Saturday, September 18, 2010

Operation Chaos: Corporate America Goes for Broke

To listen to beltway pundits, you would think that the GOP had shot itself in the foot—overplayed its hand, if you will—in its effort to regain popular momentum in the wake of a humiliating electoral defeat. Across the country, Tea Party activists have challenged, many times successfully, incumbent Republicans in primary contests. In this view, the GOP plot to rev up the Tea Partiers with an eye toward coopting them in the fall midterms backfired spectacularly. They instead midwifed a movement that threatens to destroy the GOP itself.

A related narrative (not inconsistent with the first) is that there is a civil war underway between old guard „establishment Republicans” and hardcore GOP extremists. The metaphor here is that of Republican standard bearers struggling with radical secessionists in a contest over who are the biggest psychopaths. The result of this „outbidding” war is that the GOP is moved even further to the right—right off a cliff.

Either way, pundits agree, the Tea Party movement has seriously undermined the GOP’s electability this fall. It is possible that Democrats will screw up what amounts to an unexpected and undeserved gift and are sure to lose seats in any case due to the principle of divided government, but there is little doubt that the GOP has played an extremely poor hand.

I contend, however, that this conclusion depends on the heroic assumption that either the GOP or the secessionist agitators are in the driver’s seat.

But what if the GOP were not in charge of this movement—indeed were never in charge? And what if this were less a civil war over the „soul of the GOP” than a scheme by economic elites and corporations to throw everything they’ve got at Obama and his liberal allies with the aim of derailing even the most modest Democratic reforms?

The game is Operation Chaos. The goal? Not revitalizing the Republican Party or even introducing an alternative plan of governance. The goal instead is destruction, pure and simple, let the chips fall where they may. It is, as Senator Russ Feingold put it, a „systematic, conscious” effort to „destroy” Obama and his presidency.

Who is playing the game? Those who have the most to lose if Obama and his liberal allies win: a select group of corporations and very very rich individuals.

After all, just because the GOP carries water for the wealthy does not mean that the wealthy look after the GOP. If the GOP can’t deliver, moneyed interests will find someone who can—whether or not this hurts the GOP, its leadership, or its institutions. Since Democrats became friendlier to business in the early 1990s, corporations have become ever more willing to split their campaign contributions between the two parties.

Indeed, the past three years actually saw the Democratic party rake in more corporate money than the Republicans. Particular now, corporate dollars tend to follow whomever looks likeliest to win office—the winners (democrat or republican) are then beholden (to a greater or lesser extent) to those who bankrolled their campaigns.

Heads I win, tails you lose. Nice to have money...

The consequences of increased corporate backing is all to obvious to those who remember when Democrats pushed for truly liberal reforms. The last two Democratic administrations have been extra friendly to Wall Street interests in particular. The Clinton administration dismantled crucial Depression-era banking regulations, opening the door to the Wall Street shenanigans that brought us the global financial meltdown of 2008. The very same Clinton-era de-regulators—Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner—became top economic advisors for the Obama administration, ensuring that the much-touted financial reforms would be very weak indeed. Corporate Dems are also largely to blame for our weak health care reforms, as well as continued lax environmental regulation held over from the Bush administration, making possible—among other things—the horrific mining accidents by the criminally negligent Massey Energy company and, most famously, the BP oil disaster in the Gulf.

Amazingly, the corporations and individuals who made out like bandits during the Bush years are not inclined to lie low as America reels from their most recent sucker punch—even in the wake of the financial meltdown and subsequent taxpayer bailout, the wholesale destruction of the Gulf of Mexico, and the spiralling health insurance premiums that are directly responsible for thousands of deaths every year. Even with a looming economic depression, they are not willing to compromise. They view the slightest tax increases and the most modest constraints on profit-seeking behavior as their own personal Alamo:

Truly, Ben Stein is a greedy, loathsome troll. While most corporate miscreants are not quite as cartoonish as Stein is here, he nicely illustrates their whiney „why me” attitude toward a government preparing to take away the punch bowl just as the party is getting started.

However, corporate flaks well understand that the woes of uber-wealthy Steins of the world are unlikely to resonate on Main Street.

Enter the Tea Partiers...

I noted in an earlier post that although there is a strong grassroots impetus for the Tea Party movement—largely fueled by amorphous rage over economic dislocation and the racial anxieties of a white majority gradually losing ground—the Tea Party movement would have had very little impact without the organizational muscle of seasoned PR flaks.

