All posts by eklevitz

I am a journalist/comedian living in New York City. Follow me on Twitter at @ericlevitz. I blog here:

Scott Walker Hates Crony Capitalism Like A Fat Kid Hates Cake

Dave Weigel offers this 140-character report on Scott Walker’s remarks at the South Carolina Freedom Summit:

The quote may be all of two sentences long, but it nonetheless captures the helpless vacuity and hypocrisy of Scott Walker’s “populism.”

First, the vacuity: To say that broad prosperity isn’t threatened by the power of Wall Street, but only the power of K Street, is akin to saying that Syrian dissidents aren’t threatened by Bashar al-Assad, only by the army that he funds and organizes.

The rise of K Street wasn’t bankrolled by the National Association of Lobbyists, the Chamber of Cronyism or Americans for The Special Interests. The proliferation of lobbyists in the nation’s capital isn’t some causa sui phenomenon, independent of the concentration of economic power that Wall Street has done so much to facilitate. This point is obvious and easily illustrated: Last year, the nation’s financial sector spent upwards of $1.8 million a day on campaign donations and lobbying.

Still, a generous reading of Walker’s statement doesn’t necessarily contradict this plain fact. Walker’s argument could be that big business does not pose an inherent challenge to shared prosperity, so long as it’s unable to leverage its economic power to influence the political process.

But such hermeneutical charity just transforms Walker from a naïf to a hypocrite. The Wisconsin Governor is an enthusiastic defender of the Citizens United ruling, and has personally benefited from various corporate entities’ exercise of their inalienable right to undermine democracy.

Now, the little angel on my shoulder protests: Perhaps, Mr. Walker believes that unlimited corporate spending on elections is tragic, but necessary to preserve First Amendment freedoms. For if the government is to allow the New York Times Corporation to fund the dissemination of political messages in its newspaper, how can it prohibit the Shell Corporation from disseminating its own political messages through media?

Perhaps, the verbose angel continues, perhaps he believes that the way to deter corporate spending in politics isn’t for the government to outlaw the practice, but for it to curtail corporate subsidies and regulations so sharply, there will be no incentive for such outsized spending.

But again, our generosity betrays us. Because what makes Walker’s statement so audacious, is that it comes less than 24 hours after the non-partisan Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau released a report detailing his own profligate spending on corporate subsidies.

In 2011, Walker established the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, an entity designed to channel taxpayer money to private corporations, so as to keep their operations and jobs within state lines.

Walker is hardly alone among American governors in pursuing job creation through corporate bribery. Though distasteful, it’s possible to argue that such subsidies offer the taxpayer a return on investment. If the subsidies succeed in attracting or retaining large employers, the state could theoretically capture more revenue in the long run, while improving the economic fortunes of its citizens.

The trouble for Walker is that his state’s auditors found the WEDC had a funny habit of providing corporations with subsidies without asking for anything in return.

The statute that gave the WEDC the authority to lend certain corporations taxpayer money, or to provide them with tax credits, mandated that such giveaways come with a contractual obligation to create or retain jobs within the state of Wisconsin.

The report released Friday found that:

  • Grant and loan recipients that were contractually required to create or retain jobs were not contractually required by WEDC to submit information, such as payroll records, showing that the jobs were actually created or retained.

  • WEDC did not establish all statutorily required policies for its tax credit programs, did not consistently evaluate whether businesses met all eligibility requirements in its tax credit policies, and allocated tax credits in ways that did not consistently comply with statutes and its policies

The report also notes that in 2014, WEDC cut $4.2 million from its “balance of loans with repayments 90 days or more past due,” by amending loan contracts to defer payments, or else simply writing them off.

With enemies like Scott Walker, K Street needs no friends.

Walker Goes Cuckoo for Koch Bro Bucks

Charles and David Koch plan to spend $900 million on the 2016 campaign cycle, more than any pair of private citizens have ever committed to an election in the history of our debased republic. And the billionaire brothers Stand With Scott.

On April 20th, at a fundraising event for the New York State Republican party, David Koch reportedly told the assembled plutocrats that Scott Walker should be the party’s nominee.

While the Kochs later contested that report, the remarks were widely viewed as signaling a key victory for Walker in the invisible primary of the GOP donor class. They also sparked speculation about the source of the Kochs’ apparent devotion to the Wisconsin Governor.

