Tag Archives: Republicans

The Political Project of MCRC v. EPA, 4

Fourth In A Series

A still from a Tom Casperson campaign spot, in which Casperson (left) says the UP is “truly someplace special…now facing truly special challenges,” among them, “standing against the EPA and the unreasonable overreach of other agencies.”


Michigan State Senator Tom Casperson is the most visible political figure associated with the MCRC v. EPA lawsuit, the agent if not the author of its political project. We don’t know exactly what or how much he did to encourage members of the Marquette County Road Commission to take the EPA to court, what assurances were given and what expectations were put in place, as at least some of those meetings appear to have been conducted on the down low (and in violation of the Open Meetings Act). But the Escanaba Republican has never been shy about his support for CR 595 or his hostility toward the EPA.

Brian Cabell is stating what seems obvious when he links Casperson’s support for CR 595 to his business associations with timber and trucking in the Upper Peninsula, and it’s reasonable to believe that timber interests are among the donors to Stand U.P., the 501c4 dark money association funding the Road Commission’s lawsuit against the EPA. Before entering public life, Casperson succeeded his father as owner and operator of Casperson & Son Trucking, a log-trucking business started by his grandfather and based in Escanaba, Michigan. Associations like the Michigan Forest Products Council, the Great Lakes Timber Professionals and the Michigan Association of Timbermen support and celebrate the Senator’s achievements.

But those relatively direct and straightforward business associations are probably not the only ones in play here, and in supporting CR 595 and encouraging the CR 595 lawsuit, Casperson appears to be doing more than a little favor for himself and his friends back home in the timber and trucking industries. While a 2013 tally of Casperson’s supporters shows — not surprisingly for a Republican politician in the UP — that Michigan mining, timber and fossil-fuel PACs have been among his biggest backers, I suspect the MCRC lawsuit will serve an even deeper and more shadowy entanglement of alliances and alignments.

In parts 1, 2, and 3 of this series, I’ve described the formation of a political authority, or power bloc, that now pretends to direct economic development in the UP and decide what’s in the region’s best interests. That project is closely bound up with Casperson’s own political ambitions, and those ambitions are hardly limited to advocating for this haul road. Tom Casperson covets a seat above his current station, a role on the national stage; or at least he once coveted that bigger role, and politicians don’t often reconcile themselves to less power than they think they deserve. In 2008, Casperson ran against Bart Stupak to represent Michigan’s first district in the U.S. Congress. He made a pretty good showing, with nearly 33% of the vote against the incumbent’s 65%. With Stupak’s successor Dan Benishek announcing in March that in 2016 he’s running for a fourth term (after pledging to serve only three terms), Casperson will have to cool his heels until 2018. In the meantime, however Senator Casperson has a constructive role to play.

Casperson gained a certain notoriety in 2013 when he expressed doubts during a radio interview about whether President Obama was born in the United States, but he never found his footing as a birther, at least not in public. He’s spent most of his political career fighting the EPA and the regulation of industry in Michigan. That’s apparently where his heart is. Back in 2008, when he ran against Stupak, Casperson represented oil drilling as “lining up with my core beliefs.” At the time, he also claimed that the National Environmental Protection Act (passed in 1970) has regulators “walking around looking for amoebae on the ground so that they can find something to block timber sales,” and whined that environmentalism was “bringing the country to its knees.”

In 2011, Senator Casperson introduced a resolution (SR-10) “to impose a moratorium on greenhouse gas, air quality, and other regulatory actions by the Environmental Protection Agency” and require the EPA to account for the cumulative economic effect of “all regulatory activity” on climate change, air quality, water use, and coal ash. He recently joined Dan Benishek in opposing the Obama administration’s modifications of the Clean Water Act as “regulatory overreach” — echoing the point urged by other conservative opponents of the rule, who lined up obediently behind mining, fossil-fuel and energy producers, big agriculture and fertilizer companies like Koch.

Blaming the “war on coal” — the phrase itself is borrowed from the lexicon of climate change denial — for the closing of Marquette’s Presque Isle coal plant, Casperson warns that “there is no bigger threat to affordable, reliable electrical service to our districts than the EPA.” He grandstands about the EPA at every opportunity: “At some point,” he said back in March, “somebody’s got to take a stand here or they will take our way of life away from us. Clearly, they don’t like mining, clearly they don’t like timbering and quite frankly it appears they don’t really care much for us using the great outdoors unless they give us their permission and I think that’s unacceptable.”  

