John McCain is On Board with the Tea Party
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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 2009
John Edwards says he has few illusions. He knows the picture many Americans hold of him is not a pretty one. He also knows that even before he was engulfed in tabloid scandal, his electoral appeal had limits. And he believes that President Obama, the man who stole whatever rising-star magic he once had, is doing a good job.
Yet as he spends his days in his family’s mansion on the outskirts of Chapel Hill, N.C., Edwards can’t help but fret about how Washington and the country are getting on in his absence. He worries about the concessions that may be made on health-care reform, which he was promoting more aggressively than anyone on the presidential campaign trail. He worries about who will speak out for the country’s neediest at a time when most attention is focused on the suddenly imperiled middle class.
“What happens now? If you were to ask people during the campaign who’s talking most about [poverty], it was me,” he said in an interview a few days ago. “There’s a desperate need in the world for a voice of leadership on this issue. . . . The president’s got a lot to do, he’s got a lot of people to be responsible for, so I’m not critical of him, but there does need to be an aggressive voice beside the president.”
It has been 10 months since Edwards looked into a TV camera and said that in 2006, while preparing for his second run for president and while his wife’s cancer was in remission, he had an affair with a videographer working for him, Rielle Hunter — and then decided to run for president anyway, risking a scandal that could have devastated Democrats’ chances had he won the nomination.
He has hardly been seen since. In October, he mourned the death of his close friend and biggest financial supporter, trial lawyer Fred Baron, the man who had paid to move Hunter and her baby to Santa Barbara, Calif. In December, after being contacted by anti-poverty groups, Edwards helped deliver food and medication to Haiti. He learned in the months following that federal agents were investigating whether his campaign had funneled money to Hunter, an allegation he denies.
Last month his wife Elizabeth went on a media tour for her new memoir. She told Oprah Winfrey that she had “no idea” whether her husband was the father of Hunter’s baby girl, despite his earlier avowal that it was not. Asked whether she still loved her husband, Elizabeth Edwards said, “It’s complicated.”
John Edwards had left the country for much of the book tour. He was in El Salvador, helping a group called Homes From the Heart with its work building houses and clinics and distributing sewing machines. The group’s director, Michael Bonderer, was surprised when Edwards accepted his invitation.
“Obviously he’s got some problems, but he’s a nice guy,” Bonderer said. “I kind of didn’t know that. I thought, ‘What in God’s name am I going to have when he gets here?’ But he’s a pretty down-to-earth guy.” Edwards was funny, Bonderer said. “He jokes about how it’s obvious that the American people don’t want him to be president.”
But mostly, there are the many long hours in the big house. Edwards spends time with his two younger children, taking them on a trip to the beach last weekend. He keeps company with Elizabeth, whose cancer returned in the spring of 2007. And through it all he contemplates a lifetime of recovering from a steep fall from public grace.
“The two things I’m on the planet for now are to take care of the people I love and to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves,” he said.
In agreeing to his first extended interview since confirming the affair, Edwards refused to talk about Hunter, the baby’s paternity, his wife’s memoir or the campaign investigation. But he spoke expansively over the phone for 90 minutes about his tumultuous decade in politics, which began when, after the death of his teenaged son in a car accident, he left behind a career as a trial lawyer to run for the U.S. Senate in 1998.
He said that for all the trauma that came of the 2008 campaign, he is not ready to declare that it had been a mistake to run, calling that a “very complex question.” He believed, he said, that he had pushed Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton in a more progressive direction on issues including health care — Edwards was the first to propose an individual insurance mandate — and that the value of his run will be determined partly by what Obama achieves on these fronts.
“Did it make sense to run and stay in the race? Time will tell,” he said.
He said he has no plans to make a push to restore his name, along the lines of what former New York governor Eliot Spitzer has embarked on. Reputation “is not something I’m focused on,” he said. “The only relevance of it at all is my ability to help people. That’s the only reason it matters. I’m not engaged in, or interested in, being in a PR campaign.”
But he did not rule out a return to politics. He said it was too early to say what the future held — though an Al Gore-style advocacy role is more likely than elected office, given the scandal. He thinks “every day” about what form his future role in activism or public life could take, but “right now, a lot of that is unanswerable.”
“Sometimes you just keep your head down and work hard and see what happens,” he said.
