Authors: Kurt Andersen
The surname Sununu is familiar today mainly because of a pair of recent New Hampshire politicians, a governor and a U.S. senator, but the most significant Sununu was their father, John H. Sununu, himself a former New Hampshire governor and the first President Bush’s first chief of staff. In several important ways, he was another prototypical Republican for the new age: an asshole personally, a conservative hard-liner, and a critical figure in turning the party away from reason and science and common sense toward full-bore denial of climate change.
In 1980, concerning the greenhouse effect, as it was then called, the “main scientific questions were settled beyond debate,” Nathaniel Rich writes in his book
Losing Earth: A Recent History
. “As the 1980s began, attention turned from diagnosis of the problem to refinement of the predicted consequences” to solutions, how to reduce carbon emissions. In 1981 a study by NASA scientists confirming this consensus was front-page news, recommending that the United States continue burning oil and gas and coal only “as necessary.” At a symposium the following year organized by James Hansen, the NASA scientist who’d led the study, Exxon’s president of research declared that “capitalism’s blind faith in the wisdom of the free market was ‘less than satisfying’ when it came to the greenhouse effect.” In a speech to energy executives, Reagan’s environment czar said “there can be no more important or conservative concern than the protection of the globe itself.”
Two things happened in 1983 that started us toward the disastrous wrong turn on climate change by the end of the decade. One was what happened when another big federal study was published, this one called “Changing Climate” and conducted by a presidential commission under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences. Its findings confirmed the dire scientific consensus about the nature of the problem—carbon dioxide levels were doubling, warming was continuing, polar ice was melting, and sea levels were rising disastrously.
But that’s not how it was spun by the Reagan administration, or by the political ally whom the president had appointed to oversee the commission. In a front-page
HASTE OF GLOBAL WARMING TREND OPPOSED
), that Reaganite physicist-turned-oceanographer told everyone to calm down, that climate change was no big deal, and that “we have 20 years to examine options before we have to make drastic plans.” Exxon quietly decided that capitalism’s blind faith in the free market was good by them and there were indeed more important concerns than researching how to protect the planet from carbon emissions, and the American Petroleum Institute ended its research into CO
-induced climate change.
The other critical 1983 event was the election of a nobody libertarian college teacher as governor of New Hampshire, turning him into a national Republican figure. John Sununu was an engineering professor son of an engineering professor who radiated the conviction that he was the smartest person in every room, certainly when the subject was science—and now concerning the new science of climate change.
But during the 1980s, Sununu’s pooh-poohing remained a fringe position even among Republicans. In 1988 alone, dozens of bipartisan bills to deal with global warming were introduced in Congress, and forty-two senators, almost as many Republicans as Democrats, formally asked Reagan to start working toward some kind of international climate treaty—which he agreed to do. Early that summer Hansen, the NASA scientist, testified at a big Senate hearing, and the issue got more public attention than ever—
GLOBAL WARMING HAS BEGUN, EXPERT TELLS SENATE
’s page-one headline.
The fossil fuel industry freaked out. Global warming was becoming the obverse of a motherhood-and-apple-pie issue—everybody believed in it and hated it. Big business in general had been getting its way for a decade, but on this subject, the oil and gas and coal guys saw that Republicans weren’t standing up for
business at all. Before the summer was over, Exxon’s “manager of science and strategy development” was circulating a confidential memo arguing they must now go to Plan B—that is, to “emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions,” even though there was no uncertainty concerning the problem. The rest of the industry signed on, and the lobbyists and the think-tank scholars and the rest of the right’s counter-Establishment were recruited for a new mission of casting doubt on science.
Still, at that very moment in 1988, the dangers of the greenhouse effect, and the decisive use of government to stop it, was one of George H. W. Bush’s big presidential campaign talking points. Ten days after his inauguration, his secretary of state, James Baker—a smooth former Houston oil and gas lawyer who had also been his campaign manager—gave a speech about global warming. Baker apparently hadn’t gotten the memo, because he argued for urgently reducing CO
emissions, reforestation, the works. “We can probably not afford to wait” to act, he said, “until all of the uncertainties about global climate change have been resolved.”
The White House chief of staff promptly went to see the secretary of state. “Leave the science to the scientists,” Sununu told Baker, according to Rich’s
. “Stay clear of this greenhouse-effect nonsense. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Baker did as he was told, and Sununu kept riding his hobbyhorse. During a meeting with the head of the EPA and an Energy Department bureaucrat, a staff member made the mistake of referring to a climate change initiative to discourage the use of fossil fuels. “Why in the world would you need to reduce fossil-fuel use?” Sununu snapped at her. “I don’t want anyone in this administration without a scientific background using ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ ever again.” By the end of the first year of that first Bush presidency, Sununu had almost single-handedly halted the political momentum in Washington, turned climate change into a partisan issue, and put denial of the science on its way toward Republican orthodoxy.