The policy preferences of your average arch-libertarian oil tycoon don’t differ sharply from the stated positions of any 2016 GOP contender. The distinctions between establishment-aligned Marco Rubio and tea-party favorite Ted Cruz are more rhetorical than ideological. Every major Republican candidate believes in cutting welfare spending and taxes on the wealthy, while opposing a carbon tax and new EPA regulations.

And on a couple of the issues where there is divergence of opinion, Walker has actually taken stances contrary to the avowed positions of the brothers Koch.

Take criminal justice reform. This past year, the Kochs helped bankroll the ACLU’s efforts to shorten prison sentences and decriminalize non-violent offenses, while hiring a vocal critic of mass incarceration to a full-time position at their think tank.

Yet, if you were looking to support the 2016 contender whose political identity was most defined by draconian crime policy, Scott Walker would be your man. As Scott Keyes documented in The Nation, Walker spent his nine years as an Assemblyman raking in donations from Wisconsin’s private prison operators, while pushing a cornucopia of tough-on-crime legislation.

Keyes notes that “in just the 1997–98 legislative session, Walker authored or co-sponsored twenty-seven different bills that either expanded the definition of crimes, increased mandatory minimums for offenders, or curbed the possibility of parole.”

If the Kochs want to liberate the poor from the oppression of food assistance AND mandatory minimum sentencing, Rand Paul would seem the logical choice.

Similarly, the Koch Brothers have long been notorious in a certain segment of the right for their putative support of “illegal amnesty.” Yet, the very week that the Kochs made their affections known, Walker questioned the desirability of all immigration, legal or otherwise.

If the Kochs want America to burn coal until melting ice-caps sink Bangladesh AND to provide those displaced Bangladeshis with worker permits, Marco Rubio seems a better fit.

Why then have they backed the man from Milwaukee?

The most obvious explanation is that Walker won their eternal devotion when he successfully pushed the Koch labor agenda past the communists of Madison, Wisconsin.

And in fact, Walker first came to the attention of the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity when, as a Milwaukee County Executive, he laid off a number of county employees to close a gap in his budget.

That organization took a lead role in Walker’s first gubernatorial election, inviting him to speak at their rallies and events starting in 2009. And Koch Industries provided Walker with the largest out-of-state contribution to his 2010 campaign.

In 2011, when Walker’s restrictions on collective bargaining brought protestors to the capital, AFP bussed in a counter-insurgency of tea party activists. In 2012, Koch Industries ramped up their giving to the Republican Governors Association, which proceeded to spend $5 million on attacking Walker’s challenger, former Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

While money qualifies as speech these days, David Koch has also expressed his approval of Walker in old-fashioned spoken English, telling the Palm Beach Post in 2012, “What Scott Walker is doing with the public unions in Wisconsin is critically important. He’s an impressive guy, and he’s very courageous.”

Clearly then, Walker’s success at disempowering both public and private sector unions in a purple state, while winning 3 elections in 4 years, is no small part of his appeal to Kochworld.

Relatively overlooked though, is Walker’s record on the environment, the area of policy that most directly impacts the financial interests of the Kochs, and the survival interests of the human species.

Even among Republican governors, Walker has distinguished himself for the ferocity of his opposition to President Obama’s climate agenda, instructing his attorney general to challenge the EPA’s legal authority to regulate carbon emissions in Wisconsin.

And Walker’s proven himself as staunch an adversary of green energy, as he is a defender of the right to pollute. As noted by Mother Jones’ Tim Mcdonnell, Walker’s latest budget would cut $8.1 million in funding for his state’s renewable energy research center, while committing $250,000 to a study on the potential public health threat posed by wind turbines.

Walker’s tenure also saw a tenfold increase in fracking sand mines, a relaxation of environmental standards for iron mines, and the delay of phosphorous pollution regulations that were opposed by a Koch-owned paper factory.

In 2013, Walker signed a pledge drafted by Americans for Prosperity, vowing to oppose any climate related legislation that would produce “a net increase in government revenue.”

So sure, the Koch brothers support criminal justice reform. And Sheldon Adelson says he supports universal healthcare. But if you want to predict which candidate a Republican billionaire is going to back, better to sweat the details of his financial commitments than his ideological ones.

Scott Walker Goes Nativist

Last week, Scott Walker opened up a new front in his party’s civil war over immigration. In an interview with eminent conspiracist Glenn Beck, Walker moved the GOP debate beyond amnesty and border patrols, suggesting that the cost of legal immigration to American workers was “a lost issue among many in elected positions today”:

            “In terms of legal immigration, how we need to approach that going forward is saying—the next president and the next congress need to make decisions about a legal immigration system that’s based, first and foremost, on protecting American workers and American wages.”