For Tom Casperson, any and every environmental regulation poses an existential threat. Against this ever present danger, he is out to protect what he frequently calls the UP “way of life” and force a David and Goliath standoff with the federal government. “The burdensome regulations proposed by the EPA,” he said when introducing a bill calling for a halt to the regulation of wood-burning stoves, “are an overreach of government and need to be stopped to protect our way of life.” “If we don’t pay attention,” he warned in a recent interview, “we’re going to get run over here.” On that occasion, he wasn’t talking about the danger of ore trucks barreling through downtown Marquette; he was rising to the defense of barbecue grills.

The barbecue resolution Casperson introduced this year with State Senator Phil Pavlov (and which passed the Michigan legislature unanimously) is an unabashed exercise in demagoguery. “Barbecues are an American tradition enjoyed by families from all walks of life across the country,” it begins, “whether tailgating for a football game, hosting a backyard get-together, or just grilling a summer meal, barbecues are a quintessentially American experience and an opportunity to eat and socialize with family and friends.” What prompted this noble defense of American tradition and the quintessentially American experience of barbecue? Of football, get togethers, and families from all walks of life across the country? Nothing much.  

In an EPA-sponsored competition, students at the University of California, Riverside were awarded a grant of $15,000 for proposing “to perform research and develop preventative technology that will reduce fine particulate emissions from residential barbecues.” That’s all there was to it. But those prize-winning students and their particulate emission preventing technology posed enough danger for Casperson — along with Missouri State Senator Eric Schmitt, Richard Hudson of North Carolina, Allen West and others of their ilk — to start hyperventilating about Obama and the EPA “coming after” our backyard barbecues. It looks like a loosely coordinated effort, with all the shills singing from the same sheet.

It’s a common tactic used to stir up popular sentiment against the regulation of polluters: when big pesticide users don’t like a new rule clarifying which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act, the demagogues tell small farmers that even a little ditch on their property will be counted among the “Waters of the US”; when regulators take aim at the fossil-fuel industry, the demagogues make dark predictions about the end of s’mores and campfires.

This is, by the way, the second time the Michigan legislature has fallen for this particular barbecue canard; the last time was back in 1997, when the Michigan House unanimously approved a resolution protecting barbecue grills against over-reaching federal bureaucrats. Casperson’s resolution was a reboot. Back in the 90s, and again in 2014 when Texas Senator Pete Olson demanded the Clean Air Act had to be amended if Texas-style barbecue were to be saved, the phony patriotism around Americans and their barbecue grills was a flag-waving effort to thwart the EPA’s proposal of stricter ozone limits. This time? Maybe rallying the troops around their barbecues helped to galvanize anti-EPA sentiment in the fight against the new Clean Water Act rule, or capitalize on the Pyrrhic victory the Supreme Court handed to industry in Michigan v. EPA.

A watchdog blog notes that Casperson’s “legislative record directly reflects the money trail,” but the equally important point — the one that I want to emphasize here — is that Tom Casperson’s efforts in the Michigan legislature appear to be connected and aligned with other legislative and extra-legislative efforts to ease environmental regulation and advance extractive projects and industrial development. The MCRC complaint presents a sterling opportunity for Casperson to strengthen these connections and forge new alliances. He would be a fool to pass it up.

Clark Hill, the attorneys who prepared and filed the complaint, already support Dan Benishek through their federal PAC; so Casperson may be able to jockey for a position in line behind him. But the law firm also gave more to Michigan Democrats than Republicans, and their real power and political influence does not depend on the nominal contributions they make to various political campaigns. Those are just goodwill gestures. Their political law practice, on the other hand, is a true nexus of political power, and at the head of it sits none other than Charles R. Spies. In 2012, Spies was Chief Financial Officer and Counsel for Restore our Future, the largest super PAC in history, formed to elect the unelectable Mitt Romney. Nowadays, Spies is supporting Jeb Bush, with a new Super PAC called Right to Rise.

These are the big leagues — much bigger than Casperson could ever dream of playing in. But the national success of Right to Rise will depend on thousands of coordinated local and regional efforts. If the MCRC lawsuit continues to go forward, it could easily have a place in that scheme, while raising Casperson’s profile and burnishing his conservative credentials. For its part, Stand U.P. can continue to raise all the money the MCRC needs for its lawsuit and whatever other political projects Tom Casperson and his cronies may be planning, and never have to disclose the sources of those funds. Its 501c4 “public welfare” status affords that protection.

