The Price of Power

Obama at Rinascente. Milan, 2010.

You Can’t Be President, by Harper’s publisher John R. MacArthur is an epistolary analysis of exactly what that electoral process entails. The first line of the first chapter sets the tone: “Despite what you learn in school of in Junior Scholastic magazine, you can’t be President.” This is not your Intro to Civics course packet. It is a passionate, though sometimes dry, rundown of what “does not tyrannize, but … compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people.”

MacArthur certainly sees himself as part of an “educated elite,” which perhaps explains why his analysis focuses so much on the failures of those who bill themselves as such. He even has a moment with a cabbie that “explains it all,” but it does not come off sounding contrite. Instead, the anecdote encapsulates the problem with our republican system, in which “pure democracy” is of course impossible, but in which elected officials err on the side of influence and state security, best exemplified in the book by the account of one Rhode Island homeowner’s crusade against a Target opening in her town, in which the big-box retailer’s advocate decries her grassroots movements as “mob rule.”

President’s strength lies in its exhaustive detailing of political campaigns where “outsiders” tried to challenge the party apparatus and were put down by their own people. At times, the minutiae can also be a bit of a weakness, due to the constant naming of names without enough context for those unfamiliar. Of course, readers will notice that a lot of these names pop up repeatedly, throughout the book. Anyone who reads Beltway insider publications like The Hill, Politico or PR Newswire critically will not be surprised to see the continuity, indeed, the bipartisanship, of similar vote- and donor-getting talking points and tactics as recounted by MacArthur.

Former Members of Congress feature quite prominently, most notably Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, whose 2008 primary fight with Obama  over delegates and campaign cash concludes the volume. This is a book about the President, the man elected to “lobby” on behalf of the entire country. Or, rather, to “lobby” on behalf of some very vocal influences in it who got him elected … or spent a campaign season trying to keep just that from happening.

McArthur’s account of the Clinton-Obama primary fight is the most interesting component of the book. Though some of the earlier chapters do not suggest a build-up to this point, MacArthur’s descriptions of American commerce, higher education and the press are all clearly building towards an excoriation of how the Democratic Party – and to a lesser extent, John McCain, whose 2000 and 2008 campaigns are starkly contrasted – winded itself out in its breathless race to secure favors and funding for the most “electable” candidate.

In this election year, Democrats seeking to contest Mitt Romney’s criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy have been rather shamelessly inciting to the right on the President’s “tough guy” record, painting him as an even bigger hawk than Romney, who, while having no foreign policy experience, has picked up a host of Bush Era neoconservatives to tell hjm what to say. So the Democrats try to out-conservative the Republicans, even though George W. Bush’s willingness to torture and assassinate  proved to be an effective anti-war campaign platform in the 2008 midterm elections for Obama’s party. MacArthur’s take on those elections, and what little they actually meant in terms of challenging U.S. policy in Iraq, is a neat little indictment of American Empire, the televised wonkery that justifies it, and the Congressional temerity that sustains it.

With Al Pacino. Vatican City gift shop, 2010.

MacArthur critically addresses how money makes party primaries undemocratic. In his view, primaries are less about the money itself as what the money can get you. Even Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope, as cited by MacArthur in the epilogue, does not pretend that all voters are truly equal in the most abstract, “We the People” sense: cash represents a bundler’s hopes and desires, and cash into trying to get a hold of officials’ ears. On the legislative end, there are now a slew of innocuously-named agencies like the American Legislative Exchange Council or The National Governors Association, both of which are heavily subsidized by U.S. corporations, to write and deliver bills unto elected offices throughout the land.

There is one important example of how these forces destroy American democracy that is this not found in the book.  The example is that of Howard Dean, and his ex-campaign manager Joe Trippi’s post-election careers. The contrast between their experiences chronicled in the book, and their work today shows exactly how poisonous the status quo of doing business in politics can be.

Dean and Trippi have gone on from being victims of party hierarchy that sought to quash their center-left insurgency to becoming rather common lobbyists – “common” in the sense that what they do is not at all different from what over 15,000 other registered special interest people do five days a week. They just happen to have had national political significance prior to taking up residence on K Street.

Dean, despite not being a registered lobbyist, has had his hands in a number of lobbying initiatives, including the deeply contested Keystone XL Pipeline debate, and Trippi’s record has been even more controversial. Trippi has become a registered foreign agent for the Government of Bahrain. But Dean, in fact, is the more interesting case study to consider because of what he’s now telling his clients. According to Lee Fang, Dean has informed his healthcare clients that if they feel they must give money to someone, they should “give it to both sides because politicians really don’t know much about the issues . . . . believe me, they remember who gave money and they remember those ads.”

Dean would know. MacArthur recounts how a liberal-baiting ad put out by a Republican group first amused the Dean campaign, but then terrified it because no top Democrats rushed to Dean’s defense, even though the broad brush of the ad should have been offensive to all of them. Perhaps that’s the highest compliment one can give to the people who engineered the downfall of the “Connecticut Yankee,” as MacArthur called Dean in 2008,  in the primaries: shameless imitation of their methods. It’s also a rather depressing illustration of MacArthur’s opening remark. You can’t be President, but you can always throw money at someone who might become one. If you’ve got the dough, that is.

 Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit

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