That rhetoric earned Walker the derision of the Wall Street Journal and the adulation of Breitbart Media. Harry Enton of FiveThirtyEight sees little benefit for Walker in such a trade-off:

            “Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker just stepped in it…Walker is considered a top-tier contender in large part because he appeals to both the GOP’s conservative base and its more moderate establishment wing…Advocating for cutting legal immigration upsets that balance, hurting his ability to compete in the invisible primary, the pre-voting race for endorsements and money.”

Enton is right that Walker’s best selling-point is his capacity to bridge the gaps in his party’s coalition. But I think the Wisconsin Governor knew exactly where he was stepping. It’s no coincidence that Walker tacked right on immigration the same week that Marco Rubio launched his campaign for the Presidency. Rubio is Walker’s chief competition for the title of consensus candidate: Both offer the base a chance to thwart the coronation of another Bush, while being rhetorically inoffensive enough to sneak a reactionary agenda past a national electorate.

Rubio is better positioned to eat into Walker’s support among the establishment than among the base, and the opposite is true for Walker. For the GOP donor class, Rubio’s only unique liability is frequent dry-mouth. To the base, he’s associated with an immigration reform bill that’s held in roughly the same esteem as Sharia law. Thus, if Walker wants to retain his status as unity candidate, his best bet is to make Rubio unacceptable to the grasroots, which means drawing a stark contrast between himself and the Florida Senator on immigration.

That task is complicated by Walker’s own history on the issue. In 2006, when he was still Milwaukee County Executive, Walker signed a resolution pledging his support for the McCain-Kennedy immigration reform bill. That legislation would have created a pathway to citizenship for 12 million undocumented immigrants.

Two weeks ago, if you typed “Scott Walker immigration problem” into Google, you’d have seen scores of articles describing Walker’s past softness on immigration as a liability. Today, that same search yields a cornucopia of think-pieces lamenting the political dangers of his hardline nativism. At this point in the campaign, the latter is a good problem for Walker to have.

In his interview with Beck, Walker didn’t commit to any specific position on legal immigration. He said just enough to get scolded by RINOs, and obscure his past sympathies for “amnesty.” And while he may have alienated some potential donors, so long as he retains the support of the Koch brothers, he won’t need too many other oligarchs.

It’s true that the Kochs are pro-immigration, but I think they (and the GOP establishment more broadly) know the way this game is played. Just as the big money donors of the Democractic party knew, even while candidate Obama was excoriating NAFTA in 2007, President Obama would be a loyal servant of their trade agenda in 2015.

The President of the United States has not  deviated from the corporate consensus on immigration or free trade since at least the Reagan years. That’s unlikely to change in an era of unprecedented political spending. On these matters, the primaries are effectively a con game. And taking a browbeating from the Wall Street Journal op-ed page only strengthens Walker’s con.

Scott Walker and the GOP’s “Safety Issue”

Rip the last six months of headlines from all the nation’s newspapers. Boil them down to a single sentence, and here’s what you get:

The American economy is growing and the Middle East is on fire.

For the Republican Party, victory in 2016 will likely depend on the degree to which they can keep the American people focused on the flames.

Which isn’t to say the Obama economy is a triumph of corporate dynamism and shared prosperity. Republicans recognize the incumbent party’s vulnerability on wage stagnation, and a few have even been experimenting with the language of class warfare. But campaigning against income inequality is no easy task for a party committed to the abolition of the Estate Tax.

Convincing Americans that their security depends on a more aggressive foreign policy is a far simpler assignment. A wide swath of the electorate already has more faith in the GOP on military matters. The only challenge will be in teaching the middle-class to fear Islamic terrorists more than their mounting mortgage payments.

To that end, Scott Walker has decided to rebrand “national security” as “the safety issue.” Walker explained his innovation to Hugh Hewitt, on the right-wing pundit’s radio show last week:

 “I think it’s come to the forefront because ‘national security’…is on page 6A of the newspaper where only a handful of us read into that. But when people see the videos, when they see the Jordanian burned alive in a cage, when they see the Egyptian Christians who were beheaded…you can see it on your phone, you can see it on your iPad…national security, foreign policy is something over there. Safety is something you feel inside your chest, you feel in your heart.”