Corporate front groups such as Koch Industries-funded FreedomWorks have trained activists, organized protests, liaised with the media, and transported protesters to Tea Party events. Without their backing, the Tea Party movement would surely remain incoherent and fragmented--the most successful Tea Party candidates would have gone down in history as obscure also-ran candidates.

The principal organization behind a number of the ascendant Tea Party candidates is the Tea Party Express, established by the same veteran GOP operative—Sal Russo—who created the Our Country Deserves Better PAC in 2008 to defeat then-candidate Obama. Russo’s California-based GOP political consultancy is the principal financial beneficiary of both organizations and is known by some as the man behind the curtain. But who is footing the bill?

CSMonitor notes that “the problem for those trying to ferret out where the money comes from…is that it's getting harder to do so." Citing the New York Times: "Federal campaign spending by groups other than candidates and parties this election cycle has far outpaced similar spending from the last midterm election and could rival the 2008 presidential campaign. But with recent decisions by the Supreme Court and the Federal Elections Commission, it has become harder to know whose dollars they are."”

Even without hard figures, it does not take a sleuth to identify the special interests behind the movement. According to SourceWatch, the Tea Party Patriots (TPP) was “initially organized by FreedomWorks” and in 2009, an affiliated off-shoot, the Tea Party Express (TPE) helped organize a public relations bus tour across the country. TPE events were co-sponsored by the „American Grassroots Coalition,” which includes organizations either established or funded by Koch Industries. One thing is clear: a grassroots organization the TPE is not. Mark Mekler, spokesperson for the rival Tea Party Patriots, said that the Tea Party Express is run by “old-school, top-down, political operatives who are using the Tea Party movement for their own purposes.” That is, GOP strategists.

The surprising twist—given that the Tea Party movement is largely organized and funded by veteran GOP operatives—is that the insurgency is taking aim at the Republican Party itself. But again, the impetus for the insurgency comes not from within the GOP itself, but from their corporate backers.

In fact, the mainstream GOP looks more and more like the dowdy wife who was thrown over for her younger, sexier Tea Party rival. Corporations supporting right-wing candidates in this election cycle have largely eschewed Michael Steele’s Republican National Committee, which is widely viewed as irrelevant and is in fact broke. They have instead bestowed their largesse on 527 organizations like FreedomWorks and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, which support hard right Republican candidates, including the Tea Partiers and other Tea Party favorites. American Crossroads receives much of its funding from companies controlled by Texas billionaire, Harold Simmons—the man behind the ads linking domestic terrorist Bill Ayres to Barack Obama. The corporate advocacy group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is also a major contributor and supporter of Tea Party insurgents.

It cannot be stressed enough that the name of the game is not helping the Republican Party—it is destroying Obama’s presidency, and with it, his momentum (however halting) toward reining in corporate power. Moneyed interests back Tea Party candidates against more qualified GOP contenders because Tea Party positions dovetail perfectly with the interests of the richest people in America: cutting taxes for the wealthy, slashing social programs, reducing unemployment benefits, repealing health care reform, opposing cap and trade legislation, blocking environmental and financial regulation, privatizing and/or drastically cutting Medicare and Social Security, and opposing immigration reform. The Tea Party candidates are a corporate wet dream.

These are just some of the highlights:

Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle won the GOP primary in Nevada and will challenge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for his seat in the fall. She has attracted attention for her extremist and/or batty positions, such as outlawing abortions even in cases of rape and incest, promoting Scientology-inspired "sweatboxes" for prison inmates, advocating a ban on alcohol, and pulling the U.S. out of the UN. More recently, she warned that if the Tea Partiers did not achieve their aims through the electoral process, they may need to explore „second Amendment remedies.” Second civil war, anyone? What fun.

Although Angle is obviously certifiable, her economic positions perfectly align with the interests of the wealthy—more tax cuts for the rich, less business regulation, less government spending, and lower capital gains and property taxes. She has gone on record as saying that the unemployed are „spoiled” and shouldn’t be coddled. She has also called for the repeal of Obama’s health care legislation and the elimination of the IRS, EPA and the Departments of Education and Energy. Since many of these positions belie her populist credentials, she is now madly backpedaling on social security while employing the tried and true GOP technique of fear-mongering to appeal to Nevada voters.