After a strong showing in the 2004 primaries and his ultimately unsuccessful campaign as John Kerry‘s running mate, Edwards left the Senate to prepare for a second presidential run, positioning himself as the more progressive alternative to Clinton despite a voting record that was decidedly centrist on many issues. But then Obama came along. Edwards placed second behind the relative newcomer in the Iowa caucuses, then dropped out of the race in late January. He endorsed Obama in May, putting himself in the mix for vice president or attorney general.
Then came confirmation of the affair. So total has his disappearance been that there has been little accounting of what he left behind. Many of his supporters have yet even to attempt to reckon with the meaning of his campaigns in light of last year’s revelations.
Some Democrats still argue that he pushed Obama and Clinton to the left. But others say his outspoken progressive platform was flawed from the outset — it was better, they say, to frame a progressive agenda in the way Obama did, with broad themes of societal uplift, instead of an explicit appeal on behalf of the poor. These critics say the sincerity of all of Edwards’s rhetoric is in question now, potentially undermining future attempts by politicians to try to focus on poverty.
“The reaction going forward to a politician accepting the mantle of poverty the way Edwards did is that he would be dismissed as insincere,” said Margy Waller, a policy adviser in the Clinton administration. “The risk always was that that would happen to Edwards — not related to the way he treated his wife, but the way he treated the issue overall always seemed insincere. His whole history of working on the issue was fairly limited and always somewhat suspect.”
One legacy still stands: a poverty think tank that he created in 2005 at the University in North Carolina. It is now led by law professor Gene Nichol, who puts on occasional events and oversees student fellowships. The center is funded by a $2 million pledge by a Chapel Hill couple who were strong Edwards supporters. But his name has all but disappeared from the center’s Web site.
It bothers Nichol that Edwards’s many skeptics have used his troubles to justify their cynicism. It is a sentiment shared by Edwards’s former advisers, many of whom have found jobs in the Obama administration and on Capitol Hill. “People say in effect, ‘Well, John Edwards fell off a cliff so poverty obviously isn’t a question for American politics,’ ” Nichol said. “How that can be? I don’t understand.”
Edwards rejected the notion that questions about his credibility would hurt future efforts to combat poverty. “Helping the poor was never about me, and never should have been and isn’t today,” he said. “Whether I did extraordinarily superhuman things or had frailties has nothing to do with people living in the dark every day of their lives.”
Other Edwards initiatives have fallen by the wayside. One week before confirming the affair, he pulled the plug on College for Everyone, a program he started in 2005 at Greene Central High School in Snow Hill, N.C., which paid the first-year college tuition of any graduate who stayed out of trouble and worked 10 hours per week, at a total cost of about $300,000 per year. Edwards touted the program often on the campaign trail, calling it the first step toward a nationwide financial aid initiative.
But Assistant Superintendent Patricia McNeill said many had been bracing for the program’s end once Edwards dropped out of the presidential contest. “Our children today are very astute and they are cognizant of what goes on in the political world,” she said.
Among those who were taken by surprise was Lavania Edwards (no relation), a pre-kindergarten teacher who is still looking for help to cover the college costs of her son Malik, who graduated from high school last week. “We were really planning on that helping,” she said. “I was disappointed and I wondered what happened in that they couldn’t continue with the program — or why no one came out to us with a definite answer.”
Edwards said he had to pull the plug because campaign supporters were less likely to give money to the program once he was out of the race. “But it served its purpose,” he said. “A lot of kids benefited.”
Meanwhile, in New Orleans, residents who had been foreclosed on after Hurricane Katrina by subprime lenders owned by Fortress Investment Group, a hedge fund that Edwards worked for and invested with, have not received the special assistance that Edwards promised after their troubles were reported by The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal in 2007.
Edwards, who launched his campaign in a Katrina-stricken section of New Orleans, had vowed in 2007 that he would raise $100,000 to set up a fund that, administered by the anti-poverty group ACORN, would see to it that the 32 affected homeowners would be made whole.
Among the homeowners were Ernest and Ollie Grant, whose storm-damaged house faced foreclosure by Fortress-owned Nationstar Mortgage, on an adjustable rate loan that shot to $1,200 per month. The Grants said that after months of waiting for ACORN to call them, they reached out on their own and found a helpful employee, “Miss Kristi,” who got their monthly payment down to $649.
