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Monday, February 25, 2008

The Dime and the Difference

Some details to keep in mind as we spend the coming months sussing the important distinctions between and among our corporate-vetted selections:

After the 1994 election, Democrats had just lost both houses of Congress, and President Clinton was floundering in the polls. At the urging of his wife, he turned to Dick Morris, a friend from their time in Arkansas. Morris brought in two pollsters from New York, Doug Schoen and his partner, Mark Penn, a portly, combative workaholic. Morris decided what to poll and Penn polled it. They immediately pushed Clinton to the right, enacting the now-infamous strategy of "triangulation," which co-opted Republican policies like welfare reform and tax cuts and emphasized small-bore issues that supposedly cut across the ideological divide. "They were the ones who said, 'Make the '96 election about nothing except V-chips and school uniforms,'" says a former adviser to Bill. When Morris got caught with a call girl, Penn became the most important adviser in Clinton's second term. "In a White House where polling is virtually a religion," the Washington Post reported in 1996, "Penn is the high priest."

Penn, who had previously worked in the business world for companies like Texaco and Eli Lilly, brought his corporate ideology to the White House. After moving to Washington he aggressively expanded his polling firm, Penn, Schoen & Berland (PSB). It was said that Penn was the only person who could get Bill Clinton and Bill Gates on the same line. Penn's largest client was Microsoft, and he saw no contradiction between working for both the plaintiff and the defense in what was at the time the country's largest antitrust case. A variety of controversial clients enlisted PSB. The firm defended Procter & Gamble's Olestra from charges that the food additive caused anal leakage, blamed Texaco's bankruptcy on greedy jurors and market-tested genetically modified foods for Monsanto. PSB introduced to consulting the concept of "inoculation": shielding corporations from scandal through clever advertising and marketing.

In 2000 Penn became the chief architect of Hillary's Senate victory in New York, persuading her, in a rerun of '96, to eschew big themes and relentlessly focus on poll-tested pothole politics, such as suburban transit lines and dairy farming upstate. Following that election, Penn became a very rich man--and an even more valued commodity in the business world (Hillary paid him $1 million for her re-election campaign in '06 and $277,000 in the first quarter of this year). The massive PR empire WPP Group acquired Penn's polling firm for an undisclosed sum in 2001 and four years later named him worldwide CEO of one of its most prized properties, the PR firm Burson-Marsteller (B-M). A key player in the decision to hire Penn was Howard Paster, President Clinton's chief lobbyist to Capitol Hill and an influential presence inside WPP. "Clients of stature come to Mark constantly for counsel," says Paster, who informally advises Hillary, explaining the hire. The press release announcing Penn's promotion noted his work "developing and implementing deregulation informational programs for the electric utilities industry and in the financial services sector." The release blithely ignored how utility deregulation contributed to the California electricity crisis manipulated by Enron and the blackout of 2003, which darkened much of the Northeast and upper Midwest.

Burson-Marsteller is hardly a natural fit for a prominent Democrat. The firm has represented everyone from the Argentine military junta to Union Carbide after the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, in which thousands were killed when toxic fumes were released by one of its plants, to Royal Dutch Shell, which has been accused of colluding with the Nigerian government in committing major human rights violations. B-M pioneered the use of pseudo-grassroots front groups, known as "astroturfing," to wage stealth corporate attacks against environmental and consumer groups. It set up the National Smokers Alliance on behalf of Philip Morris to fight tobacco regulation in the early 1990s. Its current clients include major players in the finance, pharmaceutical and energy industries. In 2006, with Penn at the helm, the company gave 57 percent of its campaign contributions to Republican candidates.

A host of prominent Republicans fall under Penn's purview. B-M's Washington lobbying arm, BKSH & Associates, is run by Charlie Black, a leading GOP operative who maintains close ties to the White House, including Karl Rove, and was a partner with Lee Atwater, the consultant who crafted the Willie Horton smear campaign for George H.W. Bush in 1988. In recent years Black's clients have included the likes of Iraq's Ahmad Chalabi, the darling of the neocon right in the run-up to the war; Lockheed Martin; and Occidental Petroleum. In 2005 he landed a contract with the Lincoln Group, the disgraced PR firm that covertly placed US military propaganda in Iraqi news outlets.

Black is only one cannon in B-M's Republican arsenal. Its "grassroots" lobbying branch, Direct Impact--which specializes in corporate-funded astroturfing--is run by Dennis Whitfield, a former Reagan Cabinet official, and Dave DenHerder, the political director of the Bush/Cheney '04 campaign in Ohio. That's not all. B-M recently partnered with lobbyist Ed Gillespie, the former head of the Republican National Committee, in creating the new ad firm 360Advantage, run by two admen for the Bush/Cheney campaigns. Its first project was a campaign against "liberal bias" in the media for the neoconservative Weekly Standard magazine.

As expected with such a lineup, B-M has a highly confrontational relationship with organized labor. "Companies cannot be caught unprepared by Organized Labor's coordinated campaigns," read the "Labor Relations" section of its website, describing that branch of the company (the section was altered after The American Prospect quoted it in March).