As the 1990s began, the right stayed angry and upset and kept growing in size and power thanks to the primitives, the bigots, the Protestant fundamentalists and cowboy commando conspiracy fantasists. But the
on the right, the economic right, corporate leaders and the rest of the rich, kept their eye on the prize—less taxation, less regulation of business, greed is good—and they maintained control of the party. The rabble’s candidates (Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson in the 1990s, Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee in the 2000s) never got more than a quarter of the primary vote, and even as the party kept moving right, it kept nominating country-clubby Mr. Respectables for president, from the first Bush through Mitt Romney.
When the economic right and the populist rabble first formed their coalition in the 1970s, they shared enough common ground—whiteness, resentment of the smart set—to make it work, but it was always an alliance of convenience. Lots of the right’s sophisticates and true libertarians weren’t enthusiastic about the cultural agendas of their partners. (In her seventies in the 1990s, for instance, my mother in Nebraska, who’d always called herself a conservative Republican, started voting only for Democrats.) But to nonredneck Republicans, that was the price of making markets free and the rich richer.
The economic right was shrewd enough to understand that the issues
didn’t care much about—abortion, gay rights, creationism—
matter to liberals, and that those culture wars drew off political energy from the left that might otherwise have fueled complaints and demands about the reconstructed political economy. And Establishment Republicans could keep reassuring themselves that when push came to shove, their culture-warrior political partners didn’t ever actually
that abortion was still legal, gay and lesbian rights expanded, creationism kept out of public school curricula.
president who followed Reagan was probably sincere, in his Kennebunkport way, when he said he wanted to build “a kinder and gentler nation.” But Sununu was his chief of staff, and in the 1990s the triumphal economic right didn’t kick back or loosen up. The
-Bushian new counter-Establishment remained vigilant and hard-line, hair-trigger happy to bully heretics and to push for more power, more wealth, less regulation, less social spending. Meanwhile, Democrats continued to show up at the gunfights with knives, and blades that weren’t very sharp. And they came without an economic vision apart from continuing to rebrand themselves as chastened, business-friendly moderates.
In fact, three years before Fox News launched, he’d started a right-wing cable channel called National Empowerment Television that had an anti-immigration show, an NRA show, a Cato Institute show, an antigay show called
and a show called
The Progress Report
Weyrich died the month after Obama was elected president; the month after the 2016 election, his Heritage Foundation cofounder Edwin Feulner was put in charge of finding people to run domestic policy for the Trump administration.
Right after Sununu lost his job for being a jerk (and for using military jets and government limos for personal travel), but before he physically left the White House, a
writer phoned him there, posing as a corporate headhunter looking to fill an oil company CEO position. Sununu talked and talked. “Most of what I’ve been putting together as packages,” he told our writer, “start at three and a half million.” As it turned out, none of those hypothetical $3.5 million jobs came to fruition.
It’s analogous to the cynical bargain that liberal Democrats made with the Southern segregationists in their coalition from the 1930s through the ’60s—essentially the same rabble, in fact, that the Republicans brought into their coalition right afterward. Except that to the Democrats’ credit back then, they made their devil’s bargain in order to help the (white) working and middle-class majority, not the rich.
When Bill Clinton was running for president in 1992, he seemed to have the right idea, at least rhetorically. In the national campaign headquarters in an old building in downtown Little Rock, his strategist James Carville taped to a wall his sign with their message reduced to three points.
CHANGE VS. MORE OF THE SAME
THE ECONOMY, STUPID
DON’T FORGET HEALTHCARE
BIG GOVERNMENT DOES NOT HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS
THE ERA OF BIG GOVERNMENT IS OVER
were not numbers four and five. Yet once he became president, a generation after Jimmy Carter sang that same song, Clinton still felt obliged to continue disavowing belief in government as a vehicle for improving American life, to pledge fealty to the new economic code, and to grant most of the wishes of big business. “We know big government does not have all the answers,” he said in a State of the Union speech in his first term. “We know there’s not a program for every problem….The era of big government is over.”
As the compensation of CEOs at big companies increased crazily during the 1990s, the president initially thought the government might discourage it with stiff penalties, but the Business Roundtable talked sense into him. And so on. As Nixon had admitted, thirty-odd years after the New Deal,
We’re all Keynesians now,
thirty-odd years after that, when Clinton took office, he was saying,
None of us are New Dealers anymore
It’s worth comparing the New Democrat positioning to that of one older Washington Democrat, whose take was ridiculed as old-fashioned and out of touch. In the 1960s and ’70s, Daniel Moynihan had been pigeonholed as a moderate or a conservative, but as a U.S. senator during the 1990s, when the rest of his party went Republicanesque on the political economy, Moynihan was a kind of heroic last left-winger standing.