David Koch and the Limits of Tolerance

“I believe in gay marriage.” So, in an interview with Politico last week, GOP megadonor David Koch came out in support of marriage equality. His remarks were widely reported as a “break” from the official Republican party line and Mitt Romney’s position on gay marriage. But Koch “joins a near-majority of young Republicans under the age of 35 who support marriage equality,” according to Human Rights Campaign. Among libertarians, gay marriage tends to be a non-issue. There’s little reason to be surprised or scandalized.

The whole affair reminds me of an exchange that Peter Hallward had in an interview with Noam Chomsky a short while ago. Chomsky and Hallward are talking about gains in the areas of human and civil rights, Chomsky maintaining that “the country has become a lot more civilized” in the past forty or fifty years, since the 1960s.

“Elementary rights” – Chomsky mentions women’s rights and gay rights, and the repeal of anti-sodomy laws – “were more or less marginalized until pretty recently, but now we can almost take them for granted.” (My emphasis here would be on almost.) Hallward readily concedes that human and civil rights gains were “hard won,” but hastens to add that ultimately “they don’t conflict with class interests.” Chomsky concurs:

The ruling classes are able to accommodate civil and human rights, pretty easily. In fact if you look at the opinions of CEOs, you find that their social attitudes tend to be fairly liberal. These things don’t affect their position. When you start to touch on questions relating to authority and the concentration of power in the system you run into more challenging barriers. But still, the freedoms that exist elsewhere give you the opportunity to work against those barriers.

Along with his brother Charles, David Koch certainly represents a concentration of power in the system. So does Goldman-Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who recently appeared in a Human Rights Campaign video advocating same-sex marriage. “America’s corporations learned long ago that equality is just good business and is the right thing to do,” says Blankfein in the video, urging us to join him “and the majority of Americans who support marriage equality.” And there is no reason to doubt Blankfein means what he says here. The Goldman CEO has helped advance legislation for marriage equality in New York, and under his leadership Goldman has made it a policy to reimburse employees for the extra taxes they pay on domestic partner benefits. (And that’s a draw for talented people – a big plus for Goldman.)

All this might lend Goldman the aura of a “socially responsible” company. But it’s worth noting that this issue is a good distance from the space where Goldman operates. “If Mr. Blankfein was taking a radical stand on pay you could say wow, that’s big,” Paul Argenti said when asked to comment on Blankfein’s video appearance. “But [marriage] equality is simply not an issue you associate with Goldman.” Advocating for marriage equality likely won’t raise serious questions about the role Goldman plays in the system of global finance, or the influence the investment bank exercises over American economic policy. (Those issues, by the way, are the focus of a new documentary based on Marc Roche’s book The Bank: How Goldman Sachs Rules the World, set to air on tonight on the French-German Television channel, Arte.)

Of course it’s better to have business moguls and power brokers like Koch and Blankfein join hands with young Republicans on the side of marriage equality or civil and human rights. No doubt about it. But before we break out into a chorus of Kumbayah it’s important to consider the limits of their tolerance – which is essentially what Chomsky is asking us to do – and ask where they draw the line. That’s where they will come out to fight.

Character makes a comeback

It’s almost as if Obama was channeling Thomas Frank last night. The President’s remarks on the American “character” in last night’s speech did exactly what Frank said the Democrats had to do: counter the Republican’s appeal to American self-reliance (or just plain selfishness) with the argument that “we are a society,” and position healthcare as a public good. And best of all he couched this principled stand for liberalism in an emotional passage about Ted Kennedy.

“What we face,” [Kennedy] wrote, “is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”

I’ve thought about that phrase quite a bit in recent days — the character of our country. One of the unique and wonderful things about America has always been our self-reliance, our rugged individualism, our fierce defense of freedom and our healthy skepticism of government. And figuring out the appropriate size and role of government has always been a source of rigorous and sometimes angry debate….

[Ted Kennedy’s] large-heartedness — that concern and regard for the plight of others — is not a partisan feeling. It is not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character. Our ability to stand in other people’s shoes. A recognition that we are all in this together; that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand. A belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.

No doubt about it: Obama won the night. It was no contest. Most Republicans looked dour or sulked throughout the speech; the official response by Charles Boustany was uninspired and didn’t offer a single constructive idea; and Joe Wilson acted like a Town Hall rube. If these are the Defenders of Liberty and Free Enterprise against the Socialist Alien who has taken over the White House, then may God have mercy on all free men.