So McCain's campaign strategist works for Clinton's campaign strategist, and both have made careers defending some of the most reprehensible corporate misdeeds, as well as overseen propaganda efforts both domestically and abroad. These guys aren't just in the belly of the beast, they're part of the stomach lining.

While of course there are clear distinctions in ideological principles between Democrats and Republicans, in practice many of these distinctions diminish somewhat. No, Al Gore would not have let 9/11 happen, and thus would not have disastrously invaded Iraq under false pretexts. But he also would not have halted the ongoing bombing campaign, nor the sanctions which were already responsible for hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children dying young, a price which Madeline Albright once smugly stated was well worth it. Well, it's always "worth" it when you aren't the one paying, dearie. And while he's become the demi-god of the enviro movement on his permanent vacation, it is helpful to recall that the CAFE standards were gutted under Saint Albert's stewardship in the first place.

As for the current candidates, one notable assumption has been that Hillary will prevent an escalation of hostilities with Iran, yet she voted for Kyl-Lieberman without batting an eye, and has been consistently emphatic in her unconditional support for Israel. She voted for the PATRIOT Act twice, and has yet to take a stand against the abuses of FISA. There are no guarantees, only bets to be hedged.

And domestically, the distinctions are refined even more tightly; aside from health care, abortion, welfare, and gay rights (the last two of which the Clintons were more than happy to punt on the first chance they got), there's not a whole lot to write home about. Even on health care, you can have all the "universal" happy talk you like, but any plan is going to be underwritten by the insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies right from the start. Instead of taking it out of your hide on the job, it'll just be another taxpayer-funded sop, an across-the-board feel-good boondoggle that will neither improve care, cut costs, nor fix the ruinous shareholder-driven revenue model. Just another spreadsheet adjustment.

Which leaves abortion rights, and if you want to hang your hat on that one, vaya con dios, folks. I would prefer that HRC or Obama pick the next couple SCOTUS justices, rather than Straight Talk, but there are no guarantees there either, especially with Clinton's instinct to always cater to people who will never not despise her. On economic issues, there were decent (if much-delayed) gains in real wages during the Clinton years, which have since been more than offset by huge increases in basic living expenses. This is not a "Democrat" versus "Republican" issue so much as a labor vs. management issue. Guess who's winning.

What always bugged me most about the Clintons and their acolytes back in the day was the ease with which they bought their own hype. They appeared to honestly think that they could rent themselves out to management and still help out the little guy. Sort of like encouraging a vampire to utilize a less painful method of attacking victims.

This shouldn't even need to be said: People who represent military juntas for a living are not typically concerned much with the travails of the commoner, except insofar as there's a buck to be turned acting concerned.

Again, I do still think that there are substantial differences in terms of respective intent, a brief perusal of all the candidates' stated positions makes that clear enough. But if the past year or so has been any indication, good intentions are not enough. Even a clear, consistent mandate by the voters has not been enough to empower the Democrats to simply accomplish (or even make more than a token effort at) what they promised they would do.

The differences do not matter if they are not sufficiently acted upon, and many of us continue to harp on the foolish consistencies of ideological semaphore, when the fact of the matter is that this is all about money. Not the war, not the preservation of choice, not education, not universal health care. The issue is money and who gets to preserve and expand their share of making it, and maintaining access to it.

The recently departed Wire character Omar Little sagely pointed out, as he robbed drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield at a card game, that money has no owners, only spenders. True dat. By the time the election is over this year, over half a billion dollars will have been raised, donated, spent. Much more doubtlessly will have been generated in selling ad space in the corporate media to provide two straight years of horserace coverage, to skew information and consent as needed, to treat the corrupted opinions of known liars and calumniators as received wisdom, to lobby the very same people they talk about.

Whose pockets are the origins and destinations for all these wads of dough, the thick envelopes and four-figure-a-plate rubber-chicken stemwinders; whence does the money come and where does it go -- and for what purposes? Not fucking universal health care, you'd best believe that.

Nader is just the typical blind pig finding the quadrennial acorn, once again, and with none of the intellectual heft or constructive responsibility that should accompany his increasingly strained attempts. But that doesn't mean he's wrong; it doesn't mean we haven't become emotionally invested in gutless incrementalism posturing as "change". The very definitions and perceptions of that word have been compromised.

[to be continued]

3 comments:

Grace Nearing said...

Okay, I never expected any of them to be virgins. What I didn't expect was that they'd all be whores.

Heywood J. said...

That pretty much sums it up. And while Obama may not be represented by the same animals who do p.r. for juntas and corporate marauders, nobody rises as fast and far as he has without some interesting backstory. In his case, "lack of experience" probably more accurately translates as "least morally compromised".

But what really interests me even more than the parliament of whores is the way people keep idealizing them, far beyond all rational thought and even the usual blind adulation.

libhom said...

I didn't know that Hillary Clinton was the one who brought Dick Morris into the Clinton circle. That is truly disturbing.