Walker has the poll numbers to be the GOP frontrunner. But he lacks the full confidence of his party’s establishment, not least because the Wisconsin Governor seems an odd standard bearer for a “foreign policy” election.

Last month, Walker drew attention to his own inexperience with geopolitics, by citing his battles with Wisconsin’s labor unions as adequate preparation for leading the fight against ISIS, proclaiming: “If I can take on 100,000 protestors, I can take on the Islamic State!”

The comment drew criticism from across the political spectrum. And yet with “the safety issue,” Walker appears to be doubling down on the folksy hyperbole of his alleged gaffe.

By rebranding “national security” as “safety,” Walker is recasting his ineloquence on foreign policy as plainspokenness. Walker seems to accept the premise that to win in 2016 his party will need to make national security a voting issue. But he rejects the idea that doing so requires a candidate fluent in every nuance of statecraft; in fact, he implies that command of all the details on “page 6A” may actually be a handicap. Because if you want Americans to feel the threat of radical Islam in their chests, you need to describe that threat in the simplest possible terms. In other words: You need a foreign policy message so facile, even Scott Walker could convey it.

It’s a clever gambit, and if Republican primary voters are sufficiently exhausted by the Bush family, it may even prove successful.

But in a saner world, it would be an utter failure. Because when you pretend that the goal of neoconservative foreign policy is to maintain public safety rather than American hegemony, you end up spouting a lot of paranoid nonsense.

Walker told Hewittt that Americans increasingly “feel a sense of concern, particularly if they have family members or loved ones that ever want to travel again, they see France, they see Canada, they see other places around the world, not just the Middle East, and it’s a safety issue.”

If Americans look to the shootings at the Canadian parliament and the offices of Charlie Hebdo and feel afraid to leave their country, then we are some the most irrational people on the face of the Earth.

There were 160 mass shootings in the United States between 2000 and 2013. Our rate of murder by firearm is among the highest in the developed world. If a mass shooting in Paris constitutes a profound threat to our national security, how should we describe the murder of 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut? And if a politician treats the former as a greater threat to our “safety” than the latter, what do you suppose he means by that word?

Later in the interview, Walker suggests that in order to address the safety issue, the President must “call out Islamic terrorism for what it is.”

Since 9/11, Islamic extremists have killed 27 Americans on U.S. soil; right-wing extremists have killed 39. In that same time period more than 400,000 Americans died in car accidents.

The truth is America’s war on “Islamic terrorism” is only a “safety issue” for those who live in the regions we bomb.

Last week, three international physicians groups released a joint report on the foreign death toll of the American led operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, since the declaration of the War on Terror. The body count came to 1.3 million.

Towards the end of his interview, Walker explained to Hewitt that radical Islam was “like a virus. You’ve got to eradicate it. You can’t take out part of it, or it will come back.”

Maybe if we kill another million people, we’ll finally be safe from such murderous ideologies.

Scott Walker #StandsWithOccupation

While Obama reassess his relationship with Israel, Scott Walker is planning a spring fling with the Jewish state.

On Friday, Walker announced an imminent trip to the holy land, and launched a petition asking his supporters to pledge allegiance to the Netanyahu government.

The petition, titled #StandWithIsrael, features a photo of the newly re-elected prime minister, and a large block quote from the Wisconsin governor:

“We cannot afford to be passive spectators while the world descends into chaos. America must stand with our friends and stand up to our enemies. Then and only then can our standing in the Middle East and throughout the world improve and with it our own security.”

The move comes amid increasing tension between Israel and the United States. The latest tsuris was sparked by the Netanyahu campaign’s last minute efforts to consolidate right-wing support for the Likud party. Bibi entertained supporters with his best George Wallace impression, warning that the Arabs were “voting in droves.” He then promised that so long as he remained in power, he would never allow the Palestinian people to establish a sovereign state.

The latter comment was particularly destructive, since maintaining the pretense that the Netanyahu government is sincerely interested in a two-state solution has long been a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the region.

Now, as Bibi assembles a far-right coalition, President Obama is apparently trying to figure out some way of bringing diplomatic pressure to bear on a foreign administration that enjoys more support in Congress than his own.

In this context, Walker’s sudden focus on Israel makes a good deal of sense. Israel’s rightward shift may be an immediate danger to Palestinians, and a long-term disaster for the Zionist project, but it’s pretty great for the Republican party.

