Power to the Patrons

| September 24 2012
Hannah Thoreson

Obama takes us back to the Tammany Hall era

There has been a mass hesitancy to judge President Obama for anything beyond his most quantitative of failures:  absurd levels of unemployment, a skyrocketing national debt, and rising energy prices.  This is a huge liability for those hoping to see a change at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue following the election.  Economics don’t always do much to stir the demand for reform.  How many collectivist regimes maintained their popularity even while allowing people to starve to death or suffer in brutal poverty?  As convenient as it might be for a businessman like Mitt Romney, there’s more to governing than moving the numbers up a bit every quarter.

Obama understands that.  His best education may not have come from Columbia and Harvard, where he probably churned out subpar papers on irrelevant material like most other college students.  Rather, while Mitt Romney was out making millions and creating tens of thousands of jobs, Obama was learning the ins and outs of the Chicago political machine.

Chicago is well-known for being a center of corruption.  Barely a month after President Obama had been elected, Governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested.  It makes a lot of sense that Obama and his peers frequently refer to an attempt by Republicans to turn back the clock, as many of them are ‘doing time’:  four of the last seven governors and a third of former Chicago aldermen from that period, in fact.

One of the most subtle forms that corruption can take is a practice frequently referred to as patronage.  As Robert A. Caro wrote of the (Democratic party’s) “Tammany war machine” in The Power Broker,

And the most succulent of the carrots that lured these men forward, that kept their shoulders braced against the ropes that pulled for the Tammany machine, was the carrot of jobs, jobs for themselves, jobs for their wives, jobs for their sons.  … This meant 50,000 men and women who owed their paychecks — and whose families owed the food and shelter those paychecks bought — not to merit but to the ward boss.  Patronage was the coinage of power in New York City.

Remember how Obama would always emphasize that the stimulus “created or saved” jobs?  That is because while the private sector continued to shed workers, a trillion dollars in federal spending went to (Democratic) constituencies such as teachers’ unions or local government employees.  The automotive bailout functioned similarly in that it largely benefited the UAW.  What many Republicans don’t understand is that, to a lot of people it does seem like Obama has saved jobs.  They see it as his responsibility to engage in this form of patronage.  It’s how he got their votes.

And as Mitt Romney so “inelegantly” pointed out, he’ll get them again.  Some of the reaction to Mitt Romney’s comments in the leaked fundraiser video was characterized by a genuine distaste for his detached analysis of an extremely emotional issue.  But, as reform was seen as “daggers thrust at the heart of Tammany Hall”, many simply fear that the patronage machine is on the verge of being dismantled.

What Republicans need to do to win this election is to highlight the chaos and dysfunction that results from such extensive political patronage.  Tammany Hall never had a budget.  Likewise, the U.S. Senate under (Democrat) Harry Reid hasn’t passed one in nearly three and a half years!  When Tammany Hall (Democrats) doled out the goods, “the Board of Estimate made appropriations without even checking to see if there was, or would be, sufficient money available in the city’s treasury to cover them; if money ran out, the Board simply issued revenue bonds (i.e. debt) to make up the difference.”  This is exactly how the federal government has operated with a President that doesn’t know what the national debt was when he took office and a Federal Reserve running the printing presses like the U.S. Dollar is a teen vampire novel.

The weakened state of the economy is merely a symptom of a grossly mismanaged government distracted by the need to treat every appropriation and every interaction as an opportunity to serve or pander to the interests of various constituencies.  Mitt Romney would do well to point that out and highlight his extensive track record of success as an executive and administrator.  Otherwise, the new Tammany Hall will get four more years to entrench systems designed to make it more difficult to cut federal spending.  Implementation of a health care law that forces Americans to buy insurance from a handful of large corporations and expands federal spending on entitlements is just the beginning.  There are still more cronies who feel like they haven’t gotten their “fair share”, millions more Americans who could be on food stamps, and more rules to selectively enforce.  Obama’s 2008 electoral victory was billed as a triumph for democracy, but instead has handed power over to the patrons.  It must not happen again, or these damaging expansions of the state will be very, very difficult to reverse.  

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