No Bull

Douglas Brinkley is, among other things, a professor of history at Rice University in Houston. Besides particular events and eras in American history, he has written books about past presidents, about foreign policy, about war.

He recently interviewed President Obama for Rolling Stone magazine, and the quote heard most often from the piece so far is this one, as relayed by The Guardian:

Brinkley’s interview recorded a conversation between Obama and Eric Bates, the executive editor of Rolling Stone. Bates told Obama that his six-year-old daughter had a message for the president: “Tell him: you can do it.” Obama replied with a grin:

You know, kids have good instincts. They look at the other guy and say, ‘Well, that’s a bullshitter, I can tell’.

Bullshitter. Bullshitter. Bullshitter. That’s all I’ve heard about the interview, except that in our too-polite media it is presented as “bulls****er.” How kind of the media to cover for Obama like that.

In any case, besides Obama’s stunningly accurate characterization of Romney’s shtick, Brinkley’s interview was full of other worthy quotes, and I mean quotes from the historian, Brinkley:

Barack Obama can no longer preach the bright 2008 certitudes of “Hope and Change.” He has a record to defend this time around. And, considering the lousy hand he was dealt by George W. Bush and an obstructionist Congress, his record of achievement, from universal health care to equal pay for women, is astonishingly solid.

Now, when is the last time you heard anyone in the media bidness refer to “an obstructionist Congress” ? Particularly in the context of Obama’s accomplishments? When one thinks about it, what the President has been able to accomplish has been remarkable, and remarkably progressive, given the times we live in.

Brinkley, the historian, continued:

Viewed through the lens of history, Obama represents a new type of 21st-century politician: the Progressive Firewall. Obama, simply put, is the curator-in-chief of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society. When he talks about continued subsidies for Big Bird or contraceptives for Sandra Fluke, he is the inheritor of the Progressive movement’s agenda, the last line of defense that prevents America’s hard-won social contract from being defunded into oblivion.

Since the time of Theodore Roosevelt, Brinkley asserted, “the federal government has aimed to improve the daily lives of average Americans.” TR fought “Big Money interests”; Woodrow Wilson created the Federal Reserve, the Federal Trade Commission, and re-established the federal income tax; FDR brought the country the New Deal, Social Security, laws to protect workers and give them the right to bargain collectively, regulation of Wall Street, unemployment compensation and the FDIC, which brought confidence to depositors that their money was safe, even if banks weren’t.

But in between Wilson and FDR came “the GOP Big Three of Harding-Coolidge-Hoover,” who “made ‘business’ the business of America, once more allowing profiteers to flourish at the expense of the vulnerable.” It was the policies and resulting disaster from those three Republican presidents that FDR was elected to fix.

And it took him a while to do it. But he did it. And as Brinkley wrote,

The America we know and love today sprung directly from the New Deal.

Ever since the election of Ronald Reagan, what Brinkley calls the “Grand Reversal,” an assault on the New Deal  has been ongoing, even including to some degree Democrat Bill Clinton, who “survived two terms only by co-opting traditional GOP issues like welfare reform and balanced budgets.”

And Brinkley makes another essential point in anaylzing President Obama in terms of the historical trend to unravel “the America we know and love today” :

Paul Nitze, the foreign-policy guru of the Truman administration, once told me that the problem with historians like myself is that we’re always hunting for a cache of documents to analyze. What our ilk tends to forget, he chided, is that inaction is also policy. Under this criterion, Obama must also be judged by the things he won’t allow to happen on his watch: Wall Street thieving, Bush-style fiscal irresponsibility, a new war in the Middle East, the reversal of Roe v. Wade, the dismantling of Medicare into a voucher program – the list is long. The offense-driven, Yes-We-Can candidate of 2008 has become the No-You-Won’t defensive champion of 2012. Obama has less a grand plan to get America working than a NO TRESPASSING sign to prevent 100 years of progressive accomplishments from being swept away, courtesy of Team Romney, in a Katrina-like deluge of anti-regulatory measures.