But six months ago, Nationstar started sending letters saying the payment was going back up above $900. The Grants called ACORN back, but Miss Kristi was gone, and others there provided no help. With their home finally fixed up, they are again worried about losing it. They bristle at Edwards’s name.
“I just thought he was trying to cover his tracks while he was a candidate. I even told my wife that if he didn’t win, we would feel these repercussions just like we’re doing,” said Ernest Grant. “It was probably all for show in the end.”
Another resident, Eva Comadore, said she never heard from anyone after the day a TV news crew came to ask her about the promise. Comadore had lost her home to foreclosure by Green Tree Servicing, another Fortress company, in May 2007. Since then, she has been paying $400 a month, two-thirds of her Social Security income, to rent a trailer owned by her sister.
“All I know is they were supposed to make some kind of agreement to settle with us but they never did,” she said.
ACORN spokesman Scott Levenson said the group had trouble finding the 32 homeowners. He said the group received $50,000, not $100,000, and that it went to the group’s general mortgage-counseling program in New Orleans.
Edwards said the $50,000 came from him. “I wanted to make a good faith effort,” he said. “Obviously, a problem this deep and widespread would not be solved by an individual presidential candidate.”
In 2007, Edwards said he had gone to work at Fortress because his family needed the income, despite holdings then estimated at $30 million. But in the interview, he said he was no longer fixated on finding lucrative work. “When I’m on my deathbed, I don’t think I’ll be thinking, did I work enough or earn enough money,” he said.
He plans to return to El Salvador next month. “Whether I’m digging a ditch or hammering a nail, I don’t have any pride in this anymore, I just want to help,” he said. “If I can help the most by working quietly, that’s what I’ll do. If as time goes by I can be more helpful with a public role, that’s what I will do.”
He realizes that his transgressions had only bolstered his longtime skeptics, but said that any cynicism about his motives on fighting poverty was “complete foolishness.” “There’s a reason why it’s been many years since a politician made this issue central to him — and, I might add, I didn’t get elected,” he said. “There aren’t many votes in helping poor people.”
Most of all, he wants his most ardent supporters to believe that the message that drove his campaigns was solid, despite all later revelations about the candidate himself.
“It was real, 100 percent real,” he said. “I want them to be proud of what I stood for, and of what the campaign stood for. The stands were honest and sincere and idealistic. They were what America needed then and needs now.”
UPDATE AT THIS LINK: GOP consultant killed in plane crash was warned of sabotage
A top level Republican IT consultant who was set to testify in a case alleging GOP election tampering in Ohio died in a plane crash late Friday night.
Michael Connell — founder of Ohio-based New Media Communications, which created campaign Web sites for George W. Bush and John McCain — died instantly after his single-prop, private aircraft smashed into a vacant home in suburban Lake Township, Ohio.
“The plane was attempting to land around 6 p.m. Friday at Akron-Canton Airport when it crashed about three miles short of the runway,” reports the Akron Beacon Journal.
Connell’s exploits as a top GOP IT ‘guru’ have been well documented by RAW STORY’s investigative team.
The interest in Mike Connell stems from his association with a firm called GovTech, which he had spun off from his own New Media Communications under his wife Heather Connell’s name. GovTech was hired by Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell to set up an official election website at election.sos.state.oh.us to presented the 2004 presidential returns as they came in.
Connell is a long-time GOP operative, whose New Media Communications provided web services for the Bush-Cheney ’04 campaign, the US Chamber of Commerce, the Republican National Committee and many Republican candidates. This in itself might have raised questions about his involvement in creating Ohio’s official state election website.
However, the alternative media group ePlubibus Media further discovered in November 2006 that election.sos.state.oh.us was hosted on the servers of a company in Chattanooga, TN called SmarTech, which also provided hosting for a long list of Republican Internet domains.
“Since early this decade, top Internet ‘gurus’ in Ohio have been coordinating web services with their GOP counterparts in Chattanooga, wiring up a major hub that in 2004, first served as a conduit for Ohio’s live election night results,” researchers at ePluribus Media wrote.
A few months after this revelation, when a scandal erupted surrounding the firing of US Attorneys for reasons of White House policy, other researchers found that the gwb43 domain used by members of the White House staff to evade freedom of information laws by sending emails outside of official White House channels was hosted on those same SmarTech servers.
Given that the Bush White House used SmarTech servers to send and receive email, the use of one of those servers in tabulating Ohio’s election returns has raised eyebrows. Ohio gave Bush the decisive margin in the Electoral College to secure his reelection in 2004.