Joe Wilson has apologized, but of course he’s not really sorry. He just feels like a fool, as he should. I shouted at the television a few times, and though I am not ready to take back everything I said about Obama’s leadership on this issue — or what the squabble over healthcare reform has revealed about Obama’s leadership — I feel contrite. Maybe speeches and appeals to reasonable compromise can actually prevail over finger-biting, shouting and demagoguery. Or maybe there was method in all the summer madness, and it will turn out that the President was more cunning than his opponents. He let them blow off steam, rant and rave, make him out to be a bogey man; and now he can appear reasonable, calming, reassuringly above the Town Hall fray, and inspiring.

The President made a good speech, some say a great speech. Every early indication is that the healthcare debate will continue. The progressives still cling to the public option; the GOP remains entrenched. Last night’s speech may not change much on that front, but it may re-animate the conversation (and boost the President’s ratings).

Now the big unanswered question that remains is not a policy question at all: it’s a question about the American “character.”

I wonder if we’re ready for a debate about “the moral issue” and the content of our character — and if the President is ready to lead us through one.

I wonder if we take ideas like this seriously anymore, whether we can even talk coherently about a character that is uniquely or distinctly American, an American ethos. It’s almost Victorian to talk in this way. Or the word “character” used in this sense seems to have a Harvard pedigree. “The character of our country” sounds like something JFK might say; Obama took it from Ted Kennedy’s letter.

You can’t be scientific about society when you talk about character. Or if you try to be, you will probably have to rely on the notion that there is what Edward Banfield called a “moral basis” to social arrangements, to prosperity and backwardness. Be that as it may, it is a question way beyond the ken of technocrats and wonks. And it may be one of the most important questions of the Obama era.

I wonder, too, if the President has read our character right.

This is Not Camelot

We were treated this week, courtesy of the White House, to this picture of Sasha Obama sneaking up on her father as he worked at his desk in the Oval Office. The Obama public relations machine would have us believe that this Camelot moment was snapped by a White House photographer who just happened to be in the room as the President worked and Sasha played. What serendipity! But ask yourself: what went into the making of this moment? What political purpose does it serve? And where is Obama hiding his inner JFK?

We were treated this week, courtesy of the White House, to this picture of Sasha Obama sneaking up on her father as he worked at his desk in the Oval Office. The Obama public relations machine would have us believe that this Camelot moment was snapped by a White House photographer who just happened to be in the room as the President worked and Sasha played. What serendipity! But ask yourself: what went into the making of this moment? What political purpose does it serve? And where is Obama hiding his inner JFK?

During the 2008 presidential campaign, I heard Ken Burns make a speech at an Obama fundraiser in which he made Barack Obama out to be another Lincoln. Both senators were young – too young, many thought, too inexperienced — when they first appeared on the national stage. Both, Burns continued, were lanky, rail thin, almost wispy: surely there must be something in that. Both came from Illinois, or at least both sort of came from Illinois, and both possessed the extraordinarily eloquence needed to bring together a suffering, divided nation.

As the speech unfolded, and the fact of Obama’s ordination became unavoidable, inescapable, the crowd made appreciative sounds. Burns is widely considered a genius of history, especially in liberal circles, and if Ken Burns said Obama was going to be the next Lincoln, quell our civil strife, and make us whole again, then it must be so. One could almost see a PBS special in the works, the image of one man dissolving into the other.

Burns was not the only one to serve up this particular blend of historical swill. He was good at it, because he’s used to reducing history to a mix of inoffensive platitudes and emotional mush, but in the run up to the election I heard the comparison with Lincoln made frequently (only not too loudly, not too publicly, as if saying it out loud too often or to too many people would break the spell, or at least invite some difficult questions).

Of course, this was not, and could not be the popular narrative. Opinions varied; and the thin man from Illinois had to be kept a cipher in order to have the widest appeal possible. Some conservative commentators who had become disillusioned with McCain discovered Reaganesque traits in candidate Obama. I thought I saw – or I wanted to see — in him the makings of a second Eisenhower, who would undertake big, green, ambitious 21st century infrastructure projects. Most people just hoped for anything other than more of the same.

Then, after the elation of the Obama victory, when it really did seem as if the reign of ignorance, brutality, cronyism and incompetence under which this country and the whole world had suffered was finally over, we were told ad nauseam by every major network and every news outlet that what matters is what happens in the first 100 days of a new presidency.