The Democratic coalition is increasingly made up of African-Americans and Hispanics, the only demographic groups in the country who register significant levels of sympathy for the Palestinians. But Democrats also rely on the support of Jewish voters, many of whom oppose any diplomatic separation between the United States and Israel, regardless of their opinion of the Netanyahu government. As Israel becomes a less apologetic apartheid state, Republicans may be able to use American policy towards the nation as a wedge issue.

Walker’s announcement also comes in the heat of the Adelson primary. Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, and Mike Pence will all make the pilgrimage to the Casino magnate’s Venetian resort this month. Adelson is one of the most prolific donors in both the United States and Israel, and helped fund Walker’s 2012 re-election.

On the issue of the Palestinians, Adelson sounds like he’d be more sympathetic to a final solution than a two-state one. So it’s unlikely you’ll ever hear a major Republican candidate offer even the mildest rebuke to settlement expansion for the foreseeable future.

That said, it would be unfair to paint Walker’s motives as purely cynical. The governor has been a proud supporter of apartheid since at least since his college days, when he made opposition to divestment from South Africa a central plank of his campaign for class president.

Scott Walker: Soft on Aliens?

This week, Scott Walker hired Liz Mair to run social media outreach for his incipient presidential campaign.

Unfortunately for Walker, Mair is a pro-choice, pro-immigration, Republican-in-name-only, and she ain’t afraid to tweet so:

For these heresies, as well as some tweets disparaging Steve King’s Carnival of Xenophobia (a.k.a. The Iowa Freedom Summit), the chair of the Iowa G.O.P. called for Mair’s head.

Today, Mair resigned from the Walker campaign.

Certainly, it’s less than ideal to have a “head of social media outreach” that has used social media to ridicule some of the people she’s been hired to reach out to.

Still, The Purge of Mair feels gratuitous and indicative of one of the central challenges facing the 2016 G.O.P.: How to build a national majority off a base that prides itself on ideological exclusivity?

Officially, Mair was ousted for the tone of her tweets about Iowans, not her liberal social politics. But the conservative media pushback against her hiring seemed more concerned with who Mair is and what she believes, than by anything she might have said about the Hawkeye state.

One of the many pieces that right-wing news site Breitbart ran on Mair yesterday opened with this bombshell:

“Mair, a supporter of open borders immigration, amnesty for illegal aliens and the Senate “Gang of Eight” bill from last Congress, has dual citizenship in both the United States and the United Kingdom.”

Mair is labeled a heretic three times before the verb, after which, she’s branded a secret lobsterback.

Intrepid reporter Matthew Boyle notes that Mair was born in the United States. Therefore, her dual citizenship is no tragic inheritance but a conscious choice for which she must be held accountable. Boyle demands Mair explain,“Why wasn’t US citizenship good enough?”

Mair wasn’t hired to design Scott Walker’s policy towards Great Britain. She was hired to manage some email lists. But in a crowded primary field where everyone not named Jeb is jockeying for the title of truest conservative, every impurity must be answered for. In this environment, a candidate simply can’t have a pro-choice “dual citizen” writing his hash-tags.

It’s worth noting that when Mair tweeted, “I see Iowa is once again embarrassing itself and the GOP this morning,” she was lamenting her party’s intolerant nativism. What was embarrassing to Mair was the spectacle of her party’s would-be presidents declaring their hostility to “illegal aliens”, at an event organized by one of the country’s most transparently racist Congressmen.

The ubiquity of the word “alien” is one of the more stunning features of GOP primary discourse. The term is rarely used in written policy, where the modifier “illegal” is deemed sufficiently dehumanizing. But in the Republican primary, many candidates appear uncomfortable merely adopting xenophobic policy; they feel compelled to adopt xenophobic language as well. These candidates signal their belonging to the conservative movement by literally alienating its opponents.

And this imperative to define ideological enemies as aliens isn’t limited to debates over immigration. The tribalism that leads Steve King to deny undocumented workers the title of “immigrant,” is the same that leads Scott Walker to deny President Obama the title of “Christian.” Today, in deference to that tribalism, Walker denied Mair the title of social media director.

The view that one’s political opponents aren’t fellow citizens to be persuaded, but “unAmericans” to be defeated, was the basis of Romeny’s infamous claim that “47 percent” of the electorate were unreachable moochers.

To become President, the Republican nominee will need to find a way of sneaking a few aliens back into his party’s small-tent, after spending all primary season kicking them out.

Or, he could just try to keep them from voting.