That analysis might not appeal all that much to undecided voters who are apparently pathologically unable to make up their minds about this election, but it should damn well appeal to unenthusiastic liberals, unionists, and other Democrats who have been angry with Obama because, like FDR before him, he hasn’t been able to do everything he set out to do, or done things exactly the way various interest groups wish he would have done them.

When we cast our votes for the leader of this country, we are casting votes for someone with the instincts we most desire in a leader, with the instincts to not only do good things, but to protect the good that has been done. The one thing we know about Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is that they both have very different instincts about what is good and what should be preserved.

Brinkley again:

If Obama wins re-election, his domestic agenda will be anchored around a guarantee to all Americans that civil rights, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, affordable health care, public education, clean air and water, and a woman’s right to choose will be protected, no matter how poorly the economy performs. Obama has grappled with two of the last puzzle pieces of the Progressive agenda – health care and gay rights – with success. If he is re-elected in November and makes his health care program permanent, it will take root in the history books as a seminal achievement. If he loses, Romney and Ryan will crush his initiatives without remorse.

If that isn’t enough to get Democrats to run not walk to the polls, then they—those who sit on the sidelines and allow Republicans to win, to govern, to destroy what we value as Democrats, as Americans—are a miserable lot.


  1. RDG,
    You have provided a timely reminder that preserving important social safety nets is an important accomplishment. Considering the GOP has been committed to the president’s political destruction from day one, it’s a minor miracle Obama has been able to accomplish meaningful reforms in health-care delivery and human rights.

    My hope is that the Republican Party undergoes some long overdue soul searching after the election. The GOP cannot survive as a viable national political party if its platform appeals to a white only, reactionary base. Although shining on xenophobic religious bigots is lucrative for talk radio and Fox News, most Americans do not want Medicare and Social Security eliminated or see another round of wealth-friendly tax cuts halt a slow but perceptible recovery. The gains made in 2010 were temporary; Tea Party insurgents have proven to be both incapable and disinterested in serious governance.

    Blaming Romney for their loss, while predictable, only prolongs the party’s drift toward national insignificance.


    • Juan

      Your post reminds me of how difficult a Romney loss will be for the soul-searching the GOP will most certainly undergo, between the awful wing of the party and the God-awful wing. Who will triumph will depend on the outcome in the House and Senate. A substantial gain of seats in the House by Democrats, and control of the Senate remaining in Democratic hands, along with The Scary Negro remaining in the White’s House, will certainly give so-called moderates the upper hand in regaining at least some, but only some, control of the party.

      However, if Romney loses and the House remains solidly Tea Party, no matter what happens in the Senate, then conservatives, as you know, will blame Mittens for the loss, especially for not actively supporting Akin-ish style conservatism. Under those circumstances, they won’t give and inch and will triple-down on their zealotry.

      It will be damn fun watching it, but Big O is a long way from winning right now. I’m as nervous as an outsourceable cat in a room full of Bain Capital rockers.



  2. ansonburlingame

     /  October 26, 2012

    Just a “little” conservative suggestions to consider instead of rejecting them out of hand. The “historian” said above, “America’s hard-won social contract from being defunded into oblivion.”

    Obviously that is a shot at current Tea Party ideas, the implication being that the Tea Party, alone, is going to defund Amercia. You might take a step back and consider that America is going to defund America by demanding over a long time (50 years or more) more from the federal government than the federal government can “make” in revenues. Of course you have heard me say that for months now.

    America’s hard-won social contract has been driving America deeper into debt for 50+ years and the chickens are coming home to roost. Don’t you even laugh when you hear Obama saying that “taxing the rich” will “help reduce the deficit”? That relatively small tax revenue increase will be swallowed up by overwhelming automatic entitlement increases in the blink of the eye. The “math is simple” to see that.

    If we want to SUSTAIN the social contract demanded by Americans then we better start paying for it in a sustainable way. Again you all should be smart enough to figure that one out.

    Here is a new slant, economically, if you will. Budget deficits are deemed to have two components. The first is a structural element, excess spending driven by intentional laws to spend such money, like Medicare as just an example. The other is the cyclic element that are caused when tax revenues go down as a result of a recession or increasing unemployment.