The big media started dutifully reporting that the Obama and his advisers – “Team Obama” — were studying FDR’s first 100 days, reading history, no less, to help them think through the challenges ahead. The narrative shifted: in the wake of the financial crisis, our troubles looked more like those FDR inherited in the 1930s. It was time for a New Deal, or a second Great Society – a Newer and Greater Society, I guess. And, by gum, with some teamwork and the right model, we would set things right.

But as Thomas Frank pointed out so brilliantly in his most recent column, the Democrats and President Obama have failed on healthcare so far because they have failed miserably at making the simple argument that “we are a society.” And that’s one key argument needed to counter the story Republicans are pushing: that we are a nation of rugged individualists and social Darwinists, and that social obligations limit individual liberties. Republicans would be wise to stick with this story as long as they can, and to build a strategy around it.

Why should I pay for someone else’s healthcare? First, because I already do: that’s the way the insurance business works. We all pay into the system every month so that the system can cover the medical expenses some subscribers incur. And along the way, some companies and some individuals – those who run the system, or game it — profit from our hedge against illness and catastrophe.

But that’s not the real argument Democrats needed to make. They need to persuade us, or at least (for starters) persuade themselves, that healthcare is a public good — not a “right.” Many Democrats so far have been unable or unwilling to give up the talk about rights (by which they really often mean entitlements), when it would be better to talk about healthcare as a public good, or even a public utility or service. And in order to make an argument that healthcare is a public good, you have to first remind people that there is such a “thing” as “the public,” a res publica or “republic”; and people have to do more than understand it. They need to feel it in their gut or their heart or wherever conviction is born. You have to persuade them that we are a society of free people with the potential to be great – which is something Lincoln and FDR and Ronald Reagan were all able to do.

Of course, it may already be too late to change course: the word “public” has now been tainted by “the public option”; and a public option may or may not serve the public good or be in the public interest. We don’t know, and we are not likely to have the nuanced discussion required to find out. Instead, opponents have been able to cast reform as just another big government takeover or entitlement program. Democrats are still trying to debate policy, but they have already lost the battle if their opponents have persuaded people that “policy” is just the politics of income redistribution.

What does all this have to do with the thin man from Illinois? The hijacking of the healthcare debate and the disintegration of the republic into fractious town halls is his failure – a failure of leadership and a lack of what George Bush the First called the vision thing. This is the last kind of failure I expected from candidate Obama, who was able to appeal to our better natures, even when we were down, and make us feel that we are all in this together (even if we disagreed on matters of policy). But it was, I fear, just a feeling. We thought he would call on us all, to ask what we can do for our country; but the call hasn’t come.

“Yes, we can!” was good and strong enough to get him through November, but President Obama seems lately to have forgotten that phrase, its energy and enthusiasm as well as the electoral mandate for real change it helped to produce. We all knew it was an advertiser’s slogan, but we hoped beyond hope that it was something more than cynical manipulation, or that this time there was really something in it for us and for what used to be termed, without embarrassment or apology, our republic.

A Specter (Not Arlen) is Haunting the GOP

It would be either paranoid or delusional to think that Daniel Henninger had me in mind as he wrote today’s Wall Street Journal column on the ghost of Ronald Reagan, or that he even numbers me among the “joyful Democratic bloggers” who think it’s time for the GOP to leave Reagan behind. But he has managed to draw me out (and not just because I don’t want to be mistaken for a Democrat, or a blogger, or, even worse, confused with the joyful).

You can definitely count me among those who think that expecting Ronald Reagan to lead the GOP out of the wilderness is not a viable political strategy, but just nostalgia, or more waiting for Godot. I said so in a previous post and in a letter responding to a March 5th Henninger column. The letter ran in the Journal under the title “Can’t Live in the Past” and managed to generate some discussion online among adherents to the cult of Reagan; the Journal ran a response from a young woman who held Ronald Reagan in the highest esteem, even though she was a child when he was in the White House, and who took exception to my view that younger voters who turned out for Obama might not exactly be drawn in by paeans to a dead man. My position wasn’t all that far from Jeb Bush’s own: “I felt like there was a lot of nostalgia and the good old days in the [GOP] messaging. I mean, it’s great, but it doesn’t draw people toward your cause.”

I’m still not exactly sure what any of this had to do with the purported subject of Henninger’s original column, which urged Republicans to start talking about economic growth and develop a political platform around growth, but I was delighted to discover that I had managed to hit a nerve.

