Paul Nitze: When Rick Perry channels the Kingfish |

Paul Nitze: When Rick Perry channels the Kingfish

Paul Nitze
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Lefties have been cackling with glee as the anti-Romneys in the Republican primary attack Mitt Romney’s career at Bain Capital. Here’s Rick Perry’s take: “They’re vultures that are sitting out there on the tree limb, waiting for the company to get sick, and then they sweep in, they eat the carcass, they leave with that, and they leave the skeleton.” Newt Gingrich? “Show me somebody who has consistently made money while losing money for workers and I’ll show you someone who has undermined capitalism. … That’s an indefensible model.”

I’ll admit a certain joy in watching Perry channel Huey Long. It’s as if he’s swallowed a serum that has him internalizing the lessons of the financial crisis and then blending them with old-school populist demagoguery. What’s next? Rick Santorum telling us he’s resurrecting Long’s “Share Our Wealth Society”? Jon Hunstman proclaiming “Every Man a King”?

Dems’ glee has been mostly of the cynical, instrumental variety. Anything that softens Romney up for the general election makes the left happy. And you can be sure that the president’s campaign team will be harvesting clips of Perry and Gingrich attacking Romney like a bumper crop of winter wheat. To my mind though, this is a sign that the patient is even sicker than I feared.

The attacks are pretty flim-flam. Romney has invited them in one sense, in that he’s running for manager-in-chief. But that has more to do with the absurd kabuki of our current political moment, which requires politicians of all stripes to claim business experience. Managerial chops are about as closely correlated with political success as stock prices with the Mayan calendar. John Hickenlooper is in the middle of a fine turn as governor of Colorado, and he was at best a middling manager of the Wynkoop brewery.

Say what you will about private equity, but its claims about contributing to the growth of the real economy are parchment thin. Mostly the leveraged buyout industry has generated its returns by balance sheet engineering. Even so, Romney had a stellar career at Bain Capital. By some estimates, he was the most successful private-equity executive over a 10-year period in the history of the business. If you think that was a fluke, he also turned around the Salt Lake Olympics.

It’s not the error in these attacks that has me worried. Rather, it’s what it says about the current state of the American political system. The fact that the Republican party, or at least a slice of it, has veered towards populism tells me that neither party is responding adequately to those who want to restrain financial capitalism.

Think that congressional Democrats are fighting toward that end? Some are, but corporate America, and particularly the banks, have many Democratic friends in Congress. Democrats are squarely implicated in the repeal of Glass-Steagall and the weakening of other Depression-era reforms. Barbara Boxer was the primary sponsor of the Homeland Reinvestment Act, a grotesque giveaway to large companies that offshored jobs. Chuck Schumer has been a major impediment to repealing the ultra-low tax rate on carried interest.

A middle class that wields both political and economic clout is the only long-term anchor to American democracy as we idealize it, the only group that can mediate between populist demagoguery and plutocracy. A recent Pew Research survey confirmed what economists have known for years – we are seeing income inequality in this country that matches or exceeds the worst years of the Gilded Age. Our anchor is getting smaller and smaller, and there’s a risk that the ship will cut loose.

What happens when we slip anchor? Won’t we just enter a new moment of healthy democratic participation as we did in the early 1900s and again after World War II? Not so fast. That we’ve been lucky before doesn’t mean lightning will strike again. For every example of a democracy righting itself, there is a counter – think Argentina in the 1930s.

As tumultuous as it was to live through the 1920s in Buenos Aires, few in Argentina would have predicted how badly the next two decades would turn out. Hipolito Yrigoyen held together a shrinking middle class against leftist radicals and wealthy industrialists. His government fought to bolster democratic institutions and protect workers. But as income inequality grew worse, class warfare became the defining feature of Argentine society, until anarchist bombings triggered a coup.

Argentina lurched from one dictatorship to another for decades. Democratic institutions were hollowed out, and the economy shrank. A country that has some of the best land and natural resources in the world has never recovered.

The United States circa 2012 is not Argentina in 1930. And yet we ignore the lessons of those years at our peril. Commentators like to name-check Horatio Alger and the dream of the self-made man when discussing our relative tolerance for big gaps between rich and poor. And there is something wonderful about our resistance to cynicism, our utter contempt for those who would assume that those on top today will necessarily be on top tomorrow.

More than economic opportunity, it is the political power of the middle class that has allowed an opportunity society to thrive in America. It’s not the ability for anyone to get rich that matters – it’s the ability for the majority to dislodge entrenched interests at the ballot box. When Rick Perry sounds like Huey Long, take that as a sign that our political system is failing that basic test.

Paul Nitze has been a part-time Aspenite his entire life. He currently lives in Washington, D.C.

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