IT expert Stephen Spoonamore says the SmartTech server could have functioned as a routing point for malicious activity and remains a weakness in electronic voting tabulation.
“…I have reason to believe that the alternate accounts were used to communicate with US Attorneys involved in political prosecutions, like that of Don Siegelman,” said RAW STORY’s Investigative News Editor, Larisa Alexandrovna, on her personal blog Saturday morning. “This is what I have been working on to prove for over a year. In fact, it was through following the Siegelman-Rove trail that I found evidence leading to Connell. That is how I became aware of him. Mike was getting ready to talk. He was frightened.
“He has flown his private plane for years without incident. I know he was going to DC last night, but I don’t know why. He apparently ran out of gas, something I find hard to believe. I am not saying that this was a hit nor am I resigned to this being simply an accident either. I am no expert on aviation and cannot provide an opinion on the matter. What I am saying, however, is that given the context, this event needs to be examined carefully.”
“Mr. Connell has confided that he was being threatened, something that his attorneys also told the judge in the Ohio election fraud case,” concluded Alexandrovna.
An FAA investigation into the causes of Connell’s plane crash is underway, but no results are expected for several weeks.
UPDATE AT THIS LINK: GOP consultant killed in plane crash was warned of sabotage
There is a Santa Claus! NPR is in the gifting mode, handing out airtime to yackers from the Grand Old Party (Republicans that is) – and a reader of this blog, “Grumpy Demo” from Dallas, was so kind as to do a bit of analysis of NPR’s big tilt toward Republican talking heads in it’s economic coverage of late. Here’s what Grumpy sent me:
In Reporting On White House Economic Stimulus Package, NPR Interviews Six GOP Congressmen For Every Democrat.Based on NPR’s own data, NPR demonstrated a preference for Republican members of Congress in its reporting on President Obama’s Economic Stimulus Package. A review of NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” broadcast records for the month ending February 3, 2008 indicates in the 50 stories on the stimulus, NPR interviewed and quoted 12 GOP Congresspersons, while only quoting 2 Democrats. Numerous polls show that a majority of Americas support the White House’s stimulus package.
When viewed in context – that NPR’s sole Washington news analyst is FOX News’ employee and O’Reilly Factor guest host, Juan Williams, combined with numerous interviews with Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute, and National Review pundits, with no members of the progressive movement given equal time – NPR demonstrates a clear and unambiguous conservative bias in its reporting. Additionally, during this same period no White House spokesperson was interviewed or quoted by NPR.
Search Data listed below:Month Ending February 3,2008Total Stories: 50Congressmen Interviewed, Quoted: 14GOP Congressmen: 12Democratic Congressmen: 2White House Spokesmen: 0
- 01/07/09 Oakley D-WI
- 01/19/09 Gingrich D-GAx
- 01/22/09 Roehmer R-TN
- 01/25/09 Cantor R-VA
- 01/20/09 Pence R-IAll Things Considered
- 01/06/09 Hoyer D-MD
- 01/15/09 Cantor R-VA
- 01/20/09 Pence R-IN
- 01/26/09 Grassley R-IW
- 01/27/09 Camp R-MI,Simpson R-ID01/29/09 Gerlach R-PA,Davis RNC,Camp R-MISearch Links:
- http://www.npr.org/search.php?sort=DREDATE:numberdecreasing&start=20&topicId=0&prgId=2&how_long_ago=30&matchany=false&aggId=0&stopwords=false&soundex=false&text=senator economic stimulus
Rachel Maddow seemed pleasantly surprised when Republican Rep. Donald A. Manzullo turned up on her show last week to talk about his vote against the Democrats’ stimulus plan.
“I can’t tell you how many times a day Republicans say no to invitations to be on this show,” said the liberal MSNBC host. “So we’re very grateful to him for saying yes tonight.” Maddow may have to get used to the experience.
If she had been monitoring MSNBC last week, she would have noticed that more congressional Republicans than Democrats appeared on the network to discuss the stimulus — by a tally of 15-9.
In fact, more congressional Republicans than Democrats appeared on all of the major cable news networks — CNN, Fox News, Fox Business and CNBC — during three days last week surrounding the House vote on the stimulus plan. That’s according to a report by Think Progress, a project of the left-leaning Center for American Progress, which added up congressional TV hits related to the stimulus bill.
