Bill talks with Mike Lofgren, a long-time Republican who describes the modern dysfunction of both the Republican and Democratic parties. In Lofgren’s view, Republicans have become overly obsessed with obstructing President Obama, and the Democrats suffer from political complacency. Lofgren’s new book is The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted.
BILL MOYERS: The growing power of the religious right is one reason my guest left the Republican Party and became an Independent. "The mixture of politics and religion," he says, "debases both, and has turned the GOP into an apocalyptic sect." He has his problems with Democrats, too. For one thing, he says, both parties “are captives to corporate loot.”
Others may share those opinions, but what gives Mike Lofgren more clout than the rest is decades of insider experience on Capitol Hill. He was a Fulbright scholar with two degrees in history when he went to work in Congress and became a senior staff member of the House and Senate Budget committees. His specialty was the cost of national security. After 28 years of government service, Mike Lofgren retired and sat down to write a powerful manifesto that took off like a rocket when it was posted on the website Truthout.org.
It's now a book: "The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted.” As you can tell from the title, he spares no one.
Mike Lofgren, welcome.
MIKE LOFGREN: Good to be here.
BILL MOYERS: The title of your book is “The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy.” How did Republicans go crazy?
MIKE LOFGREN: I think they went crazy when they started identifying Obama as the Antichrist.
BILL MOYERS: Meaning?
MIKE LOFGREN: Meaning, "He's not a legitimate president. We must do everything we can to obstruct him."
BILL MOYERS: The second subtitle, “The Party Is Over: Democrats Became Useless.” How did Democrats become useless?
MIKE LOFGREN: I think they got complacent during the '60s, '70s, and '80s. And then finally after that period, they woke up, found they had lost three straight presidential elections. So they had to retool and make themselves more corporate friendly.
BILL MOYERS: Corporate friendly?
MIKE LOFGREN: Absolutely. And it certainly helped Bill Clinton get elected. And while he did some good things like balancing the budget, he also unleashed Wall Street by repealing Glass-Steagall, and he signed bills that would end regulation on derivatives. So he is at least to some degree responsible for the Wall Street debacle.
BILL MOYERS: And that's how, to quote a third of your subtitles, “The Middleclass Got Shafted”?
MIKE LOFGREN: Both parties don't really seem to care about having a vibrant manufacturing base in this country, regardless of their rhetoric. I remember throughout the '90s the Clinton administration was lobbying relentlessly for free trade deals. And the promise for each one was, it will bring jobs to America. And in every case, the jobs left.
BILL MOYERS: The Republican Party now has the super rich and its corporate wing funding it and the religious right provides the ground troops. Why are so many everyday folks out there in the pews defending the prerogatives of the rich?
MIKE LOFGREN: That's something of a mystery. The Federal Reserve, in one of their recent reports, found that net household income fell about 40 percent since 2007. That's a tremendous drop. Yet, here we have as the nominee for one of the two major parties, we only have a binary choice in this country, is by all accounts the richest man ever to run for president and was a leverage buyout artist.
The party is really oriented towards the concerns of the rich. It's about cutting their taxes, reducing regulation on business, making things wide open for Wall Street. Now you're not going to get anybody to the polls and consciously pull the lever for the Republicans if they say, "Our agenda is to further entrench the rich and, oh by the way, your pension may take a hit."
So they use the culture wars quite cynically, as essentially rube bait to get people to the polls. And that explains why, for instance, the Koch brothers were early funders of Michele Bachmann, who is a darling of the religious right. They don't care particularly, I would assume, about her religious foibles. What they care about is the bottom line. And these religious right candidates, many of them believing in the health and wealth, name it and claim it prosperity gospel, believe that the rich are sanctified and the poor punished
BILL MOYERS: Many of those people on the right would tell you that the fall in the income of middleclass people and others has been because of Obama's economic policies.
MIKE LOFGREN: I think they're suffering from selective amnesia. They also don't understand that George Bush doubled the national debt, that the original meltdown on Wall Street occurred during George Bush's watch, and by the time Obama became president in 2009, we were already well into the recession. Now I don't defend him in every way. I don't say that everything he's done is right by any means. I have all kinds of issues with him on the health care legislation. For instance, his willingness to play ball with pharma made the bill cost a lot more than it need.
BILL MOYERS: The pharmaceutical industry?
MIKE LOFGREN: Yes. That said, he was legitimately elected. We were in a very, very serious situation in this country. If the economy had fallen any further, it would be comparable to the Great Depression. So what is Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the Senate, what is his first priority for the country? Is it getting jobs for people? Is it restoring the solvency of the financial system? Is it foreign policy? Is it any of those things? No, it's making sure Obama is a one-term president.
