertheless") and had to point out my own shifting standards.

    Because, as far as I'm now concerned "fatcats" is now one word. Please adjust your spellcheckers accordingly. Rarely the singular is used ("fatcat") as it is more often used in the plural ("Wall Street fatcats").

    That is all. Please resume your normal activities. And my apologies to Fat Freddy's Cat (aka "F. Frederick Skitty"), which is an entirely different thing altogether...


  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    You are too funny!

    I can only speak for myself but I've been 'away' for the last several days and will be back to work tomorrow and so I've been busy catching up on all of your fantastic Inaugural reports...and, it's hard to make a worthy comment when you have so very, very eloquently said it all!

    Keep in mind that many of us may need to read very slowly as to not miss any of the subtle humour!

    Anyway, the lack of comments of late may also have something to do with the unique and welcome feeling that the crew in the White House these days actually know what the heck they are doing and we feel the country and the world is in very capable much so that we don't feel the same need to vent quite so much as we used to.

    But, in any event, I hope to be back on track fairly soon and contributing here to the best political give-and-take anyone could find, anywhere!

  3. [3] 
    kevinem2 wrote:


    More or less, ditto. I check Chris every day for new posts and his interaction with us fans, but often he says everything that needs to be said. I assume Chris and everyone else would get bored with a steady stream of pats on the back.

    Also, Elizabeth, to semi-steal your Biden drum-banging (which is a good thing); I have my own crusade. How can sentient people start a drive to have the Palin-thing shrunk to actual NEWS about her blathering ons? As a fellow Canadian I know we're pretty immune to her, but please Lord, make it stop!!! I had about a three year rage over all the media fuss over Lindsey, Paris, and Britney and their who-cares? goings on, and Palin is from the same dumpster. Argh.

    OK, I've vented. Back to regular programming.

  4. [4] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Good luck with your crusade. But, I don't see the media sliding out of their incompetence and ineptitude in the lifetimes of anyone reading these posts. They'll die off before that happens - they're just not smart enough. I hear the NYTimes have one foot on a banana peel and the other in the grave, so to speak...they'll be lucky to survive the year.

    It's time for us to start throwing our support behind this worthy site and others like it.

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