The study found that Fox News struck the most balance, with eight Republicans to six Democrats; on CNN, there were two Democrats to seven Republicans.
Now out of power, congressional Republicans are turning to the power of the press, it seems.
“I think this is one of the models that we’re going to use going forward,” said Michael Steel, press secretary for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). “Our votes generally don’t matter anymore, but our voices do. Our job is to win the argument, day in and day out.”
And the Republican message offensive didn’t go unnoticed on the other side of the aisle, either.
“What happened with cable last week is that Republican House members were the only show in town,” said a House Democratic leadership aide, who similarly acknowledged that there’s a daily “battle” getting the party’s message to viewers.
Of course, it’s not as if the networks are cutting out the Democrats. But with so much network attention being paid to the Obama administration — including roughly 40 minutes a day devoted to Robert Gibbs’ press briefing — it’s understandable that bookers would seek out House Republicans to provide a counterbalance, even if it means leaving House Democrats out in the process.
CNN political director Sam Feist said simply tallying up appearances of members of Congress only — and specifically when discussing the stimulus — doesn’t offer a complete picture of a network’s coverage, he said.
“As I have looked at what CNN has done the past couple weeks over the stimulus debate, I’ve found the balance is there,” Feist said, adding that it’s never going to be a “perfect balance, minute to minute.”
Doug Thornell, communications director for Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen, said that while it’s important to make the rounds nationally via cable news, Democratic House members have been reaching out on a local level, too.
“Republicans are hoping to keep the debate in a national partisan box, disseminating their talking points and message through cable or conservative talk radio,” Thornell said.
“Van Hollen has been urging recently elected Democrats to aggressively make the case for the recovery package to their constituents who are hurting as well as to local media,” he said. “I think at the end of the day, it’s easier for Republicans to explain their opposition to an anchor on Fox News than to a worker in their district who just lost their job.”
But it’s not only Fox News, with cable’s most conservative stable of commentators, that Republicans have visited lately. While the rank and file beats the drum over media bias, some elected Republican leaders have hit up the oft-maligned networks among conservatives: MSNBC and CNN.
“You get left out of the story more because you weren’t effectively responding than [because of] any bias,” said Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, who serves as chairman of the House Republican Conference.
Since becoming conference chairman, Pence — who has a background in television and radio — has beefed up the press shop with additional bookers and is in the process of adding a deputy press secretary to deal specifically with Hispanic media outlets.
Pence said that because the “Republican conference exists to promote Republican members,” he’s been closely watching the morning’s headlines and then having staff reach out to media outlets with those members who can speak authoritatively on specific subjects — subjects that include the stimulus, national security and trade. About 70 members are now in the rapid response groups, which Pence has dubbed “tiger teams.”
Ron Bonjean, a former top Republican spokesman for the House and Senate leadership, drew parallels to the early days of the Clinton administration, when “the Speaker’s Lobby was packed with reporters trying to get Republicans, to get the other side of story.”
Bonjean said that while in the minority, Republicans will have less responsibility in Congress, such as management meetings, thus freeing them up in greater numbers to speak with the press.
“I think that will be a standard template going forward,” Bonjean said, “as long as Obama keeps making news and dominating the media space.”
(CNN) — Sen. John McCain said Sunday he would not necessarily support his former running mate if she chose to run for president.
Speaking to ABC’s “This Week,” McCain was asked whether Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin could count on his support.
“I can’t say something like that. We’ve got some great other young governors. I think you’re going to see the governors assume a greater leadership role in our Republican Party,” he said.
He then mentioned governors Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Jon Huntsman of Utah.
McCain said he has “the greatest appreciation for Gov. Palin and her family, and it was a great joy to know them.”
“She invigorated our campaign” against Barack Obama for the presidency, he said.
McCain was pressed on why he can’t promise support for the woman who, just months ago, he named as the second best person to lead the nation.
“Have no doubt of my admiration and respect for her and my view of her viability, but at this stage, again … my corpse is still warm, you know?” he replied.
In his first Sunday political TV appearance since November 4, McCain also promised to work to build consensus in tackling America’s challenges, and criticized his own party for its latest attack on Obama.
McCain rejected complaints from the Republican National Committee that Obama has not been transparent about his contacts with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
“I think that the Obama campaign should and will give all information necessary,” McCain told ABC’s “This Week.”