BILL MOYERS: It seems that some of these people are willing to see the government go down in order to win.
MIKE LOFGREN: That would be the case. I grew up in a party that believed in the traditions of Eisenhower, and for that matter, even Reagan. He raised taxes several times when the deficit threatened to get out of control. He pleaded with Congress to send him a clean debt limit extension bill without any extraneous riders on it. He knew what the stakes were.
But now it's basically obstruct. They're no longer a parliamentary loyal opposition. They want to seize up the wheels of government. And to most people that means you don't have federal inspectors of airliners. You don't have federal inspection of food safety. Your national parks will be closed. Federal law enforcement will go home. That's what that means.
BILL MOYERS: Why did you leave the party? You'd been a Republican, what, all your life?
MIKE LOFGREN: I left the party because it was becoming an apocalyptic cult. Because you cannot govern a country of 310 million people that is the greatest economic power on earth and the greatest military power on earth as if it's a banana republic. You can't govern it with people who think that Obama was born overseas or who believe in all manner of nonsense about climate change. They don't even know, apparently, where babies come from, if we're to believe Todd Akin.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean "apocalyptic cult"?
MIKE LOFGREN: Well, I mean it literally in some cases. There's a very strong element in evangelical or fundamentalist religion that said the apocalypse is coming. And one sort of sees it subliminally in people like Michele Bachmann when the debt ceiling crisis came to a head and people were warning that we would be downgraded. And if we actually defaulted, we would possibly have to lower our standard of living and credit from abroad could dry up. And her attitude was sort of, "Bring it on. If we're all going to abide in the bosom of the Lord, by and by, it really doesn't matter whether we default.”
BILL MOYERS: Was that just rhetoric we heard on television?
MIKE LOFGREN: Oh, that's mainly rhetoric. But I think it does carry over into the mentality of maximalist obstruction, no compromise, because of course when you are with the saints and the opposition is with the sinners, you are doing evil if you compromise.
BILL MOYERS: You write that we now have a de facto religious test for public office, notwithstanding that the Constitution says we must not have one. How does this play out?
MIKE LOFGREN: Well, we saw it in 2008, when a pastor brought Obama and McCain before a live audience and quizzed them about their religiosity. That was Rick Warren. We really don't need that sort of religious test. It's banned in the Constitution. We had it play out last year when some preacher in Texas started criticizing Romney because as a Mormon, this man thought he wasn't a Christian.
PASTOR JEFFRESS: The Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest Protestant denomination in the world has officially labeled Mormonism as a cult. I think that Romney’s a good, moral man, but I think those of us who are born-again followers of Christ should always prefer a competent Christian to a competent non-Christian like Mitt Romney.
MIKE LOFGREN: The media went off on that for a few days. And as I recall, some of the reporters were badgering the other Republican candidates as to whether they thought Romney was a Christian. So the media actually allowed itself to be used as a tool in this aspect. BILL MOYERS: Candy Crowley kept pressing Herman Cain and, and Michele Bachmann in the primaries on this very issue.
CANDY CROWLEY: Is Mitt Romney a non-Christian?
HERMAN CAIN: I’m not running for theologian-in-chief. I’m a life-long Christian, and what that means is, one of my guiding principles for the decisions I make is I start with, do the right thing. I’m not getting into that controversy.
CANDY CROWLEY: But it still will beg the question that you dodged a direct question, which is, is Mitt Romney not a Christian?
HERMAN CAIN: He is a Mormon. That much I know. I am not going to do an analysis of Mormonism versus Christianity for the sake of answering that. I’m not getting into that. I am a Christian—
CANDY CROWLEY: Even knowing it will look like you’re dodging it […] And let me just, because I gave Herman Cain the same opportunity, you know that, that by not answering the direct question “Do you think Mitt Romney is a Christian?” you leave open the possibility that people are going to say that you dodged the question, the direct question.
MICHELLE BACHMANN: No, I think what the real focus is here, again, is on religious tolerance.
MIKE LOFGREN: Well, I'll give them credit. They didn't answer her, because the question didn't deserve an answer. Romney's religion is his own business.
BILL MOYERS: What brought you to the moment you decided to make a break, and to issue that cry from the heart if I may say so, that went out on “Truthout”? What was the trigger?