    For example when GDP goes down in a recession, tax revenues go down. But when unemployment goes up, people “automatically” draw unemployment insurance thus increasing government spending. Once the “cycle” of a recession is reversed, GDP goes back up, more people are employed…….

    Over a long time America has accepted a constant structural deficit (except for 4 out of over 50 years). Look at deficit spending in “boom times” as well as non-recessionary times. You will always see a deficit in such years, a structrual deficit which we have never tried to eliminate be it by either a Dem of GOP administration. Call it constant and ever increasing structural deficits in both good and bad times over almost 50 or so years. And when really tough times hit, like the GR the cyclic component of deficits goes crazy.

    In so many words that is the underlying debate today, politically. To put America back on firm financial footing we must reexamine BOTH our “social contract” AND our federal revenue streams, all of them. Add in defense spending as well and they must ulitmately balance out. Such a reassessment and change in “contracts and revenues” is what is needed, desperately in America. And the changes will have to be “institutional” and long lasting with the ulitimate challenge to “live within our means” sustainably.

    Such arguements for sure fall on deaf ears of many, particularly unions. Why did the auto industry go bankrupt, ultimately. Simply stated that industry failed to make enough money to sustain “contracts” previously established, all sorts of “contracts” and unions played a huge roll in such overspending over time. Call it a structrual imbalance that went “nuts” when a bad “cycle” hit that industry in the GR.

    None of you progressives will accept what I wrote above for sure. But in my view that is exactly what is facing America and American democracy today.



  3. Anson, The Tea Party is that pretend “grassroots” movement which has served to be the “earnest, human face” of the Koch-Adelson-inspired resurgence of the should-be-dead-and-buried marriage of the KKK and John Birch. I believe most small minded conservatives (sorry, that might be redundant) look to these rich assholes and Rush and FOX to legitimize their love of hatred for “the others” — while actually identifying themselves as the real outsiders to faith, democracy, justice, and grace.


  4. ansonburlingame

     /  October 26, 2012

    The Tea Party is only a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself. As well, I agree with you that the Tea Party by itself does not have all the solutions, not by any stretch of the imagination. But neither does the equally (but in the opposite direction) progessive set of ideas.

    Somehow the American political “system” must come to grips with the long term issues I presented above. We cannot simply “cut our way to prosperity” OR “spend our way to prosperity”. To be truly prosperous America must ignite, again, our ability to outproduce the rest of the world in things that matter to humans (and thus will be bought by humans) and then live within our means over the long haul on a year to year basis.

    For several centuries classical economics reigned supreme dictating that government keep its hands off of or out of economies. The ebb and flow of consumption and investment would self correct economic imbalances. Then came Keynes stating that government must play a major role as well when “self correction” (in consumption and investment) is not enough to return economies to balance. That 1936, Depression Era, thinking was proven to work. Massive government spending caused by WWII eliminated the depression (and millions of lives as well).

    However Keynes NEVER said “what to do next” after massive spending (and subsequent debt) had reignited an economy. One must assume that the debt must be repaid after such events. Truman and Ike were doing that, keeping taxes high AND funding Europe to reignite while the American economy BOOMED across the world.

    But then what happened? You know as well as I do that “social contracts” came along, a whole new task for government in America. I don’t argue that such social contracts were or are unneeded. But I argue strongly that they MUST be paid for, year to year, on a sustainable basis. America and European socialism has failed, miserably to do so, pay as they go to meet the obligations contained in massive social contracts.

    Look historically a debt to GDP ratios over the course of American history. That ratio stayed low, very low until wars came along. Wars and some big recessions caused debt to go up and the ratio to go up, but debts were repaid and the ratio came down again. This happened time and time again in our history until post WWII America.

    Somehow Keynesian economics was then used to justify government spending anytime, not just in “bad times” like a big recession or the Great Depression. And we have been following that path for over 50 years.

