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Week of 11.6.09

Transcript: Interview: David Sirota

BRANCACCIO: The Republican party is shouting "Virginia" and "New Jersey" with some of their own headed for governors' offices there. The Democratic party is hoisting its "one-thumb salute" to the state of New York, where a Democrat will represent one upstate district in Congress for the first time in 120 years. But beyond all the air time devoted to spin from political parties since the election this week, anger abounds in America. It's an anger we've seen in our reporting from across this country, an anger driven by insecurity—where the loss of a job or health coverage can be just one cell phone call away. Joining me is columnist David Sirota who has spent time hanging out with modern, angry, populist movements in America on both the left and right. His book from 2008 is called "The Uprising."

Well, David, thanks for dropping in from Denver.

SIROTA: Thanks for having me.

BRANCACCIO: So, what can we say now as we move forward from this election day? What does a horrendous economy do to our politics?

SIROTA: The first thing we can learn is that it churns our politics. It throws incumbents out of office. That when people are looking at a bad economy, and they're looking at change. They will typically vote for change whatever that means in their local elections. So, in Virginia, change after two Democratic governors meant voting for a Republican governor. In New Jersey—change meant voting a former Wall Street CEO, who was their governor, out of office. In New York's 23rd District, the—high profile Congressional special election, change meant taking a district that had been Republican since the Civil War and voting in a Democrat. So, I think what we're seeing is that a recession and a bad economy means change. It doesn't mean change for the Democrats. It doesn't mean change for the Republicans. It means constant change until things feel or get a little bit better.

BRANCACCIO: But if a person that's working for the Obama Administration. They're saying, "Well, we're in. We have nominal control of Congress to." "We" being the Democrats. This has got to be bad for those insiders.

SIROTA: Absolutely. I mean, this is—puts everybody who's in office on notice. Republican incumbents, Democratic incumbents. But I—I will say this. I do think you're absolutely right that—that there's more—pressure on the Democrats. Because President Obama is obviously the President. There are 60 Democratic votes, nominally, 60 Democratic votes in the Senate. And a Democratic House. So, come the 2010 elections, the definition of change at the national level—could be, "Throw the bums out." And there are more Democratic bums than Republican bums in the Congress and in the Presidency right now.

BRANCACCIO: On the other hand, President Obama came to power with promises of change, with promises of breaking the old mold. Does he have—and people who follow him, any chance of re-embracing that idea and turning this very cantankerous electorate around?

SIROTA: Oh, I—I certainly think so. I mean, the—the issue is can he create change fast enough? Right? I—there's—been—some conventional wisdom thrown out there that, "Oh, this means that the country doesn't want change. That the country was voting against President Obama." The exit polls don't show that. The exit polls from Virginia and New Jersey show that people were not voting—against President Obama, explicitly. They—they told pollsters that. They are voting for change. So, the—my analysis is that the best way for Democrats to—politically inoculate themselves, to politically protect themselves is to create as much change as fast as possible. As much—as much change that they promised. So, it means getting a health care bill done. It means, potentially, a new stimulus package. It means passing global climate change legislation. It means actually delivering on promises. Now, is that gonna be enough to right the economy? That's anybody's guess. They need to, at minimum, be seen as the party that is trying to do its level best to right the economy.

BRANCACCIO: Now, you mentioned this special Congressional election in Upstate New York, along the Canadian border. Why should someone in Arizona or where you live in Colorado even care what happens in New York State?

SIROTA: Well, one level, they—they really shouldn't. And I think that this Congressional election was—overblown, because there was a lot of—national attention on it. It was the only—well, it's one of only two special elections for Congress in this off year.

BRANCACCIO: There was a Democrat running. There was a Republican, picked by the Republican Party running. And then there was this third party, very conservative candidate. That I know—among others, Rush Limbaugh was quite partial to.

SIROTA: Right. So, there was this narrative that this was—a battle for the Republican Party's soul. Or—establishment Republican versus a conservative—kind of—extra-Republican, and a Democrat. So, it was built up as a very important election. I think for people looking at this, who don't live in the district, you could say, "Well, you know, it's one district, why do I care?" I think there's one reason to care. I—I think that this is a district that has been held by the Republican Party since the Civil War. It's a—kind of a typical Upstate New York, working class district. There are districts like this all over the country. Now—every district in the country's different. But the battle that played out in the Republican Party between the establishment Republican candidate and the conservative tea party candidate, if you will. That is a battle that's going on in the Republican Party. And if that battle goes the way it went in this election, nationally. If we see more tea party insurgencies against the establishment Republican Party, you could potentially see general election candidates on the Republican side, who are more and more unelectable, because they are too extremist conservative. And I think that that's different than what happens in Democratic primaries. This is a key point. That you see—you've seen a lot of contested Democratic primaries in the last few elections. And there's been talk that, "Oh, the tea parties in the Republican Party pull their party to the right. And the Democratic primaries pull Democratic candidates to the left."