MIKE LOFGREN: The trigger was the debt ceiling crisis of the summer of 2011. I thought it was so transparently needless, yet they did it. And that was the straw that broke the camel's back. Now it wasn't just a publicity stunt that gave the United States a black eye. Just the transaction costs for having to manipulate all the money and stave off the debt ceiling cost, according to the Government Accountability Office, $1.3 billion.
BILL MOYERS: And why did that impasse occur? Why couldn't they solve the deficit crisis? Or why wouldn't they solve the deficit crisis?
MIKE LOFGREN: Because they believed that they had Obama over a barrel. And that they could force him to do what they wanted, which was to radically downsize all domestic discretionary spending. And he wasn't going to do it. And that's how we got to that situation.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think's going to happen after the election, no matter who wins? Because the popular expectation is that we're heading toward a fiscal cliff. Are we going to go through, in those few months between the election and the inauguration, what we went through with the deficit crisis that you just talked about?
MIKE LOFGREN: I would say the likeliest possibility is that we'll get some sort of short-term extension of the provisions to kick the can down the road a little bit. Now I'm not saying that that will happen. There's also a possibility if past is prologue that the Tea Party faction in the House could dig in its heels and say no, just as they did with the debt ceiling crisis.
BILL MOYERS: And what then would be the consequence of that, as you can anticipate it?
MIKE LOFGREN: The consequence would be immediate and severe spending cuts, both on domestic discretionary, and on national defense
BILL MOYERS: Both parties catering, as you write so vividly in here, to their funders, their donors, the billionaires, the Wall Street financiers, the corporations. And yet they, one or the other keeps getting away with it.
MIKE LOFGREN: It's happened before in our country. It happened after the Civil War with the Gilded Age. So it's not surprising it can occur when money starts infusing into politics. They will capture the governmental mechanism, just as Wall Street has captured it now. Wall Street has captured Washington at its source, the capital.
BILL MOYERS: Just give me one example.
MIKE LOFGREN: One example would be banks that we are bailing out. Why not compensation limits on their CEOs and top executives? We didn't get that. But we did get limits on the compensation and the benefits of U.A.W. employees when we bailed out General Motors and Chrysler.
BILL MOYERS: We got from unions what we didn't get from the financiers on Wall Street?
MIKE LOFGREN: That is correct.
BILL MOYERS: How come? How so?
MIKE LOFGREN: Money from Wall Street into the pockets of campaigns.
MIKE LOFGREN: If somebody texts $20 to their favorite candidate, okay, that's $20. And they're not really expecting anything other than they like that candidate and they want him to win. But when savvy businessmen like Sheldon Adelson, who've shelled out $36 million so far and expects to spend $100 million before the end of the election cycle, when somebody like that is spending that kind of money, they expect a tangible, monetizable payoff.
BILL MOYERS Another example?
MIKE LOFGREN: When you see legislation, for instance, having to do with casinos, and I think the key word there is Jack Abramoff, you see these things happening.
BILL MOYERS: Did anything about the Abramoff scandal surprise you?
MIKE LOFGREN: Not at all. It was totally par for the course.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
MIKE LOFGREN: That's the way influence works in Washington.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think it's still working now after Abramoff?
MIKE LOFGREN: I think it's working in a similar fashion. When we see how Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist, they were the two other members of the Three Amigos. They're still out doing their thing
BILL MOYERS: But what do we do about it? Nothing seems to tame the power of money in politics.
MIKE LOFGREN: The only thing that will achieve it is fundamental political reform. And the only way you're going to get that is mass defection from the parties. Because the parties simply do not serve our interests anymore.
BILL MOYERS: But the less we pay attention, the more of us who give up, the smaller the base and the number of elites who run those two parties. That's what some of them want.
MIKE LOFGREN: That may be, but there is a point where if there is mass public outrage at this, just as there was in the prairies in the 1880’s and 1890’s, eventually they'll get the message.
BILL MOYERS: What’s your greatest fear?
MIKE LOFGREN: My greatest fear is that this whole impasse simply carries on. And this country becomes more and more polarized and ungovernable. And we could be faced with a very bad situation, internationally and domestically.
BILL MOYERS: And what is your greatest hope?
MIKE LOFGREN: My greatest hope is that we can govern ourselves again in a spirit of bipartisanship.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think that's a realistic hope?
MIKE LOFGREN: We must let our hopes be greater than our fears.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I consider “The Party Is Over” must reading. And I hope my audience will spend these days between one convention and the other getting acquainted with your analysis of what's happening. “The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middleclass Got Shafted.” Mike Lofgren, thank you for being with us.
MIKE LOFGREN: Thank you very much.