    I don’t think Keynes ever addressed the matter, but his theory has also been used to support massive socialist and/or even communist attempts to use government spending to overwhelm any private segment (consumption and investment and net trade) in a given economy. In other words they tried to apply Keynesian theory to steady state government spending. As best as I can tell, Keynesian economic theory was developed to apply to “emergency situations”, not steady state government financial policies. And here we and Europe are today as a result.

    I could go on of course, but so what. Here we are today with no idea what to do next when (if) American economic growth restarts, we have $20 Trillion (the last Presidential budget submission said $26 Trillion) in debt, the debt to GDP ratio exceeds even the peak of WWII and we have no way to honor the social contracts established over the years.

    Such conditions mean revolution in my view and the longer we wait the closer we get to such turmoil, turmoil caused ultimately by we the people demanding more from government than government can provide on a sustainable basis.



  5. Anson —
    I’m not an economist, but I’d submit that the 21st century does not compare to the 17th or the 18th or the 19th. Thanks to technology, too much has changed. We are living on a different planet. Government can be an economic force for good. If in 2009 we’d begun a government-initiated rehab of the US Waterways infrastructure (for instance) we’d have put 200,000 people to work on the front end (more directly and indirectly over time) and improved our chances of doubling exports by 2014. Both Dems and Repubs like the idea of the doubling. The GNP improvement repays the debt. It’s easier to push a stalled car that has a little momentum than one stuck in a rut with the entire Republican (read: Tea Party) sitting on the car’s hood. History has proven the wisdom of JMK and the utter lunacy of “supply-side” theory. It is possible that Grover Norquist is actually the Antichrist. Taxes are not evil in a civil society committed to caring for all its citizens. The idea that no one should pay taxes is childish and as immature as the Tea Party candidates, themselves.


  6. Thanks, Duane, for bringing Brinkley’s analysis to our attention. His narrative of social progress strikes true, and also of Barack Obama’s role as defender of a hard-won progressive legacy. I have long been aware of the painfully dire social circumstances that prevailed in the so-called Gilded Age of the late 19th century, the time of child labor, segregation and exploitation of black citizens, vast wealth disparity, 12-hour workdays, and unsafe working conditions, but I have only recently come to have a new appreciation of the “Grand Reversal” during Reagan’s term.

    I am currently reading Rachel Maddow’s new book, “Drift – The Unmooring of American Military Power”, published a few months ago, and am awe-struck by its perspicacity. She has done her homework. Reagan was a wonderfully likable man, and even smart, but its clear he was driven in his political agenda not by intellectual analysis but an ideology rooted in filmdom and popular culture. Ironically, it was the GOP president Ronald Reagan who began the really seriously-profligate spending that George W. Bush accelerated with out-of-control Top Secret America, and which Romney/Ryan now decry as sinful. As Brinkley implies, the spirit of Harding-Coolidge-Hoover is alive and well in the Tea Party.

    You are exactly right, Duane, to plead the dangers to the progressive successes of a Conservative win in this election. Unfortunately, like some Conservative commenters, many will look on the deficit and debt issues not as long-term problems needing long-term solutions but rather, as Romney/Ryan would have us think, something Obama should have fixed in a mere four years, never mind that the downward fiscal momentum he inherited from the last Conservative administration was unprecedented in its severity.

    Incidentally, I was pleased and surprised to note in Maddow’s book that she has a bachelor’s degree in public policy from Stanford and a doctorate in politics from Oxford. She is a treasure, and she writes as well as she speaks.