“You know, in all due respect to the Republican National Committee and anybody — right now, I think we should try to be working constructively together, not only on an issue such as this, but on the economy, stimulus package, reforms that are necessary.”
McCain‘s answer came in response to a question about comments from RNC Chairman Mike Duncan. The RNC also released an Internet ad last week, titled “Questions Remain,” suggesting Obama is failing to provide important information about potential links between his associates and Blagojevich.
Blagojevich was arrested Tuesday and charged with trying to trade Obama’s Senate seat for campaign contributions and other favors.
“I don’t know all the details of the relationship between President-elect Obama’s campaign or his people and the governor of Illinois,” McCain told ABC. “But I have some confidence that all the information will come out. It always does, it seems to me.”
McCain said he, like Obama and many other lawmakers, believes Blagojevich should resign.
Despite the heated nature of the race and attacks both former candidates lobbed at each other, McCain emphasized that he plans to focus on pushing lawmakers past partisan politics.
“I think my job is, of course, to be a part of, and hopefully exert some leadership, in the loyal opposition. But I emphasize the word loyal,” McCain said.
“We haven’t seen economic times like this in my lifetime. We haven’t seen challenges abroad at the level that we are experiencing, certainly since the end of the Cold War, and you could argue in some respects that they’re certainly more complex, many of these challenges. So let’s have our first priority where we can work together…
“Will there be areas of disagreement? Of course. We are different parties and different philosophy. But the nation wants us to unite and work together.”
McCain said he wouldn’t comment on whether he thought he had a good chance of winning the presidency, given the Bush administration and the GOP were perceived to be responsible for the economy’s problems. McCain said he would “leave that question” for others “to make that kind of judgment.”
He pointed out that his poll numbers dropped along with the Dow.
“That would sound like I am detracting from President-elect Obama’s campaign. I don’t want to do that… Nobody likes a sore loser.”
The key to moving past the stinging defeat, he said, is to, “Get busy and move on. That’s the best cure for it. I spent a period of time feeling sorry for myself. It’s wonderful. It’s one of the most enjoyable experiences that you can have.
“But the point is: You’ve got to move on… I’m still a senator from the state of Arizona. I still have the privilege and honor of serving this country, which I’ve done all my life, and it’s a great honor to do so.”
Remember the ownership society? President George W. Bush championed the concept when he was running for re-election in 2004, envisioning a world in which every American family owned a house and a stock portfolio, and government stayed out of the way of the American Dream.
These families were, of course, conservative, or at a minimum traditional and nuclear, consisting of a heterosexual married couple and at least two kids living in a stand-alone home with a yard, a car or two and a multimedia room with a flat-screen television. The latter was a new addition to this 21st-century simulacrum of the 1950s “Leave It to Beaver” idyll. But the dream was the same.
Such a country would be more stable, Bush argued, and more prosperous. “America is a stronger country every single time a family moves into a home of their own,” he said in October 2004. To achieve his vision, Bush pushed new policies encouraging homeownership, like the “zero-down-payment initiative,” which was much as it sounds—a government-sponsored program that allowed people to get mortgages without a down payment. More exotic mortgages followed, including ones with no monthly payments for the first two years. Other mortgages required no documentation other than the say-so of the borrower. Absurd though these all were, they paled in comparison to the financial innovations that grew out of the mortgages—derivatives built on other derivatives, packaged and repackaged until no one could identify what they contained and how much they were, in fact, worth.
As we know by now, these instruments have brought the global financial system, improbably, to the brink of collapse. And as financial strains drive husbands and wives apart, Bush’s ownership ideology may end up having the same effect on the stable nuclear families conservatives so badly wanted to foster.
The dream of a better society through homeownership didn’t originate with George W. Bush. It’s as American as Manifest Destiny. The Homestead Act in 1862 offered acres to anyone willing to brave the Western frontier. During Reconstruction, freed slaves were promised “40 acres and a mule.” And after World War II, with Levittown and its cousins, affordable homes were a reward of victory. But until very recently, those hopes and dreams were connected to actual income and gainful employment. No longer.
