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Can Obama heed the Hochul and Polancarz wins?

Forty years ago, Western New York voters sent a seemingly nice California football star named Jack Kemp to Congress, where he helped Ronald Reagan destroy the social contract, empower the financial services industry, and perfect a cynical politics of racial code words that equated social insurance with handouts to chaotic, fornicating ghetto-dwellers, all to mask a money-grab for oil companies, defense contractors, and any other outfit that can intimidate witless local politicians into agreeing to call such theft “economic development.”

But four decades after putting the happy face on this historical calamity, Western New York voters awakened to the impact of Kemp-Reagan economic royalism by rejecting its newest iteration in the person of Jane Corwin, choosing instead Kathy Hochul, an unapologetic advocate for government. Hochul is the anti-Kemp: She does not endlessly repeat a phrase from a Cliff Notes version of a cranky Austrian economist. She does not offer a single policy nostrum for all policy challenges, as did Jack Kemp when he said that tax cuts could heal the wounds in Northern Ireland. Hochul got elected by bravely calling for ending the special tax treatment of bumptious millionaires who live in exurban cul-de-sacs, wear over-large jewelry, and order takeout from the country club. Jack Kemp and his contemporary epigones refer to those people as “job creators.” Western New Yorkers who voted for Kathy Hochul, in a congressional district that was Republican since Lincoln, know that they are not.

This week, Western New York voters sent that message again. This week, Western New York voters are once again a national vanguard as we were, sadly, in 1972. The message hasn’t quite gelled, but so far we know that the elderly, the Boomers, the moderate-income households in first-ring suburbs, and a solid majority of young voters once again rejected anti-government rhetoric and chose to focus on government as a provider of services that also happens to require the payment of taxes. And voters here, after decades in their sprawling, shrinking fantasy-land of not-getting-richer, have figured out that even those services that Republicans deride as the province of the poor are for them, too—because so many people who were never supposed to be poor recognize that they actually, now, are.

Mark Poloncarz ran as a cautious manager with a dour but not sour manner. His candidacy had little life, however, until the incumbent Republican claimed—against readily available evidence to the contrary—that his superior business experience before he took office was enabling him to create jobs in the here and now. The Democrat and his union allies were effective in using official statistics to show that the Republican’s bizarre and baseless claim was, well, bizarre and baseless. The ads said that there are 13,000 fewer jobs in Erie County since 2008. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that there are more like 19,000 fewer jobs here than there were three years ago.) Voters who were polled last summer didn’t actually like the Republican incumbent, but they thought he was doing a good job. But once the Republican claimed that night was day, and then went on to say that sour was sweet—that the economy is on the uptick, with a lower unemployment rate than anywhere else—voters started to become the political equivalent of the little boy at the parade of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Once Collins made that claim in September and again in October, the regional experience of great and widespread economic distress became, for the second time in six months, a political fact.

Facts alone are never enough: They have to be personalized. This column has cited the Food Stamps upsurge in Erie County, which in 2008 went to just over 102,000 people, but today in 2011 go to over 143,000. We have cited the statistics on household income here, where more than 72 percent of the 410,000 households in Erie County report annual incomes of under $49,000, and only a tiny sliver—less than one percent—have incomes above $200,000. The Occupy movement does a great job reminding the people who witness their demonstration that there is the 99 percent, and that we are different from the one percent. But for three and a half years, the Republican who used the phrase “like a business” in every public utterance looked like an easy re-elect. Only when Collins told a job-hungry area that he was creating jobs did the middle class here awaken from its Jack Kemp slumber.

Will Democrats be Democrats now?

The night that Poloncarz won, Ohio voters resoundingly rejected a ballot measure that would have further reduced the collective bargaining rights of public employees. Polls collected by Anzalone Liszt Research, one of President Obama’s consultants, continue to show broad national support for restoring tax rates on high-income individuals at least to the levels in place during Bill Clinton’s presidency. A new study by Bob McIntyre at Citizens for Tax Justice shows, as his study in 1985 showed, that the largest and most profitable US corporations don’t pay taxes at the 35 percent nominal corporate income tax rate that Republicans say is stifling American business; instead, McIntyre shows that the nominal corporate income tax rate is a loophole-ridden fiction, and that the 300 biggest corporations don’t pay any corporate income taxes at all!

Harvard-trained economics professor Jeffrey Sachs, in his hopeful but politically naïve new book The Price of Civilization, says American elites must once again accept what even iconic free-market icons Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek accepted—that there is a role for government in the economy, that “public goods” include not only roads and bridges but also a hand up for the unlucky and for the poor. What he imagines is that we will have a new aristocracy step forward, led by somebody like Michael Bloomberg, who can grab the “vital center,” and end corporate welfare, and end rule by the egregious nouveaux riches who flash their dough around, condescend to the middle class, and sneer at the poor from Spaulding Lake.

Yes. And giant lobsters will soon play cards on top of a downtown hotel, just as humor columnist Dave Barry said they would.

The sad political fact is that places like Spaulding Lake exist and keep producing Republican candidates, because suburban cul-de-sacs are full of people who look at you funny when you cite Professor Sachs’s call for “civic virtue” or “public purpose,” and who giggle when you use a word like “fairness,” and roll their eyes when you, or the earnest Sachs, say “sustainability.”

The trouble with the message that Western New York has sent to America this year is that the consultants who shape campaigns are still advising candidates that they have to sound like cul-de-sac favorites Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan rather than like Theodore Roosevelt or Bobby Kennedy. The genuine aristocrat Roosevelt warned against “malefactors of great wealth.” The aristocratic, Aeschylus-quoting Kennedy warned against soulless materialism.

We are still forming our next political paradigm. Perhaps there is a Bloomberg who can become the philosopher-king by out-spending, out-messaging, and out-organizing the corporations who rent consultant-thugs to run Republican campaigns. But Republicans have been winning Polonia for a long, long time—since at least Richard Nixon’s day. The cul-de-sac crowd defeated civic virtue and public purpose for many years with Cheektowaga’s racial anxieties. In Nixon’s day, Republicans amplified the brand-new tensions of the sexual revolution, equating anti-Vietnam protesters with the betrayed Poland at Yalta, and blaming unions for the massive deindustrialization that made the Great Lakes industrial zone into the Rust Belt.

That technique might have worked again, had the Republicans in Erie County fielded cannier, more sensitive, less self-satisfied candidates. The Republicans here, in 2011, didn’t. Does that mean that the Democrats understand what FDR and RFK were talking about? Will we ever have an aristocrat, or even a person of aristocratic outlook, campaign on what Sachs calls “the price of civilization”? Perhaps. But we’ll only get to that stage if Western New York’s 2011 economic realism and class self-consciousness reshapes American politics as effectively as Western New York’s 1972 status anxiety, racism, and manipulability shaped it.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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