BRANCACCIO: To the left, yeah.

SIROTA: But the—here's the difference. On issue after issue after issue, the progressive base of the Democratic Party is pulling Democratic candidates to where the mainstream of the country is. Think about it. Universal health care. Protecting the environment. The public option in the current health care debate. This is where Democratic primaries pull general election Democratic candidates. The right wing of the Republican Party pulls—in a primary, pulls those candidates to social conservatism. It pulls them to extremist tax policies that don't necessarily make it easier for a Republican nominee to win a general election.

BRANCACCIO: David, in preparation for your book, you were out there in America, talking to these grassroots organizations on the left and on the right, trying to figure out what pushed them forward. Thought they would be at the forefront of political change. Is it—is there some way that the economy intersects with that populist impulse that actually can change politics in this coming year?

SIROTA: Absolutely. I—I think that people's anger can be expressed. We've seen eras in history where the public's anger through organized politics has pushed a kind of change that people recognize as real change. Look, we had the progressive era. We had a President like Teddy Roosevelt—trust busting. You had FDR cracking down—on Wall Street through the New Deal. You had Civil Rights legislation. Those are expressions of populist anger in the country. Now, in fairness, -there is also—there has been populist backlashes to that progress in the past, as well. That's the risk of populism. You can have populism that brings—about progress. And you can have populism that brings about a backlash. In fact, often times, you have both at the same time. The difference with this era, or at least what we don't know about this era, is whether we have political leaders who are willing to try to harness that populism—for progress. And whether they can be successful at it—at all.

BRANCACCIO: You think the jury is still out about whether—I mean, we were talking about —the Administration is willing to harness that?

SIROTA: That's right. Is the Administration willing to make the pharmaceutical industry mad? Is the Administration willing to make Wall Street angry? Is the Administration willing to make polluters angry? Energy companies that—gouge people? The insurance companies that gouge people? It's not clear yet. That—that's not usually the way politics is done in Washington. Politics in Washington, when people talk about being anti-Washington, they are angry at a system that seems to be interested in protecting itself. In keeping the family and the friendships intact in Washington. I think what people want is a sense of outrage inside of the government. President Obama, if there's a stylistic criticism of him in all this, is that his coolness sometimes seems bloodless. It sometimes seems passionless. At the very, very top level, I think people want to sense that the person in office, that the people in office, are as angry as they are.

BRANCACCIO: As the parties look for ways to connect with these angry voters. This was tried in Upstate New York. Let's try the very conservative approach. It didn't seem to work in this particular case. But there'll be other attempts to figure out how to connect with that anger and bring people on board. Yet, what we saw in some of the other election tallies from around the country were independents moving away from, say, the Democrats.

SIROTA: Right. And—and again, I think the thing that trumps everything is voting for change first and foremost, means voting the incumbent out of office.

BRANCACCIO: Do you worry about it, right now, that the Obama Administration is not actually listening to the people who by and large elected them?

SIROTA: Absolutely. I—I think the Obama Administration in—in watering down, for instance, the Wall Street reform package. There's been—there's been—news about how they have worked—to weaken it. There's been news about how they have worked to weaken the health care bill, at the behest of the pharmaceutical industry. President Obama himself has not been—as—passionately pushing for the public option as he could. I think these suggest that the President has campaigned for office in a way that he wasn't prepared to take the risks of governing in office. And I think people are perceiving that. And I think it's a political danger for him, as well as a policy danger. I think if he doesn't pass the initiatives he promised, I think our country is in big trouble.

BRANCACCIO: Now, during the election, people like you, David, but others kept talking about this new force in politics. The people who contributed to, for instance, Obama's campaign, but now the Obama people have their email address. And when the going gets tough when they're in office, they can harness this huge group of people to push for change. Where is that process? Where are those people?

SIROTA: It's a good question. And I think that some of them are demoralized. I think some of the folks out there are saying, "I voted for change already. Why do I have to vote for change again? Didn't I already vote for change in 2008?" And I think that they sense that the candidate Obama has become different from the President Obama. And I think part of that—look, part of that's inevitable, right? You get into office, things are more complicated than they are portrayed in the 24-hour news cycle. But I think part of that, again, is the commitment. I think people are wondering whether this President is committed to taking the risks to create the change. Rather than merely taking risks to create hope. There's a difference between hope and change. Change means making enemies. Change means making people mad. Change means making Democrats and Republicans in Washington upset. The President has not been willing to do that. He's not been willing to take on the status quo, again, on issues like health care. On issues like trade reform. On issues like Wall Street reform. These are core fundamental issues that require him, if he's gonna make change, to make people mad.

