Even liberal media gives populist conservatism its due

February 19, 2010|By Ron Smith

The ever-expanding power of the American political class has been sharply brought into focus because of the shrinking living standards of millions of the people they ostensibly represent. This contrast has set the stage for what The New York Times this week called "Rebellion on [the] Right." In a clear warning to the members of the "inner party," the essential newspaper of the ruling elite featured a lengthy front-page story on Tuesday by David Barstow, complete with a color photo of tea party activists in Sandpoint, Idaho.

I assumed -- always a dangerous thing to do -- that this would be another denunciation from the left of the uprising they see as reactionary, racist and hypocritical. Too many white faces, say the liberals, too little acknowledgment that the mess we're in was caused by the evil Dubya and his cohorts, and, if these people are so upset with Big Government, why don't they deny themselves Social Security checks and Medicare? As MSNBC's Keith Olbermann put it in one of his frenzied rants, the tea partiers are scared of the color of the current president's skin. Sure, K.O., it's so frightening to see that much melanin within a presidential epidermis.

Though the hundreds of comments on this story at the Times' Internet edition sounded these themes, the piece itself did not. It was not snarky or dismissive but surprisingly respectful of the opinions voiced by people like retiree Pam Stout, never before a political activist, who has joined a coalition of like-minded citizens called Friends for Liberty. Speaking on my show, Ms. Stout said it was the Great Recession, which saw her son lose both his job and his home, that awakened her to, in Mr. Barstow's words, "see Washington as a threat, a place where crisis is manipulated -- even manufactured -- by both parties to grab power."

The Republicans have tried, with mixed success, to hijack this burgeoning movement. Scott Brown's unexpected win in the Massachusetts special election to fill Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat can be viewed as a GOP triumph, but everybody knows it was primarily a huge swing of Bay State independents to him that was decisive. It was also that result that jolted the power structure in Washington to its core. Those congressional Democrats who aren't retiring and don't represent exceedingly safe districts are finding that incumbency -- in recent times the best thing a candidate could enjoy -- may be more of a burden than a blessing come November.

It seems to me that the basic contract between citizens and their politicians is implicit: If the rulers can provide a sense of security and confidence to the masses, if the people are working and have faith in their future and that of their children, well, then the ambitious folks on top of the heap can go about their plunder without attracting widespread discontent. When living standards fall, all bets are off. The widespread corruption becomes of great public concern. The bailouts of Wall Street with the people's money provoke anger. Promises of changes that aren't kept stoke it further.

When Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana announces he won't run for re-election and the pundits bemoan the loss of such a "moderate," some of us view his comments about how he loves to serve the people, but no longer loves Congress, as banal B.S. We know his political career, first as governor and then as a U.S. senator, has made millions of dollars for him and his family. His wife, Susan, a lawyer, sits on several corporate boards, including health care giant WellPoint, and was paid $2.1 million between 2006 and 2008 by health insurers alone. During that time, her husband was playing a big role in the legislative haggling over the public option and medical device fees. Don't you think they loved this income stream? It's all perfectly legal under Senate rules, which is all one has to know about the system and the benefits from being a player in it.

For some time there has been a huge transfer of power from the private sector to the political class going on. Politicians act as brokers in this enterprise, peddling access to interests that pay them huge commissions to do so. K Street prospers. In the first six months of 2009, $440 million was spent on health care lobbying alone. As Dennis Prager said, "The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen." There is much reason for conservative populist discontent, so much that even The New York Times acknowledges it.

Ron Smith's column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is rsmith@wbal.com.

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