“Ten years ago, Steve Jobs was alive, Bob Hope was alive, Johnny Cash was alive. Now we’re outta jobs, outta hope and outta cash.” I heard that from a TSA agent in New York the other day, as he eyed me for explosives. We laughed, but there was a poignant edge. Part of the outpouring over Steve Jobs last week was that he was a huge symbol of what seems a lost world of American dynamism. The inventor in his garage changes the world. We’ll not only make the new machine powerful and fast, we’ll make it so beautiful it will make you cry. Like you’re looking at the future, like you’re looking at a baby in its crib. Johnny Cash: American soulfulness. Real American soul, not fake soul. “I’m stuck in Folsom prison . . .” Bob Hope’s good cheer. He could poke the establishment because in those days it was strong enough to take it. People hoped to join it. Because it wasn’t then a bad word.
Anyway, the TSA man’s joke was as good a summation of the current moment and the public mood as I’ve heard.
So a moment on Occupy Wall Street, then some thoughts on the Republican field.
Ten years ago, we had Jobs, Cash and Hope.
OWS is not in itself important—it is obvious at this point that it’s less a political movement than a be-in. It’s unfocused, unserious in its aims. But it is an early expression, an early iteration, of something that is coming, and that is a rising up against current circumstances and arrangements. OWS is an expression of American discontent, and others will follow. The protests will grow as the economy gets worse.
A movement that will go nowhere but could do real damage would be “We hate the rich, let’s stick it to them.” Movements built on hatred are corrosive, and in the end corrode themselves. Ask Robespierre. In any case, the rich would leave. The rich are old, they feel like refugees in the new America anyway. A movement that would be helpful and could actually help bring change would be one that said, “Enough. Wall Street is selfish and dishonest, and Washington is selfish and dishonest. Together their selfishness and dishonesty, their operating as if they are not part of a whole, not part of a nation of relationships and responsibilities, tanked a great nation’s economy. We will reform.”
Why is this happening now, and not two years ago? Because at some point in the past year or six months, people started to realize: The economy really isn’t going to get better for a long time. Everyone seems to know in their gut that unemployment is going to stay bad or get worse. Everyone knows the jobless rate is higher than the government says, because they look around and see that more than 9% of their friends and family are un- or underemployed. People put on the news and hear about Europe and bankruptcy, and worry that it’s going to spread here. Eighteen months ago smart people could talk on TV about how we’re on a growth path and recovery will begin by fall of 2010. Nobody talks like that now.
And people have a sense that nothing’s going to get better unless something big is done, some fundamental change is made in our financial structures. It won’t be small-time rejiggering—a 5% cut in this tax, a 3% reduction in that program—that will get us out of this.
The other night the Republicans debated the economy. Nationally, the lightning strikes are all on the Republican side of the field. That’s where it’s all lit up, that’s where people look. The other side of the field is still and dark. No movement there, no lights.
President Obama’s jobs bill failed in the Senate this week, and the headline is not that it lost, it’s that it lost and nobody noticed. Polls actually showed support for various parts of it. You know why it failed? Because he was for it. Because he said, “Pass this bill.” So weak is public faith in his economic leadership that people figure if he’s behind it, it must be a bad idea. After the bill failed, the president said he won’t accept defeat: He and the American people “won’t take no for an answer.” Why does he talk like that, in a way so removed from reality? He didn’t sound resolute, he sounded plaintive, like someone doing a sound check in an empty hall he knows will never fill.
As to the Republicans: Do you know who looks most surprised by the rise of Herman Cain? Herman Cain. He thought he was on a book tour. Mr. Cain’s strength is not his charm. It’s not that he means it or that he’s a businessman. It’s that he’s the only one who’d throw out the entire U.S. tax code. He’d level it and start anew. He’d do something fundamental. And that has enormous appeal. Because our tax code is a rotting old edifice, and we can’t live in it anymore.
Jon Huntsman continues as an undervalued stock. He’s finally emphasizing that he was a successful, conservative two-term governor of Utah. He’s not actually a blue-blood, patrician Rockefeller Republican, he just plays one on TV. It would be better for him if he had an accent. His talents are broad enough that he was appointed ambassador to a major country, China. But he’s from Utah. He should say this a lot.
Rick Perry looks like someone who’s trying to find a graceful way out of this thing. It’s not going to work, and he must know it. He’s not playing to his strengths—he’s local, not national. In debate he’s like the handsome star of a 1960s TV Western, tilted back in his chair at the gambling table, cowboy hat over his brow, spurs clicking on the floor. And then he pulls the gun and he can’t shoot. He can’t even aim! No one is going to elect another Texan who has an insufficiently intimate relationship with the English language. He should liberate himself by internalizing the fact that he’s going to lose, and just say what he thinks, relax, and have a good time.
Mitt Romney is the front-runner, whatever the polls say, and Chris Christie’s endorsement is a huge boon. People say Mr. Romney hasn’t budged from roughly 25% support. But through every rise of every challenger, he hasn’t lost a thing. He holds his position, and he can grow. But watching him the other night I thought: His strength is his weakness. He is, essentially, a moderate. Those who love him, love that best. Those who don’t, hate it most. But he is a moderate man, and when he gets dramatic, it’s always on tertiary issues. A trade war with China? Good, that will turn everything around. Or is it just so he can use words like war, and look strong, and please those in the party who are always impressed by war?
Moderation is normally the American mood, and good thing too. But maybe on the economy we need something bigger—something more fundamental and dramatic—to get back the old dynamism. At one point Mr. Romney spoke approvingly of “a tax break for middle-income Americans.” It sounded like the authentic sound of last year’s tax debate, not next year’s.