Election year conversions

On Dec. 6 in Osawatomie, Kansas—a location he chose because it was where Theodore Roosevelt made a 1910 bash-the-big-boys speech—President Obama gave a major speech that got a lot of attention. It was part of a broader campaign that has unfolded since then to recast him as an economic populist as he headed into his reelection drive. He said, in part:

“We all know the story by now: mortgages sold to people who couldn’t afford them, or even sometimes understand them. Banks and investors allowed to keep packaging the risk and selling it off. Huge bets—and huge bonuses—made with other people’s money on the line. Regulators who were supposed to warn us about the dangers of all this, but looked the other way or didn’t have the authority to look at all.

“It was wrong. It combined the breathtaking greed of a few with irresponsibility all across the system. And it plunged our economy and the world into a crisis from which we’re still fighting to recover. It claimed the jobs and the homes and the basic security of millions of people—innocent, hardworking Americans who had met their responsibilities but were still left holding the bag.”

It was inspiring stuff. It would have been even more inspiring if that kind of tone had found its way into the president’s policies and proposals during the previous three years of his presidency. Instead, he governed as the friend of the forces that caused the economic meltdown and bailouts of the Bush administration. He did nothing to reduce the size of those “too big to fail” corporations that caused the recession. He did nothing to break the procedural power of the Senate to stymie economic and other reforms. He appointed many of those who caused our economic problems to solve them.

We see this repeatedly. Al Gore is now a Nobel laureate for his efforts to protect the planet. It would have meant more when he had real power as a member of the Clinton administration, an administration so weak on the environment that some green groups resisted supporting the reelection of the Clinton/Gore ticket in 1996.

For a local example, U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley—who has been well known for her opposition to taxes on the rich—has been trying to reposition herself for a statewide campaign by using lots of emotionally loaded terms—Republican Dean Heller is a “Wall Street Republican,” for instance, or “secretive millionaires and corporations” have benefited from the Citizens United court ruling.

But by spending much of her House career trying to reduce the estate tax, Berkley created pressure for greater taxation on workers and the middle class. “Republicans like the look of Berkley’s estate tax proposal …” the Las Vegas Sun reported, not 10 years ago, but in December 2010.

Whatever else can be said about many Republicans, it is not difficult to know where they stand. There are Romney-like exceptions, of course, but generally Republicans campaign right and govern right. It’s the Democrats, who campaign left and govern right, who are difficult to read accurately.

The message for voters is this: The policy records of candidates Obama and Berkley, not their newfound economic populism, are the best guide to where they stand.