  7. writer89

     /  October 26, 2012

    I’m not going to take the time to rebut every point made by our loyal opposition here, except to say that the biggest myth going the rounds in our current political discourse is the notion that we have “spent ourselves into the poorhouse” and that we can no longer afford the social programs of the New Deal. This is patent bullshit, to borrow a term from the President. We have instead tax-cut ourselves into the poorhouse, on both the federal AND state levels, while simultaneously outsourcing the jobs which could have given our economy the impetus to improve the unemployment numbers and reduce the need for more spending on social programs. In other words, we have abandoned the progressive tax structure that began under the New Deal and continued until the disastrous Reagan administration, thus depriving the government of most of the revenues it needed to operate, while simultaneously lowering trade barriers and allowing jobs and basic industries to be sent overseas by greedy multi-nationals who saw a chance to cut their labor costs (ie., to fire American workers) and make even more profits which were not taxed at the proper rate. THAT is why we have the current deficits and national debt with which we are burdened, plus the biggest wealth gap since the Great Depression; we will never solve the problem until we go back to a truly progressive tax code, close the real loopholes, RAISE the capital gains tax and reduce the wealth gap, and stop rewarding vultures like Bain Capital which continue to send American jobs to China. And, yes, Grover Norquist is the Anti-Christ! And Romney is his butt boy.


  8. Anson,
    I could understand shilling for the proposed Romney-Ryan budget if hoping to expand a seven-figure investment portfolio, but as far as I know from shared personal biography, you are retired military receiving a government-subsidized pension and health care. Let us set aside the issue of whether or not your socialized retirement income is “earned” and therefore immune from discussion. The money comes from the same source as civilian retirees receiving Social Security and Medicare; I am sure if asked SS recipients would say that their monthly government check is “earned” after years of paying into FICA. Yet you support a privatization scheme that deems civilian government-subsidized retirement and health care anathema to the sanctity of private enterprise. I cannot help but see a double standard. It appears to me that you cherry pick who should and who should not receive government-subsidized money. Put another way, the “social contract” you rely on is somehow different from the “social contract” between a retired private sector employee and Uncle Sam. I am not sure why, since both the Department of Defense and the Social Security Administration are funded exclusively through tax dollars. Evidently, you believe that socialism is situational: it is bad when channeled to those considered undeserving and good when direct deposited into your banking account. That is not only a case of situational ideology, but a convenient one as well.

    It appears that you have audited just enough Keynesian macroeconomics to be confused about Keynesian macroeconomics. Keynesian theory is that aggressive government action to stabilize the economy is based on value judgments and on the belief that (a) macroeconomic fluctuations significantly reduce economic well-being and (b) the government is knowledgeable and capable enough to improve on the free market. Notice that Keynesian macroeconomics does not replace the free market. The government stepping in to save America’s auto industry is a prescient example. The government did not take over the industry, but supplied needed capital to keep car manufacturers solvent. Mitt Romney wrote several editorials expressing an entirely different view. It is a very good thing that he was not President in 2009 or Rust Belt states would be mired in double-digit unemployment and severe economic recession. In this case, the Keynesian value judgment made by President Obama saved over a million jobs and allowed the companies to reclaim a dominant share of the market. Surely, you must applaud President Obama’s pragmatic display of Keynesian macroeconomics: “To be truly prosperous America must ignite, again, our ability to outproduce {sic} the rest of the world in things that matter to humans…”

    Because it is late, I will refrain from revisiting the folly of comparing family budgets to those of governments. However, you might be interested to know that Milton Friedman, the father of Monetarism, was the genius who invented the payroll tax. Imagine that.


  9. Did any of you have an opportunity to read Mark Cuban’s post yesterday in HuffPost? I think you might find it both interesting and enlightening. He gives a very good comparison of business related practices in government situations. Here is the link: And, Jim, Rachel was also a Rhodes Scholar. She truly is a gem.


    • Thanks for the Rhodes Scholar mention, Dawn. That prompted me to check Wikipedia for her biography and it makes fascinating reading. I thought this little nugget captured her wit and charm quite well:

      Asked about her political views by the Valley Advocate, Maddow replied, “I’m undoubtedly a liberal, which means that I’m in almost total agreement with the Eisenhower-era Republican party platform.”


      • Love it! That would probably describe me, too! I just don’t understand why it’s so unpopular around these parts to genuinely care about your country AND you neighbors? Like Duane, I, too, am a former “conservative”, except I kind of like to tell everyone that my ideas, politics, and beliefs haven’t changed – the GOP’s have….


    • Dawn,

      Wow! Thanks for turning me on to that “ironic” Mark Cuban piece.