BRANCACCIO: But you have been watching some of these grassroots efforts to hold the President's feet to the fire on these policy issues. There is work being done out there.

SIROTA: There is work being done out there. And I think it's more incumbent than ever for that work to get done. Because we're learning that the President is a little bit more passive than we might have thought he was gonna be when he get—got into office. That is to say that Franklin Delano Roosevelt's old adage, "Make me do it." Right? He had a bunch of people come in. They said, "Here's what we want you to do, Mr. President." He said, "Well, you've convinced me. But go out and make me do it." I think President Obama's first year has taught us that that principle is more important than ever. That for him to create change requires us to force him to make change. He is not going to lead us to change. He is going to be forced kicking and screaming to make change. And I should say, I don't want to pick on him, right? Because most Presidents that's the way it worked. The idea that Lyndon Johnson himself passed Civil Rights legislation. The idea that Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed the New Deal himself. That's ridiculous. These people were forced, kicking and screaming, to make this change. The real challenge is to actually put enough pressure on him to make that change.

BRANCACCIO: We've been talking about the base here for a little bit, what about the folks in the middle? I mean, the—what happened in Upstate New York involved, essentially, a third party candidate. What about a third party, in this environment? People who say the Democrats and Republicans are just not getting it done. Could that be a force to reckon with in 2010?

SIROTA: You're seeing more and more rogue politics inside of each party. And I think—look, I think come 2012, you might see that kind of rogue Republican candidate for President, whoever it may be. Sort of an outsider, independent maverick. And I—I think—

BRANCACCIO: Maverick again.

SIROTA: Maverick, exactly. And I think that the way that the Democrats can stave that off is to actually embrace the underlying dynamic, right? To embrace the idea that Washington has become the problem. Just because they control Washington doesn't mean they can't change it and portray themselves as being angry at it. The country is angry at Washington, and it should be.

BRANCACCIO: And you can't just talk about dealing with that problem. You have to live that kind of policy. Which means not necessarily catering quite so much to your big money donors.

SIROTA: That's exactly right. Look, here—here's a great example. The Obama Administration and the Democrats in Congress could be cracking down in a serious way on Wall Street, even though they control Washington. That is to say that they can—they can rail on how Washington has treated Wall Street, has coddled Wall Street over many years. But the problem is is that the Obama Administration in the first six months has put in so many former Wall Street insiders into top administration positions that that kind of criticism is gonna not only look hypocritical, but the—the rhetoric coming out of the Administration, the worldview coming out of an administration chock full of those people is not gonna be one that necessarily analyzes Washington's coddling of Wall Street as a problem.

BRANCACCIO: Although they did get this—tough guy Ken Feinberg to put—caps on executive salaries at the firms that got the bailout money. There's something.

SIROTA: That's exactly the kind of thing we need to see more of.

BRANCACCIO: Well, I suppose there's another chance. There's so-called TARP number two. There are institutions that need more government money to shore them up, even now.

SIROTA: And the—the danger of that is creating a government-backed situation on Wall Street, where they feel like —the institutions on Wall Street feel like they can continue gambling with the implicit guarantee that taxpayers will bail them out. This is exactly what I think is ticking off so many people on both the right and left. There are people out there, regular people out there, who say, where is my bailout? In fact, that could be the bumper sticker of 2010. Where's my bailout? And I think a lot of people are feeling that way. And both parties are going to be angling to harness that anger. If the Democrats, and unfortunately, the Obama Administration has pushed forward this idea, push forward a second bailout, a second TARP for the banks, then they are gonna be in a seriously bad position, where the Republicans argue and the Republicans voted against the bailout initially, where the Republicans will—will argue, "We are the populists. We are the one who are saying that we should not be propping up these corporate, Wall Street insiders."

BRANCACCIO: Problem, of course, right, David, is maybe some of these institutions actually do have to be propped up, that the economy, in fact, as politically unpalatable as you seem to think it is, it's just too destabilizing.

SIROTA: I'm not saying nothing should be done. What I'm saying is, is that if you're gonna give away taxpayer money, then there has to be something—received for taxpayers, in the exchange. That if you're gonna give away taxpayer money, there should be strings attached. There should be money that goes out and also regulations that go out, that there should be a way for taxpayers to be protected. Right now, all we have is money and guarantees of money going out. But we're not getting the kinds of legislative reforms, the legislative crackdowns, that we need.

BRANCACCIO: Maybe we're taking this too far. Maybe it's simply about the economy. That the main thing the Obama Administration has to do is figure out a way to get jobs to human beings. And if people are actually have a chance of finding gainful employment, and feeling a little less insecure, then the rest of their agenda falls into place.