The giddiness of the Bush years built on the promise of the New Economy era, a promise perfectly encapsulated by a 1999 billboard advertising a shiny new subdivision in Scroggins, Texas, filled with homes that most of their owners couldn’t really afford: YES, YOU CAN HAVE IT ALL! That dream took a sharp hit with the collapse of the Internet stock bubble in 2000-2001 and then with 9/11, both of which destroyed billions of dollars of wealth. But it came roaring back in 2002, encouraged by Bush’s post-9/11 exhortation that Americans could do their patriotic duty by going shopping and paying lower taxes, even as government spending exploded. Shop they did, and homes they bought.
The spree wasn’t confined to the United States. Britain has its own version of the ownership society, which received a boost from Margaret Thatcher, who promoted “a property-owning democracy” that her Labour successors, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, endorsed. Blair liked to talk of building a “stakeholder economy” with a big role for the ordinary property-owning citizen. More recently, Brown has spoken of creating a “homeowning, asset-owning, wealth-owning democracy.” Millions were happy to buy into the vision. Tenants of government-owned properties gladly took up Thatcher’s offer to sell them their homes at knockdown prices. More than 70 percent of Britons now own their homes, compared with 40 percent of Germans and 50 percent of French.
In Britain as in the United States, the vision was about more than owning a home. It was about being a better person. With a home came traditional values, an appreciation of hard work, prudent living, civic-mindedness, patriotism and ultimately a more stable society. Or so the rhetoric went.
But eventually, it all went sour. By the turn of the century, the proliferation of easy credit and universal stock ownership combined to create anything but a conservative society of thrift. Average household debt levels are now higher in Britain than in any other major country in the developed world. In the United States, the shift away from corporate pensions to 401(k) retirement accounts plunged millions more into the equity markets and loosened the traditional connection between companies and workers, which was one element of that 1950s dream that conservatives like Bush conveniently forgot. The ownership society of the 1950s was anchored by a labor movement that made sure that workers received something resembling their share—remember Truman’s Fair Deal? The deal for the past eight years has been fair to merchants of capital, and then some. But to the tens of millions on the receiving rather than originating end of those mortgages, fairness has been in short supply.
No, this can’t be reduced to a swindle. We all bear some burden for the current morass. You can’t peddle what people don’t want to buy, and for a while it seemed a decent trade-off: Wall Street got rich, and Main Street got homes. The easy terms—and that is putting it lightly—of mortgages gave many a chance to own a home who never would have qualified for a mortgage in years past. But it also gave others the option to buy, sell and flip. Every speculator a home? That wasn’t supposed to be part of the equation.
The irony is that more homeownership and stock ownership has actually weakened traditional bonds. For the past decade, as homeownership went up, marriages continued to fail. As a percentage of the population, fewer people are getting married now than 10 years ago. Single-parent homes are on the rise. So is unemployment, which has increased to 6.1 percent, up from 4.5 percent in 2000. With foreclosures now running at more than 300,000 a month, and stock portfolios and retirement savings shrinking with the global-equity sell-off, there has been a notable increase in demand for mental-health services—which is a problem, given that many health-care plans, the ones left to the private sector, cover only a few visits. Studies have also shown a link between difficult economic straits and declining health and higher mortality. And as the editor and writer Tina Brown, a sharp tracker of social trends, recently said at NEWSWEEK’s Women & Leadership conference, “I think the financial crisis is going to put a lot of marriages under great stress. There really isn’t enough to go around, and there are choices to be made. When men lose their job they frequently feel a great loss of manly self-confidence, and that has great impact on a marriage.”
The final referendum on the ownership society will be the November election. The rhetoric of both parties and candidates for president suggests that regardless of who wins, the vision of the past eight years is being rejected in favor of hunkering down, paying off debt, regulating the anarchic world of credit and derivatives, and unraveling systemic knots that have assumed Gordian complexity. As Barack Obama recently said, “in Washington they call this the ownership society, but what it really means is, you’re on your own.”
This crisis will pass, eventually, and on the other side there will still be global electronic exchanges and computer-enhanced models; there will still be mortgages; and there will still be a deep cultural yearning for a place of one’s own. There may be less froth and more discipline in the coming years—combined with reduced circumstances and less money. Lean times are their own source of hopes and desires, and drive people to find new ways to satisfy old yearnings. There may be more prudent ways to create a world where families are stable and living in their own homes. But the gap between that dream and messy reality isn’t likely to close any time soon. Let’s hope that we have learned something about how much we can have and how quickly. For Americans in particular, that would be a real revolution.
Karabell is president of RiverTwice Research and senior adviser for Business for Social Responsibility.