Politics & Policy

Old Is the New New

Obama, McCain, and the politics of change.

While voters in other, less-progressive jurisdictions are swooning over Barack Obama and the “change you can believe in,” many of us in Vermont are thinking, “Seen that old dog, and it won’t hunt.”

We have been hearing the “change” mantra for a long, long time here in the Green Mountains. Bernie Sanders has made a living off it, first as mayor of Burlington — where he developed his own, pro-Nicaraguan Contra foreign policy — then as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 16 years, and now as a senator. Sanders once described himself as a “Socialist” and that’s plainly where his heart is. Officially, his party is Independent, but he is approximately as “independent” as, say, Harry Reid. The word is just a way for Bernie to announce himself as something special and different and daring.

Sanders, according to himself, is the tireless, fearless defender of working families, and he is perpetually “outraged” by violations of their rights. All this outrage is exceedingly self-serving, as Sanders’s vote on the recent gargantuan farm bill demonstrated. Sanders proclaims, endlessly, his opposition to welfare for the rich and special favors for the corporations.

So he voted for a bill that gives subsidies to farmers making up to $750,000 a year ($1,500,000 for couples); pays sugar producers $21 a pound when the world price is $12; sets support prices at current levels so that if prices fall, farmers keep raking in the cash at taxpayer expense; and gives subsidies to a land company with a $7 billion market cap, and tax breaks to racehorse breeders.

The bill is such a grotesque example of everything that is wrong with Congress that even the New York Times urged President Bush to veto it. Which he did.

Bernie was outraged. Nobody in Vermont was surprised — that’s how he rolls. But there did seem to be a lesson that those living elsewhere might notice and act upon. When the test came, our self-proclaimed opponent of the old way of doing business and politics as usual crowded in at the trough with all the lords and ladies of pork. Bernie had promised to go down to Washington and fight for change (that’s what a man does when he is outraged), but when he got the chance, he caved and voted just like any ordinary R or D.

And so did Barack Obama. Who said of the farm bill:

I applaud the Senates passage today of the Farm Bill, which will provide America’s hard-working farmers and ranchers with more support and more predictability. The bill places greater resources into renewable energy and conservation. And, during this time of rising food prices, the Farm Bill provides an additional $10 billion for critical nutrition programs.

This is “change you can believe in”? I mean, if this is the “change we’ve been waiting for,” then we could have been doing a lot better things with our time. We might as well have been waiting for Godot and “hoping” for a rainout. The only change here is that the pig is a little fatter. More money for this subsidy and that one.

But if Sanders and Obama haven’t changed, the times may have. This is an obese bill in lean times. And not just an ordinary, cyclically lean period, either. We have entered that era when the promises made to the Baby Boomers are coming due and we will not be able to grow ourselves out of our obligations. The big slush fund is drying up, and $300 billion to buy the votes of 1 percent of the population suddenly seems like more than just small change.

One senses that the mood out in the country is one of grim frugality. And exasperation with a Congress that doesn’t seem to get it, that will vote to buy sugar from domestic producers at a price higher than market and then sell the same sugar to ethanol refiners at a price that is lower than market, sticking taxpayers with the difference. Some of those taxpayers are thinking, “Hey, I may have been born at night but it wasn’t last night.” And when one of those taxpayers hears some politician, fresh from voting for the farm bill, shine on about how he is going to “change the way Washington does business,” he feels like he’s being conned, and like the grifter won’t even take the trouble to make the con sound convincing.

John McCain, however, opposed the farm bill. And he supported the forlorn Bush veto. McCain seems consistently offended by this sort of cavalier pork barreling, and he is not shy about letting people know it. He’s even gotten a reputation for being mean and bad-tempered about it. Gets mad and gets in peoples’ faces. The man, we’re told, can be downright rude.

One can imagine a lot of voters hearing that and saying, “Well, yeah. You go, John. Get after it.” They might prefer a little profane, red-faced anger to ethereal promises of change. Maybe the times don’t call for dreaming and hoping as much as they do a little sweaty, hard-nosed grappling with reality. The reality, in this case, being a government that is big, unaccountable, inefficient, and unaccustomed to getting its butt kicked. And maybe that feisty guy McCain is the man to do it. He might even enjoy it. Might sit in the Oval Office with a pen in his hand and a sinister grin on his face, just praying those wimps down the street will send him a bill to veto.

Make my day, Pelosi.

Maybe the old guy is the right guy, this time. Here in Vermont, we can tell you that talk about a new kind of politics is getting real old. We’ve been hearing it for a long time now. And we still ain’t seen the change.

And maybe, for a lot of voters out there, that’s an outrage.

– Geoffrey Norman is editor of vermonttiger.com.

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