At the start of his presidency, Clinton tried to legislate an expansion of the private U.S. health insurance system to make it cover more people. “Mr. Clinton and his allies,” a
analysis explained in 1994, “were trying hard to redefine the Democratic Party away from traditionally liberal approaches to domestic policy; they were almost inevitably drawn to the ideas of managed competition. Though still largely theoretical, the concept relies on market forces, not government, to hold down costs and expand access to health insurance.” That is, Clinton tried and failed to pass a version of Obamacare sixteen years before Obama succeeded.
One of the many congressional committees that held hearings on the Clinton healthcare plan was Senate Finance, chaired by Moynihan. His chief of staff was Lawrence O’Donnell, who later became an MSNBC anchor. “At the end of the last of two dozen hearings on the indescribably complex Clinton healthcare bill,” O’Donnell told me, “I’m sitting behind Chairman Moynihan, and he puts his hand over his microphone and turns over his shoulder and whispers to me, ‘Why don’t we just delete the words ‘age 65’ from the Medicare statute?’ ”
So a quarter-century ago the respected sixty-seven-year-old chair of the Senate Finance Committee offhandedly suggested a radical overhaul that would have made healthcare a universal entitlement, what we now call Medicare for All. Was Moynihan serious?
“Totally serious,” O’Donnell says. “It took twenty-four hearings studying every detail of healthcare policy for him to arrive there. He was a very careful juror who waited until he heard every word of testimony. It was literally while the last witness was finishing that he gave me his verdict. He hated unnecessary government complexity,” and the Clinton plan, O’Donnell says, was complex and hard to explain (as Obamacare would be as well). Also, Moynihan “could see the ‘reform’ policies” proposed by Clinton would “not perform as promised.”
As these hearings and negotiations went on for the first eighteen months of the Clinton administration, Democrats had large majorities in both the Senate and House. The main labor union federation, the AFL-CIO, had broached the idea of a single-payer healthcare system. But the Clinton plan was the plan, and it died.
In Clinton’s speech accepting the Democratic nomination in 1992, he had promised to “end welfare as we know it.”
really meant one rather modest program that had been in existence since the New Deal as an add-on to the law creating Social Security. It provided a monthly cash floor to the poorest families with young children. In the 1990s fewer than 5 percent of Americans were getting those benefits, which since the beginning of the right turn in 1976 had been cut by a quarter to around $100 or $150 per family per week in today’s dollars, and which in the 1990s cost the federal government the equivalent of $18 billion a year, a fraction of one percent of the budget.
The right-wing-billionaire-funded academic Charles Murray, who’d become a star in the 1980s, was still making the case that we’d be doing poor people a favor if the government stopped providing them with aid. In Clinton’s first year as president, he read an article by Murray in
Wall Street Journal
proposing that any unmarried mother on welfare who gave birth to another child should be punished by being cut off from nearly all federal assistance, not just the monthly cash but also food stamps and housing subsidies. In an interview on
NBC Nightly News
between Thanksgiving and Christmas 1993, the president said Murray had done “the country a great service….I think his analysis is essentially right. Now, whether [Murray’s] prescription is right, I question.” You could argue the morality, he said, but “there’s no question that that would
….There is no question.”
In other words, Clinton accepted and promoted as fact the basic premise that poor mothers were moochers who
to luxuriate on a hundred dollars a week rather than take advantage of all the good jobs and childcare services available to them. Before long, that belief was the basis for one of the right’s main legislative proposals—a bill that Senator Moynihan called a “brutal act of social policy” and a “disgrace” that was “not a negotiable item” and “not my idea of legislating.” But it was called welfare
. And in 1996, with a Democratic president’s support and the votes of half the Democrats in Congress, that sixty-one-year-old New Deal entitlement was scrapped.
I’m not suggesting this particular program should’ve been immune from revision. The changes in the law did indeed push some mothers into the workforce—although research suggests that maybe half of that effect was the result of spending much
on a different federal financial cushion, expanding income tax credits that helped lower-middle-class people as well as the poor. Most of the many millions of very poor children and their mothers who were denied those few extra dollars a day after 1996 did manage to get by. However, it’s another illustration of how thoroughly the right’s ideas became the governing consensus, and of how liberals fell down on the job by accepting—or at least not forthrightly rejecting—the instinct to blame the losers, in our extreme free-market society, for being losers, and by disclaiming social responsibility for properly helping them.