I’m not out to be a scourge or a gadfly, or simply to irritate. I’d wanted to start a conversation about history, and its claim on the present. Nor am I out to be a mythbuster. There’s nothing wrong with having heroes and stories of the great deeds of great men to inform and guide your politics. In the classical world, that was considered one of the functions of history. I would only caution that you had better not look too closely at those men, because they are after all, men. Even saints err, as one saint (Thomas More) pointed out after studying another (St. Augustine): homo erat, errare potuit. The longer people accept and embrace the fabled past uncritically, the denser the cloud of nostalgia grows, and the further removed your politics will be from history and what really happened.

Again, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with all that. Myths and fables have value, not just cultural but real political value. We believe — or at least we used to be brought up believing — all sorts of things about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln that won’t stand up to very close scrutiny. We even learned them in school; they were moral tales, and they taught us things about the country and about the kind of people we were, the people we should strive to be. Those stories sacrificed some precision about how things really were to tell us how things ought to have been and ought to be.

Being a Reagan Republican may eventually involve the same trade off, and require less in the way of historical knowledge of Ronald Reagan’s presidency or critical interpretation of the past twenty-five years of American political and economic history and more in the way of catechism and fairy tales. To that end, I suppose, Henninger has taken steps in today’s column to start spelling out the articles of the faith, which the late Jack Kemp reduced to a Reaganite trinity: work, save and invest.

The full Kemp phrase, of course, was “incentives to work, save and invest.” Those incentives were to be the result of a government willing to admit the social benefits of modesty — in taxation and regulation of the economy. For now, the American public has elected an immodest government.

Leave aside for the moment that work, save and invest is not exactly a battle cry on the order of we are the change we have been waiting for. Solving that problem is just a matter of working with the material. Consider, instead, the claim for Reagan’s “modesty” and the social benefits it delivered. There are probably less charitable ways to describe Reagan’s approach to taxation than modesty; and modest regulation is really a euphemism for deregulation. But for Henninger the real difference lies in the fact that the new Obama budget sets out a full blown industrial policy; and that makes Obama the enemy of entrepreneurial capitalism:

Mr. Obama’s document genuflects to “the market economy,” then argues that it won’t endure unless we “sacrifice” (through tax increases) to make “overdue investments” (which literally only means public spending) on four explicit goals: green energy, infrastructure, public health care, and education.This calls to mind the way Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry guided that economy from 1949 to 2001. The Obama-Rattner strategy for GM and Chrysler — a rescue if the companies agree to the government’s desire to build more small “green” cars, presumably sold with a large tax credit — is industrial policy. Why be postwar Japan?

It is not conceivable that a Reagan or Kemp would have directed the U.S. economy’s legendary energies into building hybrid cars, windmills and bullet trains.

Republicans these days seem to paint themselves into corners very easily, and this passage proves that the wily Henninger is no exception. Criticize, if you will, the making of industrial policy; but restrain yourself enough so that you don’t start to sound like the enemy of health care reform, or the anti-environmentalist, anti-alternative energy, anti-education party. Why, instead, aren’t we discussing positive Republican ideas and contributions in those areas?

To put it another way, the Republicans would probably benefit handsomely right now from some greening (evangelicals already have), some distance from Big Oil, a serious commitment to education and research, and the honesty to admit that the American healthcare system is broken. But they’re not going there. After all, can you imagine Ronald Reagan or Jack Kemp going there? No, you really can’t. And that’s why it’s time to move on.

What’s more, the notion that Ronald Reagan was a great champion of entrepreneurial capitalism who did not and would never have indulged in setting industrial policy is a Reagan myth — a story constructed by Ronald Reagan himself. The truth is much more complex. As Robert Reich pointed out in an editorial he wrote for the Times in 1985, Reagan may have steered clear of the phrase “industrial policy,” but in the course of his first term he had initiated “a major experiment in economic planning,” and he had done so with “a heavy hand.”

Viewed as a whole, Mr. Reagan’s budget deficit, tax plan and military buildup comprise an extraordinarily ambitious plan for shifting America’s industrial base. This is industrial policy with a vengeance. But because Mr. Reagan is who he is – avowed defender of the free market from the depradations of big government -there are no voices to his right, vigorously denouncing Washington’s vulgar intrusion into the temple of the marketplace. As only Richard Nixon could open relations with Peking, so only Ronald Reagan can make economic planning respectable.

Reagan lives on and continues to haunt — and, I would add, hinder — the Republicans in part because he knew how to tell a good story about himself. He surrounded himself with good storytellers. All good leaders do that; it’s called soft power. And it’s a sign of the GOP’s intellectual poverty and lack of good leadership that they are still telling this same old story, and trying to frighten us from the future with a specter from the past.