Angle would certainly have gone down in history as an obscure also-ran candidate were it not for the support of conservative pundits Mark Levin and Phyllis Schafly, the anti-tax Club for Growth, and the TPE. Due to a massive last-minute infusion of cash from the TPE, Angle was able to outspend the more moderate (and favored) Republican rival, catapaulting her into the lead. Said one analyst, „The turnaround for Angle has been remarkable. She netted just 5 percent in a Review-Journal poll in early April, a week before the Tea Party Express' endorsement; Lowden [the moderate rival] led that survey at 45 percent.”

In Alaska, meanwhile, Tea Party upstart Joe Miller beat out more moderate incumbent GOP Senator Lisa Murkowski, who was seen as insufficiently aligned with business interests on climate change legislation. In addition to opposing cap and trade, Miller favors extending tax cuts for the wealthy, privatizing Social Security, and massively cutting Medicare (creating significant business for Wall Street and health insurers, respectively). He also questions whether unemployment does not actually prolong unemployment because unemployment is nothing if not one long stress-free vacation from life.

Miller, a virtual unknown, would have certainly lost to Murkowski were it not for the intervention of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express, which pumped $600,000 into the campaign—permitting him to eke out a victory. Spending such an amount to sway the Alaskan electorate, said one pollster, is equivalent to pumping 10 million dollars into a primary contest in California.

The most recent Tea Party upset is that of Christine O’Donnell, who won the GOP primary for U.S. Senate in Delaware over more the moderate GOP politician, Mike Castle. It was during the race that O'Donnell's bizarre statements against masturbation came to light. More oddly, she apparently „dabbled in witchcraft, but never joined a coven” in high school, and thinks evolution is a „myth.” It is easy to let these amusing details distract from her hard-right economic agenda, which is deadly serious. She opposes cap and trade legislation, favors repealing health care reform, wants to raise the retirement age on social security benefits, opposes any and all tax increases on the wealthy, and wants to eliminate all earmarks and balance the federal budget through spending cuts. Disaster.

Early in the race, O'Donnell was dismissed as a far-right religious zealot with little to no job experience, poor life management skills, and questionable ethics (she was behind on her mortgage payments, failed to graduate college because of unpaid tuition fees, and was under FEC investigation due to improper use of campaign funds from her earlier runs for office). She had little hope of winning the primary challenge against Castle until the TPE blanketed the state with 350,000 USD of ads, and Sarah Palin and Mark Levin actively lobbied on her behalf. In the end, O'Donnell won the election, and the skeptical GOP standard-bearers were forced to back her candidacy.

By supporting extremist GOP candidates against merely right-wing GOP candidates, moneyed interests send the message that those who go against the wishes of tax corporations and rich people—even a little bit—will face humiliating primary defeats.

But what if Tea Party candidates flame out in the general elections because they are simply to extreme for American voters, leading to more Democratic victories? GOP strategists concede this possibility, but once again, helping the GOP was never the aim of their corporate backers. Changing the political discourse and destroying Obama’s agenda is the name of the game. Says Tea Party Express architect Sal Russo:

“What’s success for the Tea Party Express? I would say we’ve already achieved it,” Mr. Russo said. “Because today you can’t find a candidate running anywhere in America — Republican or Democrat — that doesn’t sound like they belong to the Tea Party movement."


  1. Nur die dümmsten Kälber wählen ihre Metzger selber (Bertolt Brecht, more or less).

    But I wonder how much this TP thing is not a media hype. Big Business is never as monolithic as mainstream US media

    Hubert Zimmermann, Marburg

  2. Well, I would say the TP thing is *mostly* media hype, because this is, to a great extent, a Murdoch-Koch enterprise. TPE gets much of its funding from a small group of extremely wealthy individuals and businesses, and Murdoch (owner of Fox News) singlemindedly pursues an agenda of destroying Democrats and moderate Republicans (he is a true believer, whose ideology nicely coincides with his business interests). In sum, you don't have to have all American businesses pushing the same agenda to make a big political impact. You just have to have access to, or control over, one or more major media outlets and be willing to spend millions and millions of dollars on astroturfing for corporate interests and funding corporate front groups to create agitprop (e.g., Swiftboat Veterans for Truth, Hillary: The Movie). All it takes is a political agenda, a lot of money, and media enablers.

  3. Smells a bit of conspiracy theory. Lunatic millionaires existed at all times, so why should they suddenly make such an impact? And its not even obvious that the TP creed would serve their needs.
    In any case, as much as I'm appalled by these people, I still consider them enough of a media hype to implode once it comes to the real thing, i.e. elections. I would even wage a bet that the much-touted Democratic defeat will not be nearly as bad as the polls say (or said until a week ago). Let the Republican party impal(in)e itself...