Looking back now, it’s hard not to conclude that the anxious nominal party of the economic left, Democrats, was magnificently played by the committed and confident economic right, Republicans, for forty years. I’m not saying the shift in popular sentiment wasn’t partly organic. But Democrats, after the Republican presidential landslides of 1972 and 1984, remained too dazed and confused and scared for too long. For a decade or two before the rise of right-wing radio and Fox News, Democrats began believing and behaving as if there were a mandate for
right wanted, the elite economic right as well as the reactionary rabble—for giving more and more advantages to big business and the well-to-do in our political economy at the expense of not just the poor but everyone else, for tossing out a social contract that had tried hard to balance the demands of economic liberty and economic equality. Sometime in the 1980s, liberals passed through the stages of political denial and anger and depression, and during the ’90s, they settled into modest bargaining and acceptance for the long haul.
How the right played the left for suckers becomes especially clear in looking at the 1990s, when after twelve years of Republican presidents, a Democrat was running the federal government. The bad habit that liberals and other Democrats had learned was this: be
when it comes to spending to help the less fortunate but simultaneously be
when it comes to helping business and the rich.
During the 1980s and early ’90s, under Reagan and the first Bush, the annual federal budget deficit was much larger than it had been at any time since World War II, $350 billion to $550 billion a year in today’s dollars. During Clinton’s first year in office, he and a Congress with large Democratic majorities enacted the biggest deficit-reduction plan in history and stuck to it, achieving a budget
four years in a row for the first time since 1930. As soon as the surplus money began pouring in, Republicans immediately proposed to funnel the equivalent of $1 trillion of it to business via tax cuts over the next decade.
After his reelection, Clinton wanted to demonstrate even more heroic, historic restraint by reducing Social Security benefits over the long term. He secretly negotiated a deal to do that with the right-wing Speaker of the House, Gingrich, but was apparently prevented from announcing it only by the exposure of his extramarital Oval Office sexual liaison. At the beginning of the scandal, Hillary Clinton complained of the “vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president.” Fair enough, I suppose, but it is ironic how nicely he’d played with the economic sector of that conspiracy. Which didn’t stop the welfare-ending, capital-gains-tax-cutting, budget-balancing Democratic president from being impeached by Gingrich and the bad-faith, bloody-minded Republicans.
As soon as Clinton left office, the new Republican president and Congresses, thanks to their antitax fixation (and the war in Iraq two years later), promptly took us from a budget surplus equivalent to $365 billion to a budget deficit of $534 billion, a reckless and unnecessary trillion-dollar swing in three years.
Irving Kristol, that mastermind and key promoter of remaking the political economy, had candidly
this new strategy of the right—right-wing fiscal recklessness, forcing the left into defensive restraint—in a
Wall Street Journal
column back in 1980, months before Reagan’s election. In the 1930s and the 1960s, Kristol wrote, “when in office the liberals (or social-democrats, as they should more properly be called) spen[t] generously, regardless of budgetary considerations, until the public permit[ted] the conservatives an interregnum in which to clean up the mess” in the late 1940s and ’50s and ’70s,
but with the liberals retaining their status as the activist party….The neo-conservatives have decided that two can play at this game—and must since it is the only game in town….What if the traditionalist-conservatives are right and a [huge] tax cut, without corresponding cuts in expenditures, also leaves us with a fiscal problem? The neo-conservative is willing to leave those problems to be coped with by liberal interregnums. He wants to shape the future, and will leave it up to his opponents to tidy up afterwards.
From then on the right would be activists, and their generous government giveaways would go to business and the rich, and the liberals—as it turned out, Clinton in the 1990s—would obligingly tidy up the mess. The economic right had done its paradigm-shifting work so well during the 1970s and ’80s that this new generation of ruling Democrats were no longer really their opponents concerning the political economy. The Clintonians rewrote the old rules and wrote new rules that built in excess and recklessness on behalf of the monied class.
In 1998 Brooksley Born, the federal official who was running the agency overseeing financial derivatives, got worried about the accelerating flurry of trading in new sorts of derivatives, in particular one called credit default swaps—which the rest of us would learn about a decade later, during the crash of 2008. But she was only one member of the official presidential task force that oversees the financial markets. By law, the other three are the Federal Reserve chair, a job to which Clinton had just reappointed Alan Greenspan; the treasury secretary, who was Bob Rubin, previously cochairman of Goldman Sachs; and the SEC chair, who’d also spent his pregovernment career working on Wall Street. The head of the SEC said later he’d been warned in advance that Born was “difficult” and “unreasonable.” When she argued at a meeting—in a “strident” way, Rubin recalled—that these new derivatives and the systemic risks they posed needed urgent scrutiny and possible regulations, the three men were appalled, particularly Greenspan, and they told her to calm down.