      I really love his discussion of the benefit to businesses provided by ObamneyCare, in terms of the relative “certainty” related to health care costs and benefits it provides.

      And his advice to a “Democratic” Mittens, that he should be touting his investment savvy in terms of what he could do with all that “DIRT CHEAP” money from China, especially investing it in “American companies,” was right on:

      [DEMOCRATIC ROMNEY:] No one knows how to get a return on capital better than I do. I’m great at it. Look at my history…We need to invest in new technologies. We need to invest in research and development. We need to invest in new medicines and health care options. Now, some people might say that it will be very difficult to pick winners and losers and they are right. It will be very difficult. There will be losers. More importantly there will be winners. Winning investments will create jobs. Winning investments will create new technologies and medicines that improve the standard of living for all of us and does so at a lower cost. We won’t compete with private investment, we will complement it.

      How commonsensical is that? It is precisely what President Obama has been saying for at least four years.

      But my favorite part of the piece was this, which Cuban put in the mouth, again, of a Democratic Romney:

      My Republican friends on the other hand, believe that if you reduce tax rates, large corporations hoarding cash will miraculously bring that cash back to the U.S. and invest and hire. Trust me. I know investment. That won’t do it. They can borrow money so cheaply there is no reason to bring it home and it certainly won’t lead to jobs. If they had something to invest in that would generate a return, they would. They haven’t.

      Again, they won’t invest in America. I will.

      As a long-time investor, I have never turned down an investment because of tax rates. I was just as successful investing when capital gains were much higher. I was just as successful investing when individual tax rates were much higher. No smart investor turns down a good deal because of tax rates. I always remind people you only pay taxes on profits. And if you make more than $1 million in profits, whether through capital gains or ordinary income, you should pay more taxes.

      As I said, wow. Thanks for calling my attention to that excellent article.



      • Great article. Here’s another from Frank Shaeffer at AlterNet:

        1 Not-So-Simple, Pretty Funny Question for the 73% of White Evangelicals Who Will Apparently Be Voting for Romney
        A question that deserves an answer before election day. October 31, 2012
        According to polls 73 percent of WHITE evangelicals will be voting for Mitt Romney.
        If the polls are correct here’s the question I’d like to ask evangelicals using their own style of language/concerns/theological thinking as applied to their choice:
        What’s the explanation for the fact that white American Evangelicals made the allegedly philandering lying ignorant braggart lapsed Roman Catholic Dinesh D’Souza their anti-Obama hero, embrace a pro-choice Mormon bishop who promoted abortion and Planned Parenthood in MA, are working to elect a job-destroying tax-avoiding lying flip-flopping-tell-anyone-anything-they-want-to-hear Swiss bank account collecting draft dodger running with a disciple of the God-hating, Jesus-mocking hater-of-the-poor Ayn Rand, for their presidential candidate and look the other way as a crazed ultra-Zionist many Israeli Jews fear billionaire casino owner who is being investigated for allegedly making billions off the dirtiest Chinese gambling Communist Party-controlled outfit in the world funds the enterprise, at the very same time as Franklin Graham sold his ailing father Billy’s soul and denied core evangelical theology by taking Mormonism off the Billy Graham organization’s list of cults in order to help the Mormon pagan-ritual-performing, Trinity-denying, casino-money-grubbing billionaire-coddling, earth-destroying global-warming denying Mormon bishop win respectability for his dead-Jews-baptizing-polygamy-rooted-reality-denying-interplanetary Masonic lodge-embracing faith in an election against an exemplary modest faithful husband good father compassionate smart black evangelical Christian President whose major accomplishments include saving the economy, ending a war, killing our greatest enemy, giving health care to children and the poor and the “least of these” and who has tried to reduce the number of abortions by helping women escape poverty in a reenactment of the lesson of the parable of the Good Samaritan?
        Go figure.


        • writer89

           /  November 2, 2012

          I love it! But you won’t get far with evangelicals if you assume they actually understand their own theology. Or much of anything else, for that matter.


        • Answer ( to be delivered four years from now): ” Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.” 😆


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