SIROTA: But I don't think you can—extricate the two in this sense. I think that the problems of the economy are a direct result of policies that have coddled the corporate and big money interests that are at the center of the economy. When you don't crack down on Wall Street, you create the conditions for a Wall Street meltdown. When you don't fix your trade policy, when you let your trade policy be written by lobbyists, you're going to have an economy that hemorrhages jobs offshore. When you don't have a government that's willing to take on the insurance industry, you're gonna have a health care industry that rips off consumers and drives them into the poor house. So, you can't extricate the policy and the politics from the economy. To change that paradigm, you've got to change the politics. You've got to have a politics that takes on that status quo, and that ultimately then changes the economy itself.

BRANCACCIO: Had a year of the Administration. A lot of that hasn't happened. But yet you still—you yourself David engage. You're still a part of it. You haven't given up.

SIROTA: No.

BRANCACCIO: What keeps you focused on this stuff? In the sense of the proof is in the pudding. Those steps haven't been taken?

SIROTA: Well—I—I don't preach patience. I think patience is the wrong—virtue. It's not a virtue in politics. And we know this, for instance, from Ronald Reagan. Most of the Reagan revolution, legislatively, was passed—in the first year of Ronald Reagan's Presidency.

BRANCACCIO: So you concede —you do have to work quickly, but—

SIROTA: Yeah, but I think things are moving in the right direction in terms of the policy. I think they're not nearly where they need to be. But look, we're having a national discussion about health care. We're having a national discussion about cracking down on Wall Street. We're having a national discussion about changing our energy policy. We were not having that discussion at least in terms of who was in power in Washington—a year ago. So, that is significant progress. Can we maximize the opportunity? I think we can. Is it gonna take a heck of a lot of effort? A heck of a lot of work? That's unpleasant? That's unglamorous? And that's gonna make the status quo angry? Yeah, that's what we need to do.

BRANCACCIO: And there's been an interesting example of the work that grassroots organizations can accomplish. The sort that you focused so heavily on in this health care debate. I go down to Washington a lot to do reporting on the health care issue. And there was a time when this notion of the public option seemed off the table. That it wasn't going to happen. Yet it seems to have come back.

SIROTA: That is ex—a perfect example of what I'm talking about. For months, the insurance industry, and at times the Obama Administration has tried to shove the public option off the table. And there has been a grassroots effort—to pressure as many Members of Congress as possible to take a concrete position in support of the public option. That's a victory that we're still now talking about the public option. That the Senate in its bill that's gonna move to the floor is gonna include a public option. The public option may not survive, but the fact that it's gotten this far. Suggests that grassroots politics, populist politics, still has agency in—in our political economy.

BRANCACCIO: Well, how did it work as a practical matter? How did grassroots politics keep that possibility of a public option alive?

SIROTA: It's—it's not glamorous stuff, right? It's people showing up to town hall meetings. It's people calling their Member of Congress, asking them to take a concrete position. It's grassroots groups, at times, airing ads pressuring their member of Congress to take that position. It's people making pledges that they will vote against their Congress person if they don't take and fulfill that concrete position. This is not, you know, rocket science. This is basic stuff that actually works. It's hard work. It's not altogether fun work. But it can work.

BRANCACCIO: Yet if you watch the bulk of the coverage that followed this week's election, this is not the takeaway point that you're hearing. You're hearing actually the conservative movement and Republicans feeling quite emboldened by what they saw. Republicans are winning.

SIROTA: Yeah. It—it—it's a lot of nonsense. I mean, what they want to do—look, the Republicans have a short term goal and a long term goal. The short term goal is try to use this election as a rationale to get corporate centrist Democrats in the Congress to vote against key Obama Administration—initiatives. Vote against health care, in particular, you know? Republicans supposedly won big on Tuesday, so Democrats in the Congress, if they support health care, they're gonna face a similar fate as say Jon Corzine. That's the Republicans' short term goal. Their long term goal is to build political momentum. Build this narrative for the 2010 election. I think it's exactly the opposite. What's really going on. That if Democrats do not pass the bulk of what they promised on health care, on Wall Street reform, and on rebuilding the economy through—stimulus package, for instance. Then that will make the Republicans more successful. Good politics for Democrats is good and fast policy, as soon as possible. Not backing off.

BRANCACCIO: Well, David, thank you very much.

SIROTA: Thanks for having me.

BRANCACCIO: Columnist David Sirota is author of The Uprising: the Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt That's Scaring Wall Street and Washington. If you're thinking you'd like to dig deeper into some of the issues stirred up by Tuesday's election, we have something new for you to try. It's our News NOW on PBS blog, which takes you behind the headlines to get true insight into what matters to you. Check it out on our homepage, pbs.org will take you there.

And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

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