Thursday, April 24, 2008


John McCain is burnishing his credentials as a compassionate conservative, one who is in touch with the suffering American people, those forgotten, those left behind. From Selma, Alabama, to Youngstown, Ohio, to Inez, Kentucky, then to New Orleans, McCain is filming one great political ad after the next. It's McCain as JFK touring Appalachia. McCain as LBJ allying himself with the civil rights movement and calling for a War on Poverty of sorts.

I think it's more like McCain as OJ, returning to the scene of the crime in a shameless act of opportunistic self-promotion. All three of these places are gory messes, left for dead by four decades or more of failed public policies. The GOP has taken nothing but photos and jobs and left nothing but Bruno Magli footprints and a bloody glove. So hop into your white Bronco and let's go on a roadtrip with the G.O.P.'s presidential candidate.

Selma: this seventy percent black Alabama town has lost one-third of its population since John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Jr. attempted to cross its Edmund Pettus bridge in an act of defiance against Alabama-style Jim Crow. Four decades after the epochal protests, Selma has not yet overcome. The town is mired in unemployment. 8.4 percent of Selma's residents are out of work. One-third live in poverty. Here's the testimony of Jean Jackson, a retired schoolteacher who remembers the 60s protests, in an LA Times article published several weeks before McCain's visit. "Dr. King would be terribly disappointed," she says. "We are not doing as well, in some aspects, as we were before the movement. We have all the rights and privileges, but what good is it to have all the rights and privileges if [those things are] not going to feed us?"

But buck up Selma, John McCain has the answer for you: "It is time for change; the right kind of change; change that trusts in the strength of free people and free markets; change that doesn't return to policies that empower government to make our choices for us, but that works to ensure we have choices to make for ourselves. For we have always trusted Americans to build from the choices they make for themselves, a safer, stronger and more prosperous country than the one they inherited." The problem with McCain's history of Selma is two fold: 1) It took "policies that empower government to make our choices for us" to break down the barriers of Jim Crow in Selma. King, Lewis, and the marchers on the Edmund Pettus bridge were not just exhorting us to "overcome." They demanded--and won--federal policies that forced Alabama to open its voting rolls to blacks. If white Alabamans had been left to "choices they make for themselves," blacks would still be unable to vote. 2) McCain's "free markets" have not served Selma and its residents well. Under Republican and Democrat alike, federal policies have channeled funding, tax breaks, and other goodies to corporations that have not trickled down to the residents of Selma and America's many, many other Selmas. Selma's history is one of market failure.

Off to Youngstown, a poster child for the pathologies of the free market. Most of its once-coveted industrial jobs are now offshore. Its landscape is marred by the hulks of abandoned factories. Its residents are suffering mightily from the mortgage foreclosure crisis. The unions that brought its blue-collar workers into the middle-class are weakening. And McCain's party has consistently supported legislation that weakens the right of workers to organize collectively. McCain offers Youngstown residents a litany of Republican nostrums, most of which call for cutting taxes on corporations. But then there's this: "We need reforms to make sure that employers spend more on wages, and that your health plan is yours to keep." I'm not sure what McCain means by this, but given that he opposed even the modest increase in the minimum wage from a miserly$5.15 to a still inadequate $7.25, I am not holding my breath that he will introduce any wage-upping reforms anytime soon.

Onto Inez, a hardscrabble town that was host to Lyndon Johnson four decades ago. Here McCain offers a re-reading of the War on Poverty that is rather ahistorical. "I have no doubt President Johnson was serious and had the very best of intentions when he declared the war on poverty in America. But the army he enlisted was mostly drawn from the ranks of government bureaucracies." OK, but two problems here. One is that poverty rates in the United States plummeted in the 1960s, in large part because of the War on Poverty. In 1959, 22.4 percent of Americans lived beneath the poverty line. By 1973, that figure had fallen to 11.1 percent. The steepest drops came between 1964 and 1969. Part of that poverty reduction was the consequence of an economic boom (one that happened under two Democratic presidents and was marked by the growing labor force participation of women and African Americans, the consequence of the civil rights movement). But a large part of the reduction in poverty in the 1960s came from the expansion of transfer payments to the poor. McCain's history fails on another count. The War on Poverty took a huge amount of flack at the time, notably because of its Community Action Program (remember Maximum Feasible Participation?), which put the administration of anti-poverty programs in the hands of community organizations and non-profits. One of the legacies of the War on Poverty is that many anti-poverty programs, for better and for worse, are not run by federal bureaucrats at all, but shaped and administered by non-governmental organizations at the state and local levels. Bad history, John.

I'll be listening for what Johnny Mac has to say about New Orleans. I'm not hopeful.


David said...

Irrespective of his historical analysis and policy ideas, isn't it better for the politics of the nation that he takes the time to go to those places. He reintroduces them to the national polity. These places spend most of their time on the very margins of nearly all aspects of American society.

The interesting thing about Y-town is that so much of the residue of its industrial past is quickly disappearing. Parts of the region look more like it did in the mid-19th century than at a moment since.

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